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Cruz returning to Senate, but O’Rourke’s future is less clear

Thursday, November 8, 2018

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Republican Ted Cruz is returning to the Senate, scuffed by a surprisingly close race but still President Donald Trump’s take-no-prisoners defender on the hard right in Texas.

His own White House ambitions remain intact, too.

What’s next for Rep. Beto O’Rourke is less clear. His loss deflated supercharged Democrats across the U.S. who barreled full steam into an against-all-odds bid to finally tilt Texas in their direction, but they came up short.

With more than 8 million votes cast in Texas — turnout typically only seen in presidential years — O’Rourke ended Tuesday night within 3 points. It was the closest finish in a Texas Senate race in 40 years.

On live television, O’Rourke didn’t go quietly into defeat, letting rip the kind of casual swearing that freckled an unorthodox campaign that shunned strategists, pollsters and big money from political action committees.

“All of you, showing the country how you do this. I’m so f---ing proud of you guys,” O’Rourke told supporters at his election party in his native El Paso.

It was a bad night on the Senate map overall for Democrats, who were poised to retake the House but couldn’t make a dent in the GOP majority in the other chamber.

Cruz began the race as Texas’ most-powerful and popular Republican. But he needed a boost from Trump to win re-election over a previously little-known congressman and former punk rocker from West Texas who, even in defeat, is now one of Democrats’ brightest up-and-coming stars.

The race was never supposed to be this close in America’s largest red state but laid bare how Cruz’s 2016 clashes with Trump alienated much of his conservative base — and how the president remains popular enough to get supporters to coalesce around him.

The results broke as expected. White voters favored Cruz over O’Rourke, including those with and without a college degree, according to AP VoteCast, a wide-ranging survey of the electorate in Texas.

O’Rourke had a sizable advantage among black voters and also was preferred among Hispanic voters, who historically have voted in low numbers but who O’Rourke needed to have a shot. Younger voters also backed him.

“I don’t think Texas will ever be a swing state. It’s always going to be red. We got a scare,” said Asher Warriach, 23, a student at the University of Houston who attended Cruz’s victory party. “This time around, we had to work really hard to win. But at the end of the day we won. Texas is going to stay red.”

Cruz turned back O’Rourke with the help of Trump, his bitter rival in 2016. Trump took the unexpected step of traveling to reliably Republican Texas during crunch time, staging a Houston rally to energize his base for Cruz just two weeks before Election Day. The president praised the senator as “beautiful” and smart, a far cry from two years ago when he repeatedly mocked Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted,” made fun of his wife’s appearance and suggested that Cruz’s Cuban-born father had a hand in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

With the win, Cruz kept alive his hopes of mounting a second presidential run once Trump leaves the White House.

In his victory speech, Cruz said his win affirmed that he won the “battle of ideas” against O’Rourke over such issues as taxes, regulation and jobs.

“All the money in the world wasn’t a match for the good people of Texas,” he said, while also acknowledging that millions of people across the state were inspired by O’Rourke’s campaign.

O’Rourke grabbed glowing national headlines by visiting all 254 Texas counties and often drawing large crowds — even in fiercely conservative areas other Democrats had long since written off. He raked in donations from across the country and even set a record for Senate campaign fundraising by collecting more than $38 million in the three-month period from July through September.

O’Rourke even got an unexpected boost from Beyonce as the Houston native posted pictures of herself wearing a Beto baseball cap on Instagram mere hours before the polls closed.

Cruz had the support of outside groups but was still being outraised 3-to-1 by the end of the race — a discrepancy he dismissed by saying the “hard left” was energized by outrage at Trump and “Texas will not be bought.”

For months, Cruz refused to entertain the notion that he’d lose, saying there are more Republicans in Texas than Democrats, so all he had to do to win was avoid conservative complacency. He also said O’Rourke’s support for impeaching Trump, relaxing federal immigration policy, decriminalizing marijuana and implementing universal health care were too liberal for even many of the state’s moderate Democrats and independents.

Cruz, 47, made no secret about wanting to run for president again once Trump leaves office. And though he was tested by O’Rourke, avoiding what would have been a monumental upset means that remains a possibility. O’Rourke himself had been mentioned as a possible 2020 White House contender — but that was dependent on him staying within striking distance of Cruz.

O’Rourke himself had been mentioned as a possible 2020 White House contender — and losing by only about 3 percentage points may be respectable enough to keep that notion intact.

O’Rourke has said he has no plans for a White House run but urged supporters on Tuesday night not to let the excitement of the campaign fade away, adding “we’ll see you down the road.”