Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, seeking to re-energize his presidential bid, secured a vital win in his home state along with a victory in neighboring Oklahoma on Super Tuesday as New York billionaire Donald Trump stormed through other states to further accelerate his drive toward the 2016 Republican nomination.
The much-anticipated Super Tuesday contests in 11 states continued Trump’s stunning march through the Republican primary season as he picked up wins in at least seven states while Cruz boosted his candidacy with two victories.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio appeared to be shut out earlier in the night, but late Tuesday was declared the winner of the Minnesota caucus, a small but important win — his first of the 2016 season.
Cruz and Rubio, both of Cuban descent, have battled to emerge as the alternative to Trump as he moves closer to seizing the Republican nomination. But after the results of Super Tuesday, Cruz forcefully cast himself as Trump’s dominant challenger and increased the pressure on Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson to leave the race.
Cruz thanked supporters in a campaign rally near Houston.
“We are the only campaign that has beaten Donald Trump — once, twice, three times,” the Houston Chronicle reported that Cruz said, adding that “America shouldn't have a president whose words would make you embarrassed if you repeat them.”
Cruz claimed a commanding lead in Texas, picking up 43 percent of the vote with nearly all the votes tallied. Trump claimed 26 percent of the vote and Rubio picked up 17 percent. Carson claimed nearly 4 percent and Kasich garnered 4 percent.
Cruz also prevailed in Tarrant County, leading with 41 percent of the vote to Trump’s 26 percent and Rubio’s 20 percent.
About two hours after the polls closed in Texas, Trump declared victory in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Virginia and Tennessee.
“This was an exciting evening,” he said. “We are going to make America great again.”
After a week of name-calling and accusations between the three leading candidates, Trump struck a conciliatory tone as he congratulated Cruz on his Texas victory, saying, “I know how hard he worked on it.”
Of Rubio, Trump said, “ I know it was a very tough night” for him.
Democrats embraced the growing prospect that Trump will be their opponent in the November general election.
“As expected, tonight Donald Trump continued to tighten his grip on the Republican nomination,” Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “The GOP establishment can try to run away from him, but they were the architects of the ugly and divisive politics that are fueling his rise.”
Cruz, a first-term Texas senator who won the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, was under intense pressure to win his home state of Texas and fare well enough in other states to infuse his outsider bid for the White House with a desperately needed shot of momentum. Anything less than a victory in his home state would have likely derailed his candidacy.
The stakes were equally high for Rubio as the first-term Florida senator, who had yet to score a victory in any of the four early contests, sought a boost to propel him into another mega-round of contests in two weeks that will also include multiple states, including his home turf of Florida.
Pre-election polls showed Cruz with a comfortable lead in Texas, but his hopes for a win in Oklahoma seemed less certain. He apparently secured the neighboring state victory by mobilizing evangelicals, who have been an essential element in his conservative campaign.
“Oklahoma was one of the states up for grabs,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University. “Although most people projected Trump as slightly ahead there, this was seen as somewhere Cruz had a chance.”
Millions of Texas voters swarmed to the voting booth starting at 7 a.m., propelled by the marquee presidential race in both parties as well as hotly contested legislative congressional races.
With its earlier than usual March 1 date in a Republican nomination fight that had up to 17 candidates, Texas became one of the election season’s dominant battlegrounds, as well as the linchpin of Super Tuesday.
A total of 155 delegates, proportionally awarded based on the primary results, were at stake in Texas. It was the largest haul in an overall total of 595 Super Tuesday delegates.
As the results poured in Tuesday, candidates were already beginning to focus on the next round of contests on Friday in Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine. The next big prize — 358 delegates — comes on March 15 in a five-state batch of contests that includes Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio.
The 2016 Texas contest has been depicted by analysts as one of the state’s most pivotal GOP primaries in decades, drawing comparisons to the 1976 race in which Ronald Reagan stormed into the state to beat incumbent President Gerald Ford with two-thirds of the vote.
“It’s a big deal when you dramatically increase the turnout in your primary,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It suggests that there is a lot of turmoil, first, and enthusiasm, second, on the Republican side.”
Even before voters trooped to the polls on primary day, more than 1.1 million voters cast ballots during 11 days of early voting, attracted by the three-way fight between Trump, Cruz and Rubio.
The candidates all made stops in North Texas after the most recent Republican presidential debate in Houston, holding rallies in Fort Worth, Dallas and cities in between, courting supporters and working to build enthusiasm they hoped would translate to more support at the polls.
Cruz cemented his stature as the undisputed Texas favorite son after former Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race well in advance of the first contests. But it was a mantle that also carried liabilities since anything less than a first place finish in Texas would be judged as a devastating embarrassment that would likely end his campaign — particularly if he didn’t win elsewhere.
Cruz, who was the longest-serving solicitor general in the attorney general’s office, skyrocketed to national attention in 2012 after defeating Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a battle for the U.S. Senate that turned into a classic Tea Party-versus-establishment-Republican, David-versus-Goliath fight.
He became the first Republican to enter the 2016 presidential race when he announced his candidacy a year ago, in March of 2015 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. His campaign launch at a university founded by the late evangelist Jerry Falwell signaled the start of what would be a protracted bid for evangelical support to his conservative candidacy.
Tea Party support
Cruz also uncorked unwavering support from energized Tea Party supporters, including Republican state Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville, and consistently led in polls of Texas Republican voters until Trump began competing for the same anti-establishment constituency.
One poll in September showed Trump with a 21-16 lead and the latest WFAA Texas TEGNA showed that Trump and Cruz were tied. But Cruz supporters were heartened by a recent average of six polls showing Cruz with 35.5 percent in Texas, Trump with 27.5 percent and Rubio with 18.8 percent.
Cruz was often back in the pack in the early jockeying in 2015 before an aggressive ground game in Iowa vaulted him to victory over second-place Trump in the first-in-the- nation Iowa caucuses.
But he finished third in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada and came into his home state facing a must-win situation.
By contrast, Trump rebounded from his second-place Iowa finish to rack up three back-to-back victories while Rubio, after being roughed up in New Hampshire, narrowly came in ahead of Cruz to secure second place in South Carolina and Nevada.
Consequently, the already tumultuous GOP nomination scramble deteriorated into a gloves-off fight when the candidates reached Texas just over a week ago.
Cruz and Rubio intensified their competing bids to establish themselves as the sole alternative to Trump, who in turn hoped to vault from Super Tuesday with an unstoppable final drive toward the nomination. Carson and Kasich chose to soldier on through Super Tuesday but nevertheless faced a bleak outlook.
The three leading candidates tore into each other at a chaotic, name-calling debate in Houston last week, described as a GOP “embarrassment” by Fox News host Chris Wallace. They then followed up with even saltier language and accusations in subsequent appearances.
At a Fort Worth rally the day after debate, Trump scored a surprise coup when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who dropped out of the race after the New Hampshire primary, appeared alongside the New York businessman to announce his endorsement.
Rubio, at a Dallas rally the same day, said he feared Trump may have wet his pants during the Texas presidential debate and read from emails to belittle Trump’s literary skills. Trump responded by calling the Florida senator a “choker” and said he sweats so much that at one point he looked as though he jumped into a swimming pool with his clothes on.
Cruz staged a swing through the Metroplex on Monday, appearing before about 1,000 supporters at Gilley’s a well-known Dallas bar. He portrayed himself as the only viable Republican nominee who could prevail in the November general election, saying that Trump “is not the right candidate” to take on Hillary Clinton.
Three top-ranking Republican leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Perry — have all endorsed Cruz and campaigned on his behalf, both in Texas and other states. Cruz also raised more money in Texas than any another candidate: $15.5 million.
When asked, after his politically star-studded Monday rally that included Gov. Greg Abbott and former Gov. Rick Perry, how big his win needs to be, Cruz said “a win in Texas is a win in Texas.”
He predicted that at the end of Super Tuesday, “Donald Trump is likely to have a big chunk of delegates. I think we will have a big chunk of delegates.”
Cruz’s campaign was mum up upcoming campaign events, but Tuesday morning released an advisory that the candidate would be holding a rally in Overland Park, Kan., on Wednesday evening.
Despite being the nation’s second largest state — both in population and geography — Texas has traditionally had a small voice in the Republican nominating contest, since past nominees have largely sewn up the race by the time the contest reached Texas.
But, with its influential placement on the 2016 primary calendar, candidates began eying Texas more than a year ago, recognizing that it could potentially play a decisive role after the four early contests in February.
Thirteen Republican candidates filed in the primary but only five remained — Cruz, Trump, Rubio, Carson and Kasich — after the four opening contests. The current scenario constitutes a sharp turn-around from expectations well over a year ago when the race was just taking shape.
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report.