Ted Cruz Defeats Beto O’Rourke for Senate, as Blue Wave Fails to Reach Texas

Ted Cruz Defeats Beto O’Rourke for Senate, as Blue Wave Fails to Reach Texas

Senator Ted Cruz’s victory promised to restore his standing as a far-right force in American politics.CreditCreditTamir Kalifa for The New York Times

By Manny Fernandez

EL PASO, Tex. — Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, won re-election on Tuesday in one of the tightest midterm races in the country, defeating the best-financed and most popular Democrat to run in Texas in years, Representative Beto O’Rourke.

Mr. Cruz’s narrow victory, reported by The Associated Press, did more than dash Democratic hopes that the party could capture a Senate seat in Texas for the first time since 1988. It promised to restore Mr. Cruz’s standing as a far-right force in American politics, after many leaders in his own party questioned whether he was likable enough to run successfully against a candidate like Mr. O’Rourke, an El Paso congressman known for his charisma.

Even before the results came in, Mr. Cruz and his aides were confident, but acknowledged the closeness of the race.

“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades — everything else is a win,” Ron Nehring, a senior adviser to Mr. Cruz, said in an interview an hour before the polls closed. “We’re bullish we’re going to win.”

Republican strategists and insiders said Mr. Cruz’s narrow victory did not mean that Democrats stood to make substantial gains in Texas. Rather, they believed it had more to do with Mr. Cruz himself, one of the most divisive political figures in the state, and the anti-Trump energy of Democrats.

Pivotal factors in the tightness of the election results were the Republican and independent voters who voted for Mr. O’Rourke but also cast ballots for top Republicans in other races. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican whose views are in line with Mr. Cruz’s but whose style is far less abrasive, easily won re-election, and a sizable number of Republicans appeared to have split their votes for Mr. Abbott and for Mr. O’Rourke.

“It was political nitroglycerin from the minute this campaign started,” said Ted Delisi, a Republican political consultant in Austin who was Senator John Cornyn’s chief campaign strategist in 2002. “Beto O’Rourke couldn’t have run this race against John Cornyn. He couldn’t have run this race against Greg Abbott. This race had to be run against Ted Cruz, and it had to be run this year. This was the once-every-20-years opportunity.”

For months on the campaign trail, Mr. Cruz was more often on the ropes than not, a surprising position for a top Republican incumbent in a state where Democrats hold no statewide offices.

Mr. Cruz’s fund-raising fell far short of his opponent’s — he raised somewhat more than $ 40 million, compared with more than $ 70 million raised by Mr. O’Rourke — and he sometimes found himself eclipsed on other fronts as well.

[Follow live results for the House of Representatives and the Senate, along with our election forecasts]

Representative Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic challenger to Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, greeted supporters in El Paso on Tuesday.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

Mr. O’Rourke attracted bigger crowds at some rallies than Mr. Cruz did, including more than 50,000 people who attended a free concert for Mr. O’Rourke in Austin starring the country music legend Willie Nelson. Even Mr. Cruz’s rival event — the rally President Trump attended in Houston that drew up to 19,000 — reinforced the belief among his critics that Republicans were worried.

Party officials acknowledged that the Cruz campaign had underestimated the threat posed by Mr. O’Rourke early in the race and that it was slow to gather steam.

Against that backdrop, Mr. Cruz turned up his rhetoric, casting Mr. O’Rourke as a pro-tax liberal who was anti-police, who favored illegal immigrants over American citizens and who was “running to the left of Bernie Sanders.”

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Cruz repeatedly had to explain his relationship with Mr. Trump. After Mr. Cruz’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination failed in 2016, the senator declined at first to support Mr. Trump, but later eagerly embraced him, even though Mr. Trump had mocked and demeaned Mr. Cruz’s wife and father.

His back-and-forth with the president made Mr. Cruz unappealing to many Texans, and allowed Mr. O’Rourke to attract some votes from Republicans — but ultimately, not enough to change the course of the election. And it was clear that many voters believed the narrative that Mr. Cruz had hammered away at — that Mr. O’Rourke was too liberal for Texas on many issues, including the border, healthcare, taxes and gun rights.

[What to watch as live results come in across the country.]

Brenda Brauch, 66, a retired grandmother who voted Tuesday in an affluent section of northwest Austin and considered herself an independent, said she voted for Mr. Cruz, but described it as a toss-up between him and Mr. O’Rourke. What made the difference to her was immigration and border security.

“I don’t want open borders,” she said. “I think there should be the right way to come into a country and the wrong way.” She added of Mr. O’Rourke, “I like his enthusiasm, but I thinking he’s missing some points. The border is a real issue for me.”

At times, Mr. O’Rourke’s widely watched candidacy seemed to pull a page from Mr. Cruz’s own playbook.

In 2012, Mr. Cruz became a conservative rock star when he bucked the Texas political establishment and defeated a powerful lieutenant governor in a Republican primary runoff for the Senate seat. Mr. Cruz was a Tea Party-backed insurgent whose grass-roots campaign captured national attention.

In 2018, though, it was Mr. O’Rourke who played the part of grass-roots insurgent and Mr. Cruz who represented the establishment. It was a role Mr. Cruz seemed to relish, as he went from rally to rally warning voters that Texas’ longstanding culture and identity were under assault by the left.

“Don’t California our Texas — you’re exactly right,” Mr. Cruz told supporters in the East Texas city of Tyler, echoing a phrase a woman in the audience had used. “Whenever liberty is threatened,” he added, “Texans rise to the occasion.”

Mitchell Ferman contributed reporting from Houston. David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin.

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