U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz gives closing arguments to a friendly crowd at the Redneck Country Club on Nov. 5, 2018, the night before the Tuesday midterm election. (Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune)
The race between Cruz and O’Rourke emerged as one of the hottest in the country, with Democrats hopeful that O’Rourke could break the Texas GOP’s iron grip on statewide offices.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, narrowly defeated Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke Tuesday evening in what appeared likely to end up as one of the closest U.S Senate races in Texas in decades, according to incomplete returns.
With 25 percent of precincts reporting in Texas, Cruz was narrowly leading over O’Rourke.
At about 9:25 p.m., Cruz’s supporters at his Election Night party in a Houston hotel broke out in cheers and a chant of “Cruuuz!” as Fox News called the race for him. The channel was being broadcast on a projector screen.
“We want Ted!” supporters later chanted as they moved closer to the stage, hoping to hear from the victor.
It was a dramatic shift from shortly before 9 p.m.,when Cruz’s chief strategist, Jeff Roe, had taken the stage to address apparently concerned supporters looking at returns that showed O’Rourke in reach of a historic upset. Roe told them “everything’s good” and said the campaign expected Cruz’s lead to grow once the results in more rural counties come in as well as Election Day results across the state.
“Anybody that’s really clenched — you can release a little bit — it’s OK,” Roe said, suggesting he nonetheless expected to be “in for a little bit of a night.”
The race between Cruz and O’Rourke emerged in recent months as the hottest in the country during this midterm election season, as O’Rourke, a relatively unknown congressman just two years ago, cobbled together the most competitive statewide campaign by a Texas Democrat in over a decade. As Election Day drew closer and polls suggested a tightening race, Democratic hopes abounded that O’Rourke was cracking the code: energizing long-beleaguered Texas Democrats, expanding the electorate and putting himself in position to be the first of them to win statewide office in over two decades.
After making little secret of his intentions for months, O’Rourke entered the race on the last day of March 2017, announcing his campaign alongside his wife in El Paso. He laid down some early markers, promising to run a positive campaign, not accept PAC money and to eschew pollsters and consultants.
For a period, the prospect of a competitive primary loomed as U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio considered a run as well. But about a month after O’Rourke launched his bid, Castro passed on a run, giving O’Rourke a relatively clear shot at the nomination.
O’Rourke immediately got to work on an ambitious goal: visiting all 254 counties of Texas. That push defined much of the first half of his campaign as he racked up thousands of miles holding town halls throughout the state, building the case that he would be the senator who would show up for all of Texas.
Heading into the March 6 primary, there was little concern O’Rourke would dominate in his first statewide test. But he received an underwhelming 62 percent of the vote, with most of the rest going to two unknown candidates. Furthermore, he lost a number of heavily Hispanic counties in South Texas, auguring concerns about his ability to turn out the demographic long believed to be key to a Democratic revival in the state.
The night of the primary was notable for another reason: Cruz abruptly went on the offensive against O’Rourke after months of largely ignoring him. In a conference call shortly before polls closed, Cruz unloaded on O’Rourke as too liberal for Texas, and in an ad released later that night, mocked him for using the nickname “Beto” when his legal name is Robert Francis. (“Beto” is a Spanish nickname that the congressman has gone by since his youth.)
O’Rourke mostly shrugged off the attacks, pressing forward with his 254-county tour. He completed it on June 9 in Gainesville, the seat of Cooke County, and did not let up afterward, continuing to keep an aggressive travel schedule that attracted growing national spotlight. It only grew brighter by mid-August, when O’Rourke’s remarks at a town hall defending NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem went viral.
By late summer, the mood of the race started to change. Things were tightening, according to surveys, and national Republicans began to develop some concern that it was getting too close for comfort.
The alarm was not helped by O’Rourke’s massive fundraising, which poured in online. He was outraising Cruz period after period, and he posted an astonishing $38 million in the third quarter of 2018 — a new record for the biggest fundraising quarter ever in a U.S. Senate race.
The GOP calvary began to mobilize. The Club for Growth, a conservative group that was critical to Cruz’s 2012 election, announced it would spend seven figures to help fend off O’Rourke, and a parade of high-profile surrogates began to form.
None, of course, was more high-profile than President Donald Trump, who Cruz bitterly battled in the fight for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. At the end of August, the president took to Twitter to announce he would headline a rally for Cruz in October — and he wanted to do it in the “biggest stadium” he could find in Texas. The two ended up reuniting on the first day of early voting — Oct. 22 — at the Toyota Center in Houston, where the president made clear they had buried the hatchet from 2016 and happily attacked O’Rourke as a “stone-cold phony.”
The fall also saw two debates between Cruz and O’Rourke, the product of grueling, months-long negotiations between the two sides. Meeting first in Dallas, O’Rourke displayed a more aggressive approach to Cruz, but it still left some supporters unsatisfied, especially as O’Rourke was getting buried by attack ads on TV while running exclusively positive spots. So in the second debate, held in San Antonio, O’Rourke swung harder at Cruz — to the point of adopting Trump’s old nickname for the senator: “Lyin’ Ted.”
Strategically, it was a pivotal moment for O’Rourke, and it was followed the next morning by the launch of three TV ads criticizing Cruz, a test of O’Rourke’s longtime vow to take the high road. Around the time, Cruz was riding high off the GOP enthusiasm generated by anger over Brett Kavanuagh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, and he gleefully portrayed O’Rourke’s new tack as the hallmark of a flailing candidate.
But Cruz’s high was not forever. Polls suggested his lead began to narrow again during early voting, which itself was a key moment. Turnout was comparable to that of a presidential election year, with nearly 5 million Texans voting early in the 30 Texas counties where most registered voters in the state live.