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Ted Cruz edges out Beto O'Rourke in an epic Texas race

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 11/7/2018 Kevin Diaz, Houston Chronicle
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Video by Associated Press

Beto O'Rourke's national star power took him closer to a statewide election win than any other Texas Democrat in decades, but in the end it was not enough for his long-shot quest to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

With most of the ballots counted, the Republican incumbent was able to overcome an early voting advantage that analysts had credited to a large turnout operation of young and minority voters who flocked to O'Rourke.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Senator Ted Cruz hugs his wife Heidi Cruz after being called the winner of the race against Rep. Beto O'Rourke, during a campaign watch party Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Houston.

Senator Ted Cruz hugs his wife Heidi Cruz after being called the winner of the race against Rep. Beto O'Rourke, during a campaign watch party Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Houston.
© Jon Shapley/Staff Photographer

Winning a second term, Cruz discounted the clash of personalities in the race.

"Texas saw something this year that we've never seen," he said to cheers at an election night rally in Houston. "This election wasn't about me and it wasn't about Beto O' Rourke. This election was a battle of ideas. It was a contest for who we are and who we believe. It was a contest and the people of Texas decided this race."

Cruz also took a moment to recognize O'Rourke, even as some in the crowd booed.

"No," Cruz said. "He worked tirelessly, he's a dad, and he took time away from his kids. Millions across this state were inspired by his campaign. They didn't prevail."

O'Rourke, his voice cracking with exhaustion, thanked a raucous crowd of supporters in El Paso, where a Mariachi had been on standby to belt out celebratory tunes.

"I am as inspired," O'Rourke said. "I am as hopeful as I have ever been in my life and tonight's loss does nothing to diminish the way I feel about Texas or this country."

O'Rourke backers counted Cruz's tougher-than-expected win as a moral victory for the challenger.

"What we have already seen with the enthusiasm of young people, he has already done a great thing," said Elisa Reyes Canales, who attended an O'Rourke election rally at Southwest University Stadium in El Paso.

Photo gallery by Reuters

For longtime observers of the scene, the race provided a Texas anomaly: a close statewide election.

"Beto O'Rourke energized and excited Texas Democrats like no candidate since Ann Richards in 1990," said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. "In his 19 months of campaigning across the state he drew rock concert worthy crowds, both in liberal enclaves like Austin and Dallas, but also traditionally conservative areas like East Texas and the High Plains. Beto gear became one of the most popular fashion statements on college campuses, and Beto's success drew support and money from progressives across the state and country."

"But, in the end," Jones added, "Beto's rock star status, $80 million dollar campaign budget, and legions of diehard followers could not help him surmount the 12 to 15 point advantage that statewide GOP candidates possess at the start of an electoral cycle."

The mood was a mixture of jubilation and relief at Cruz's gathering in Houston, where Republican partisans weathered a tense night.

"I didn't think it would be this close," said Tony Diaz, a Katy businessman at Cruz's election rally. "Not just this race, a lot of the races, even the governor's race. No one even knew who his opponent was."

As new results flashed on a television screen showing Cruz gaining slightly on O'Rourke, it prompted enthusiastic cheers from the crowd. Still, Diaz said he was "dumbfounded." He blamed millennials, who he suspected voted without knowing enough about all the issues.

The tight margin shaped up to be much closer than many pundits expected when O'Rourke's campaign began, keeping Texas in the spotlight on a night of close contests that will decide control of both the House and Senate.

The Cruz-O'Rourke match up, one of the most closely watched in the nation, pitted a recognized leader in the nationwide conservative movement against a rising star in the progressive constellation of the Democratic Party.

Regardless of Tuesday night's result, both are likely to remain in the national spotlight, with the possibility of future White House bids beckoning.

O'Rourke's showing also could portend change for Texas, a GOP stronghold for the past generation.

"The race was close in part because of a rising number of Democratic votes in suburban counties," said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. "O'Rourke cobbled together a presidential year level coalition in a year where Democrats traditionally aren't competitive. This will set the model for future elections."

O'Rourke, whose underdog challenge in deep red Texas made him one of the most compelling political stories of the midterm elections, started out the race as almost a complete unknown outside his native El Paso, where he was elected to Congress in 2012.

Pledging not to take PAC money, O'Rourke made a tour of all Texas' 254 counties the centerpiece of his campaign, with a post-partisan pitch calibrated to reach independents and "Never Trump" Republicans, while at the same time galvanizing Democrats and new young voters, particularly Latinos.

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Cruz, elected to the Senate in 2012, emphasized his consistent conservative bona fides, confident that in a base election the state's heavy Republican tilt would serve as a red firewall against O'Rourke's hoped-for "blue wave."

"If we show up and vote our values, we'll have a terrific election," Cruz said in a television interview Monday as he campaigned in Fort Bend Country.

But while Cruz painted O'Rourke as "too liberal for Texas," he sought to tone down his persona as a fierce partisan warrior, a role that saw him lead Congress into the 2013 government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act and then make an unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2016.

While O'Rourke underlined Cruz's national ambition – emphasizing the 99 counties Cruz visited when he won Iowa's Republican caucuses in 2016 – Cruz devoted much of the past year to visiting Texas business and community groups, though rarely in the open, freewheeling manner of O'Rourke's regular town halls.

Cruz's national profile as a conservative firebrand – recalibrated to fit a newfound alliance with President Donald Trump, his bitter personal rival in 2016 – undoubtedly fueled O'Rourke's record-smashing $70 million fundraising haul.

O'Rourke's eye-popping receipts, aided by nationwide press coverage and an outpouring of online supporters, dwarfed the $40 million Cruz raised with his own network of conservative grassroots activists built up from his presidential campaign.

Cruz, however, was aided by some $10 million in outside spending by independent groups either supporting him or opposing O'Rourke. Democratic-aligned groups supporting O'Rourke spent about half that amount, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money.

Despite his overwhelming dollar advantage, O'Rourke emphasized a digital outreach effort that relied less on major television advertising than a real-time, Facebook-centered travelogue of his campaign. He also mounted a frenetic ground game that took him into some of the more rural, conservative corners of the state – a departure from past Democratic campaigns in Texas that focused their resources on the state's more liberal urban centers like Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas.

O'Rourke famously campaigned by the Latinized moniker "Beto" – a childhood nickname that became widely mocked by Republicans who noted his Irish ancestry. He sought to give his campaign a patina of bipartisanship by emphasizing transcendent themes such as universal education, health care, and civil discourse. An early impetus for his campaign was a "bipartisan road-trip" from Texas to Washington last year with San Antonio Republican Will Hurd. Every mile was streamed on Facebook Live.

A skateboarding ex-punk rocker, O'Rourke also played to Texas' multi-ethnic mix by championing the cause of young immigrant "Dreamers" and opposing Trump's efforts to wall off the border with Mexico.

"We're going to do this together. We just do not care about the differences between us right now," O'Rourke said as he voted Tuesday in El Paso. "We want all of us, Republicans and Democrats and independents alike to come together, and do something great for this country."

For Cruz , O'Rourke's soaring appeals to "human" unity did little to mask a liberal Democratic agenda, which Cruz likened in one of their debates to Bernie Sanders-style "socialism," particularly on health care. Throughout the campaign, Cruz also hammered at O'Rourke's pronouncements suggesting that he would be open to abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to voting to impeach Trump.

In one of the most fractious exchanges of the race, Cruz took a viral video of O'Rourke defending NFL players who kneel for the national anthem to protest police shootings of black men and turned it into an attack ad suggesting that O'Rourke does not respect the sacrifices of wounded veterans.

While O'Rourke's backers complained that his words had been selectively twisted, the effect was to drive a wedge between O'Rourke and the sort of centrist or independent voters – including some moderate Republicans – he would need to close the gap with Cruz.

O'Rourke, mounting a late attack, resurrected Trump's "Lyin' Ted" epithet in their last debate. But some allies questioned whether O'Rourke had waited too long to go negative in the face of an onslaught of Cruz ads defining the challenger as out of step with conservative Texas.

Cruz consistently led in the polls throughout the race. But the lead shrank to smaller, single-digit margins at various points in the late going, giving rise to expectations of a possible upset victory for Democrats – what would be the first in a statewide race since 1994.

Buoying O'Rourke's hopes were surveys showing Cruz polling significantly below GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, a possible sign of fraying Republican affinity for Cruz. Some GOP operatives noted he had never scored high on likability measures among moderate voters, or for that matter with his colleagues in the Senate – at least before he repaired his stormy relationship with Trump, who campaigned for him last month in Houston.

Some GOP analysts conceded that O'Rourke, decidedly earnest, immeasurably more photogenic, would win in a contest of personalities. But their hope was to trump O'Rourke's idealism with Cruz's down-home Texas conservatism.

Ted Cruz's father, Rafael, in an opening prayer in Houston GOP election night rally, called on God to deliver a "red tsunami to come across Texas."

By the end of the night, he had a message for Texas Democrats: "You can't buy Texas," the elder Cruz said to a rambunctious crowd. "That's the message for Francis O' Rourke. You cannot buy Texas ...Texas is not for sale. Take your money and go back to California. Take your money and go back to New York. This is Texas."

- Lomi Kriel and Alejandra Matos contributed to this report.

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