In the end, Ted Cruz did what he promised Texas Republicans: He won a second term in the U.S. Senate.
But it was a battle to the end, much like the past year, as Cruz and Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke crisscrossed the state to meet voters and encourage Texans to support them.
As of Wednesday morning, with 99 percent of the vote counted, more than 200,000 votes separated the two, as Cruz had 50.89 percent of the vote to O’Rourke’s 48.32 percent. Libertarian Neal M. Dikeman had less than 1 percent.
“Everyone is taken aback by the closeness of this election,” Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant, said late Tuesday night. “Anyone who follows politics knows this is an extraordinary evening.“
For hours after the polls closed, the vote flip-flopped between the two candidates as returns were posted, until media outlets projected Cruz’s victory.
“Texas saw something this year that we’ve never seen before,” Cruz said during his victory speech at a Houston hotel. “This election wasn’t about me and it wasn’t about Beto O’Rourke.
“This election was a battle of ideas,” he said. “It was a contest for who we are and what we believe. It was a contest, and the people of Texas decided this race.”
Despite O’Rourke’s defeat, the closeness of the race — and the fact that some incumbent GOP Texas congressmen lost re-election bids, at least partially due to O’Rourke’s presence at the top of the ticket — sends a strong message, Miller said.
“There are too many races that are close that weren’t even expected to be close,” Miller said. “There’s no mistaking the anger of the electorate here. The wind has changed, and it is blowing strong the other way.”
A new approach?
Cruz, the state’s former Texas solicitor general, was first elected to the Senate with Tea Party support in 2012, an underdog to the GOP establishment’s candidate, then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Once sworn in to office, he went on to challenge leadership in Washington, leading an effort to shut down the government to strip funding from the Affordable Care Act in 2013.
In 2016, Cruz ran unsuccessfully for president, coming in second to Donald Trump after a bitter primary.
Though he feuded with Trump in the presidential primary, Cruz has since embraced the president — and the policies that made Trump the unparalleled champion of the GOP base.
Since Trump was sworn in, the two have worked together on issues ranging from tax reform to an unsuccessful attempt to repeal the ACA, also known as Obamacare.
Cruz, 47, returns to Washington with fewer Republicans to work with in the House of Representatives, but a party that’s still in charge of the Senate and the White House, which needs help accomplishing big policy goals.
He already has carved a path working with Democrats recently, partnering with Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, on a bill to support NASA, and with Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to overhaul Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies.
The Trump effect
Cruz was able to lobby colleagues around his plan to gut the ACA’s individual mandate in the GOP’s tax bill, delivering two major conservative policy goals in a chamber where Democrats still had the power to stop most major legislation.
“[He’s a senator from] far and away the most important red state in the country,” as well as ”a leading figure among movement conservatives nationally,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, who suggested Cruz could be in line for a leadership position in the Senate when those roles shift hands at the end of the year.
After some top Republicans suggested that Cruz’s re-election bid could be in peril, Trump traveled to Texas for a rally to help Cruz.
The president acknowledged that he and Cruz had difficulties in the past.
“It got nasty, and then it ended,” Trump said during the rally in Houston. “And I’ll tell you what — nobody has helped me more with your tax cuts, with your regulations, all of the things we’ve been doing with your military and your vets, than Sen. Ted Cruz.”
No one is suggesting that Cruz will run against Trump in two years, if the president seeks re-election.
But the state’s junior senator could well decide to run for the White House after that, in 2024, the same year he’s up for re-election to the U.S. Senate again.
“I think he will spend at least the next four years deciding if he wants to run for president and (deciding) how he wants to play his role as senator,” said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, who heads the political science department at the University of North Texas in Denton.
“I suspect Cruz will attempt to continue to cultivate his image as someone who aspires to protect constitutional liberties by voicing support for issues that speak to his conservative credentials.”
Cruz thanked O’Rourke for the election challenge late Tuesday night.
“This was an election about hope and about the future of Texas,” Cruz said. “The people of Texas rendered a verdict that we want a future with more jobs and more security and more freedom.”
This, he said, came in a race that cost more than $100 million between the two candidates that saw “Hollywood coming in against the state.”
“But all the money in the world was no match for the good people of Texas and the hard work,” Cruz said.