Forth Worth, Texas – Tea party favorite Ted Cruz was headed toward victory Tuesday night, pulling off a stunning coup and besting veteran Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a fierce, hard-fought, multi-million dollar Republican quest for Texas’ first open Senate seat in a decade.
In the GOP battle that became “establishment” versus tea party, Cruz held 56 percent of the vote to Dewhurst’s 44 percent, with 6.780 of 7,957 precincts reporting.
The results appeared to show that the battle over Texas redistricting claimed another casualty Tuesday night: David Dewhurst.
“Had the state’s primary been held in March, as planned, Dewhurst would likely be well on his way to becoming a U.S. senator,” said Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Instead, Ted Cruz was given more time to weaken Dewhurst.
Cruz’s win “is another victory for anti-establishment tea party forces in the Republican Party,” Sabato said, adding that a Dewhurst defeat “is another blow to Gov. Rick Perry, who is still smarting from his poor presidential performance earlier this year. And who knows – if Perry does in fact run for another term as governor, there might be another Ted Cruz waiting for him in 2014.”
At the same time, former state Rep. Paul Sadler was on his way to handily claiming the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat, defeating retired educator Grady Yarbrough, according to incomplete, unofficial returns.
But the spotlight Tuesday night was on Cruz, who invigorated grassroots conservatives across the state and drew Tea Party support from leaders nationwide. Some of the conservative movement’s biggest names – including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum – barnstormed the state to help Cruz defeat the well-known, well-funded veteran lawmaker who was initially expected to easily claim the party’s nomination.
“This has been a long, seemingly never-ending campaign,” Cruz said during a campaign gathering at a Houston hotel Tuesday night.
But he praised not only the tea party leaders who came to Texas from across the country to campaign on his behalf, but also all the volunteers who spent countless hours putting up campaign signs, making campaign calls and walking door-to-door on his behalf.
Dewhurst conceded the race to Cruz before all the votes were counted, acknowledging that his campaign “got beat up a little bit, but we never gave up.”
“We will never stop fighting for our beloved Texas,” he said.
Cruz praised Dewhurst’s public service and noted that as he and the lieutenant governor talked on the phone, Dewhurst “very generously offered his support” for the November election.
This fierce and often nasty battle – where candidates spent tens of millions of dollars in what became one of the nation’s most costly Senate races – was seen by many as a classic contest between establishment Republicans and the more conservative, tea party, version.
Cruz has drawn support from the tea party, which has sent top-tier representatives such as Sen. Jim DeMint across the state to campaign for him in the past week.
Dewhurst has the backing of the bulk of the state GOP establishment and picked up endorsements from Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mick Huckabee, the Texas Rangers’ Nolan Ryan, even former President Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael.
Political observers have long said they expect the winner of the Republican primary to win the November race, since Democrats haven’t won a statewide office in Texas in nearly 20 years.
This race to replace Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison when she retires next year is the first open U.S. Senate seat in Texas since 2002.
Earlier this year, 13 Republicans were on the ballot, seeking this post. Two – Dewhurst and Cruz – made it to Tuesday’s runoff election.
“In the coming months, I will do everything I can to support the election of Ted Cruz to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate and be available to him for any questions that will prepare him for the issues he will face,” Hutchison said in a statement. “It is more important than ever that we have leaders who are committed to get our country back on track – focused on cutting spending and creating jobs to grow our economy.”
Dewhurst, with his broad name recognition and ability to personally fund his own campaign, was long the front-runner in this race. But with nine Republicans in the May 29 primary, he wasn’t able to get above the 50 percent mark in the May 29 primary, although he did lead the pack with 44.67 percent of the vote.
He was seen by many as the “establishment” Republican candidate, drawing support from officials such as Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, more than a dozen Republican state senators and more.
Perry sent out a statement about the election, noting that Texas “is as rock-hard conservative as ever.”
“I congratulate Ted Cruz on a hard-fought victory and a well-executed campaign,” Perry said in a written statement. “Ted is a force to be reckoned with: an excellent candidate and a great conservative communicator.
“I call on all conservative Texans to rally behind Ted Cruz in November so we can remake the U.S. Senate in the image of Texas for the good of all Americans,” he said. “Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst fought a valiant fight. I’m proud to call David my friend. He and I will stand shoulder to shoulder once again in the spring, fighting for Texas – the most conservative state in America.”
At the same time, Cruz gained great momentum from grass-roots and tea party Republicans, picking up endorsements from former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, even Dr. James Dobson.
The race drew nationwide attention and support, as many tea party leaders across the country strove to make this Texas seat the battleground, or “ground zero,” in the fight to put more like-minded leaders in Congress.
Lieutenant governor since 2003, and land commissioner before that, Dewhurst is a former CIA officer, an Air Force veteran and a multimillionaire businessman who made a fortune in the natural gas industry. He was just 3 when his father, who had been a pilot in World War II, was killed in a car accident with a drunken driver.
Dewhurst pumped millions of dollars of his own money into the Senate bid.
Cruz, a Houston attorney well-known as a strong debater, has long touted that his father was a teenager who fought against Cuba’s Batista regime in the late 1950s before gaining a student visa to attend college in Texas. He spent years in courtrooms, from working as a clerk for the chief justice of the United States to serving as the state’s solicitor general.
U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, supported Cruz in the race. “Ted led a tough fight and Texans have spoken – they want to send someone to Washington who will be a key voice and fight to defend our liberty,” he said. “This is the first time in my memory that the United States senator has not been essentially ordained by Austin.”
Sadler, an East Texas lawyer, has long been the front-runner, despite not raising even a fraction as much money as his Republican counterparts, because of his decade of service in the Texas Legislature that included rewriting the state education code and handling a variety of controversial issues.
During his tenure, he headed the powerful public education committee and was broadly considered one of the Legislature’s top authorities on schools.
In the May primary, he and Yarbrough, a retired San Antonio educator who has sought office in the past as both a Republican and Democrat, emerged from a field of four to be the top vote getters. Sadler drew 35.1 percent of the vote to Yarbrough’s 25.87 percent.
Tuesday night, Sadler appeared to easily be on his way to victory.
With 1,129 of 7,965 precincts reporting, Sadler had 62.44 percent of the vote to Yarbrough’s 37.55 percent, according to unofficial results.
“I’m obviously excited about this,” Sadler said. “I want to thank a lot of people. We really had an old-fashioned campaign – a lot of miles driving, a lot of meeting people and shaking hands.
“I’m excited about the race coming up in the fall,” he said.