Cruz edges O’Rourke to hold on to Texas Senate seat

EL PASO—Beto O’Rourke attracted massive crowds and intense media attention, raised and spent tens of millions of dollars and even got the coveted Willie Nelson endorsement, but in the end, it still wasn’t enough to turn Texas blue.

In a dramatic end to the country’s most surprisingly competitive election, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz survived the political fight of his life, besting O’Rourke, a Democratic congressman from El Paso, to win another six years in Washington.

O’Rourke, a political unknown even to members of his own party until this race, had been vying to be the first Democrat elected statewide in Texas since 1994 and the first elected to the U.S. Senate from the state since 1988.

Until recently, that seemed like a hopeless quest in deeply conservative Texas, a state that has moved further and further to the right since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards, the sitting Democratic governor in a stunning upset that put Republicans firmly in control of the Lone Star state 24 years ago.

But O’Rourke raised the hopes of Democrats here and nationally with an unorthodox social-media heavy campaign where he sought to not only take advantage of the state’s rapidly changing demographics and but turn out millions of so-called “non-voters” in a state notorious for people not showing up to the polls.

In a place where most statewide elections are battled out and decided in the big cities, O’Rourke, who served as his own strategist, fought to expand the map—making a point of visiting all of Texas’s 254 counties, including small rural towns where statewide candidates rarely campaigned. It was a strategy initially mocked by Cruz and even some Democrats, who saw it was a waste of time, but O’Rourke soon gained traction, attracting attention for his undeniable charisma on the stump and his hopeful message that likened comparisons to Bobby Kennedy and Barack Obama.

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Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke debate
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Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke debate
DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 21: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) shakes hands with Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) prior to the start of a debate at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU on September 21, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 21: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) makes a statement during a debate with Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU on September 21, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 21: Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke in their first debate for Texas U.S. Senate in McFarlin Auditorium at SMU on September 21, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Nathan Hunsinger-Pool/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 21: Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) makes a point as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) waits his turn during a debate at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU on September 21, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)
Michelle Smith and Kelly Canon take a selfie with others prior to the start of a debate between Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU in Dallas, Texas, U.S., September 21, 2018. Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/Pool via REUTERS NO RESALES. MANDATORY CREDIT.
DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 21: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) makes his final remarks as Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) listens during a debate at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU on September 21, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)
Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) makes a point during a debate with Sen. Ted Cruz (not shown) at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU in Dallas, Texas, U.S., September 21, 2018. Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/Pool via REUTERS NO RESALES. MANDATORY CREDIT.
People cheer as Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) debate at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU in Dallas, Texas, U.S., September 21, 2018. Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/Pool via REUTERS NO RESALES. MANDATORY CREDIT.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) makes a point as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) waits his turn during a debate for Texas U.S. Senate seat at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, U.S., September 21, 2018. Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/Pool via REUTERS NO RESALES. MANDATORY CREDIT.
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The congressman’s candidacy stuck at a moment when Texas had become a microcosm of political tensions that had divided the rest of the country; among them, the battle over the border; the disconnect between urban and rural voters; and discontent, even among some Republicans here, over the presidency of Donald Trump and the extreme partisanship that has divided Washington. O’Rourke presented himself as a genial and unapologetically liberal counterpoint to the Trump presidency and the toxic partisanship he said had been championed by Cruz, a Tea Party Republican.

O’Rourke’s candidacy dramatically shifted a race where Cruz had been an easy bet for re-election, forcing the Republican to campaign more and follow his Democratic opponent into parts of rural Texas that were suddenly and surprisingly up for grabs.

With the polls tightening, Cruz, who was elected in 2012 as part of the so-called Tea Party revolution, sought to win back Republicans, some of whom were angered that he began seeking the 2016 presidential nomination almost as soon as he was elected. And he was forced to turn to his former political rival Trump for help, appearing with him at a massive rally in Houston and recasting his re-election to be less about him and more about the fate of the president’s agenda. He pointed out that O’Rourke had expressed support for impeaching Trump and predicted partisan chaos if he were elected.

At the same time, at least a half dozen political action committees came to Cruz’s rescue, spending tens of millions of dollars flooding Texas airwaves with attack ads that suggested O’Rourke was more liberal than Democratic bogeymen like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, calling him “too reckless for Texas.” In the final week of the campaign, ads from both the Cruz campaign and outside groups piled on O’Rourke’s views on immigration, running alarmist ads that suggested he was welcoming the much-publicized caravan of Central American migrants en route to the U.S. border.

The race was always Cruz’s to lose, simply because there are more Republicans than Democrats in Texas. While O’Rourke never led one pre-election poll, Cruz and his team became nervous in recent days at the growing energy and size of the O’Rourke crowds and the historic turnout in early voting, that was far beyond what they had projected.

Even before the polls opened Tuesday, more than 4.9 million Texans had cast their votes early — surpassing the entire vote total of the last midterm election in 2014. On Tuesday, millions more Texans all over the state waited, sometimes for hours, to vote. Projections suggested the turnout would be on par with the number of people who vote in presidential election years.

But in the end, it was not enough for O’Rourke, leaving Democrats to wonder who can win in Texas, if not him?

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