HOUSTON — The nail biter Senate race in Texas ended Tuesday with victory for Sen. Ted Cruz, as Texans delivered their verdict on a provocative president and one of his key allies, a senator who vowed six years ago to disrupt Washington.
Democrats nationwide invested their hopes — and $70 million — in Rep. Beto O’Rourke, an affable, charismatic and utterly obscure three-term congressman from El Paso when he launched his bid.
Cruz, by contrast, had run for president and had a national profile, after forcing a government shutdown and staging a 25-hour talkathon early in his Senate term.
Two networks, NBC and ABC, projected a narrow victory for Cruz shortly after 9 p.m., with about three quarters of the votes reported. AP called the race around 9:30.
The contest had implications far beyond Texas. Views on President Donald Trump weighed heavily on the minds of voters, and Trump drew a crowd of 16,000 in Houston at Cruz’s biggest rally.
Democrats haven’t won a statewide office since 1994 and Republicans dread the day they lose Texas as a bulwark in presidential contests. With New York and California, Texas would give Democrats a near insurmountable edge in Electoral College math.
Interest in the Senate contest drove unusually high turnout, including a surge in voters under 30 and Latino voters repelled by the Cruz-Trump hard line on family separation and the so-called migrant caravan from Central America.
The very same issues galvanized support for Cruz, whose backers readily chanted “build the wall!” at his rallies.
Texans have faced stark alternatives before. O’Rourke was the first Democrat in a generation to harness enough support, and money, to force a competitive race. He filled a 7,500-seat baseball stadium with expectant El Pasoans on Tuesday night, and win or lose, Democrats lauded him for an upbeat approach and unmatched mobilization.
At the Cruz election night party at the Hilton Post Oak in Houston’s tony Galleria neighborhood, several hundred supporters snacked on hamburger sliders, bought cocktails from a cash bar, and awaited results to trickle in.
Cruz’s father, pastor Rafael Cruz, opened the party with an overtly partisan prayer.
“Father,” he prayed, “we call on your favor to see a red tsunami come across Texas … . We thank you Lord God that Texas will remain bright red. And we thank you for the great victory we will have tonight.”
At the time, only early returns had come in from around the state. The narrow win averted defeat but fell well short of a red tsunami, and setbacks in the U.S. also shifted the hue toward purple.
Win or lose, O’Rourke put to rest the idea that Republicans hold an iron grip on Texas.
“It shows that Texas can be in play with the right candidate. It’s not a foregone conclusion anymore that a candidate can’t run in Texas,” said Marc Stanley, a Dallas lawyer and longtime Democratic financier who led the Fire Ted Cruz super PAC.
Stanley’s group was behind the “Bernie” ad, cut by Austin director Richard Linklater. The tongue-in-cheek spot mocked Cruz for standing with Trump even though the president had called his wife ugly and alleged that his dad was involved in the JFK assassination.
It was featured on John Oliver’s show and on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and viewed perhaps 12 million times.
“Beto has already won. He awoke a new generation of people who want and need to believe,” said Mario Porras, who worked on O’Rourke’s congressional staff for three years, at his election night party.
Few O’Rourke backers were watching results as closely as Julian Castro, former Obama housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, who is eyeing a run for president.
“If we vote, then Texas is a competitive state,” Castro said Tuesday after a visit to O’Rourke’s headquarters in El Paso. “The implications of tonight are big for 2018, but … whether he wins by a little, or loses by a lot, the message is the same. Things are changing in Texas and in 2020 this state will be at play.”
For Cruz, a key turning point came in a different viral moment: when O’Rourke defended, at length and without apology, the protests by NFL football players who kneel during the National Anthem to draw attention to police-on-civilian violence.
His national profile skyrocketed and along with it, the pace of his fundraising. In the three months ending Sept. 30, O’Rourke brought in $38 million, pushing his total above $70 million and setting new records.
The upside came at a high price. What liberals heard as an eloquent defense of free speech gave Cruz one of his most potent lines of attack.
Texans, he would declare soon and often, kneel to pray and stand for the flag.
The argument resonated with evangelicals and many others in Texas, where patriotism runs deep.
In the 2014 governor’s race, then-state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth raised nearly $40 million after a filibuster against abortion restrictions, but Greg Abbott beat her handily.
“The thing that suppressed Wendy Davis’ vote more than anything else was the certainty that she would lose,” said Matt Angle, a strategist who directs the Lone Star Project, which has tried to nudge Texas toward Democrats for years.
“Beto’s kept it competitive all the way through to the very last days,” he said.
That gave a boost to down ballot Democrats, including challengers in competitive U.S. House races such as Colin Allred, who was aiming to unseat Rep. Pete Sessions, a member of GOP leadership.
Cruz won his seat in 2012, two years after the tea party had emerged as a major force within the Republican Party, channeling the anger and mistrust directed at President Barack Obama.
Conditions in 2018 are dramatically different.
The broader unrest this year has been aimed toward Trump, the norm-smashing populist who went out of his way to make this midterm a referendum on him, explicitly making that point to voters in a dozen battlegrounds.
Nearly two-thirds of Texas voters in an Associated Press exit poll said the president was on their mind when they cast a ballot.
“The type of campaign that O’Rourke ran depended on a polarizing force like Donald Trump in the White House. Had Hillary Clinton been in the White House, Beto O’Rourke’s message wouldn’t have struck the same chord,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist.
Cruz got a bump from the humming economy Trump has presided over, and in the closing days of the race asked rhetorically: “Who in their right minds would screw that up?”
Richard McCall, 43, an aircraft mechanic, wore a “Don’t California My Texas” T-shirt to a Cruz rally near Humble on Monday night. Trump, he said, “is doing a great job when it comes to the economy,” and gets a bum rap for being crass.
“That’s how society is. Everybody’s like that. Nobody has a filter anymore. People don’t want the president to be like that,” he said. “But you know what? My 401k looks pretty good.”
O’Rourke worked harder than any Texas candidate in recent memory. Visiting every nook of Texas, all 254 counties, gave him a talking point as he needled Cruz for putting his Senate service on hold to run for president.
Cruz touted ideological purity and berated fellow Republicans in Washington as squishy. O’Rourke, said Jones, found a niche: “people who were tired and upset with hyperpartisan politics. He was able to present himself, at least for a time, as someone who transcended partisan polarization.”
The problem for O’Rourke in that approach: Lots of Texans are conservative, and they genuinely appreciated Cruz’s pugilism.
Once Cruz awoke to the threat, it didn’t take long for him and allies to strip away the non-ideologue image O’Rourke projected. They emphasized his support for impeaching Trump, giving citizenship to people in the country illegally, and for a health care system they view as socialized medicine.