DALLAS (AP) — Texas overwhelmingly elected tea party-backed Republican Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, completing the former state solicitor general’s once seemingly impossible rise from virtual unknown to the first Hispanic to represent the Lone Star state in the Senate.
The 41-year-old Houston attorney beat Democrat and former state Rep. Paul Sadler. Cruz will replace Republican U.S. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Dallas, who is retiring. But even before Election Day, Cruz had already changed the nature of Texas politics by shocking one of the state’s most formidable establishment figures, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Cruz began the Republican primary polling at 2 percent. His father was born in Cuba and fought alongside Fidel Castro before his government embraced communism, then fled for Texas speaking no English and with $100 sowed into his underwear.
Born in Canada while his parents were there working in the oil fields, Cruz grew up mostly in Houston and has a fiery, populist oratory style which he honed while becoming a debate champion at Princeton and earning his law degree from Harvard.
Dewhurst, meanwhile, was the presumed next senator from Texas when the state Legislature adjourned in June 2011. Most observers considered Cruz — who was appointed solicitor general from 2003 to 2008 by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and had never before sought political office or won an election — an extreme fringe candidate vying only for recognition from the tea party wing of the GOP.
Dewhurst had the support of the state’s conservative establishment, including Gov. Rick Perry. He had overseen the state Senate since 2003, and poured more than $20 million of his own personal fortune into his campaign.
But Cruz started a two-year slog of a campaign that took him to dozens of candidate forums Dewhurst skipped. He spent hundreds of hours convincing grassroots Republicans that a vote for Dewhurst was a vote for moderation, and that he was the true conservative in the race. Cruz supports building a fence the length of the U.S.-Mexico border and has called for eliminating a string of federal departments.
Dewhurst didn’t take Cruz seriously until he came in second in the Republican primary and forced a July runoff. But by then it was too late and Cruz won handily.
His victory shook the Texas political establishment to its core and vaulted Cruz to national prominence. He snagged a prime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention and became a fixture on political talk shows from coast-to-coast.
That made Tuesday’s victory over Sadler almost anti-climactic — but no less decisive.
Voting at Walnut Hill elementary school in north Dallas, 61-year-old Jamie Parker said she didn’t support Cruz during the primaries but has since warmed to him.
“I’m pretty much anti-Democrat right now,” said Parker, who with her husband has a business that sells computers to dentists.
Sadler was also an unexpected candidate, stepping up after retired Lt. Gen Ricardo Sanchez dropped out.
Yet Texas Democrats did not turn out for Sadler, giving him less than $1 million in a state where a statewide campaign typically costs more than six times that. Sadler didn’t have enough money to flood television airwaves with commercials in most parts of the state, and struggled to spread his message since Cruz only agreed to attend two debates — one broadcast during Friday night high school football games.
Sadler put on an old-school campaign, offering policies typical of southern, moderate Democrats. He had promised to support President Barack Obama‘s health care law, tax proposals and immigration policy — three positions that Cruz roundly condemned.
Betty Blanton, a 60-year-old educator and administrator at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, rode her bike to an elementary school to cast her ballot Tuesday.
“They’re just way too far right,” she said of the tea party.
After securing the Republican nomination, however, Cruz moved hard to the center and mended fences with the state’s mainstream GOP — even appearing at fundraisers with Dewhurst and Perry. That helped Republicans statewide, like El Paso accountant Bob Ramey, embrace him.
Ramey said his vote was motivated by Democratic proposals to raise taxes on wealthier Americans.
“I don’t think you should take money from people just because they are successful,” Ramey said.