Tea Party-backed Ted Cruz upset the Texas political establishment Tuesday night with a convincing win over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Texas GOP's primary runoff for an open U.S. Senate seat.
The Texas-style showdown between Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general, and Dewhurst had been hotly contested all summer. Dewhurst won the initial primary in May but failed to secure enough votes in the initial nine-candidate primary field to avoid a runoff with second place finisher Cruz. Cruz took advantage.
"Tonight is a victory for the grassroots," Cruz said Tuesday night at his victory rally. "This is how elections are supposed to be decided, by we the people."
With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Cruz led Dewhurst with a stunning 56.8 percent of the vote to Dewhurst's 43.2 percent. The win marks a dramatic turnaround for Cruz, who had been heavily outspent by Dewhurst. As of this month, Cruz has raised $9 million compared to the more than $24.5 million raised by Dewhurst.
Cruz, who would be the first Hispanic to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate, made this a race despite little name recognition. His victory is a boost for Republican hopes to secure more of the Hispanic vote leading into national elections in November.
Cruz, 41, was aided during his campaign by a steady stream of money from national conservative groups like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth. National Tea Party figures like Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sarah Palin have also made appearances at Texas rallies on his behalf.
Cruz's defeat of an establishment Republican will reverberate like other Tea Party victories this year in Senate primaries in Indiana and Nebraska. In a state like Texas with its powerfully entrenched state Republican Party, the come-from-behind underdog win by Cruz provides a significant boost in the Tea Party's nationwide power struggle with traditional Republicans.
"Ted's victory is a loud statement to the Washington establishment that Americans are ready to take back their country," said DeMint in a Facebook posting. "Under the old system, the party establishment picked the status-quo candidates who toed the party line."
Dewhurst poured millions of his own money into the race. As lieutenant governor Dewhurst has overseen the Texas Senate since 2003. In the process he has won the support of most of the state's Republican heavy hitters such as Gov. Rick Perry, who campaigned alongside Dewhurst on Monday.
"Working together we are going to take back our country, and Texas is going to lead the way," Dewhurst told his supporters Tuesday night.
Dewhurst portrayed Cruz as inexperienced: Cruz has never run for elected political office before. But Cruz, who thanked God and his supporters for their prayers during his victory speech Tuesday night, travelled the state using the compelling narrative of his father to connect with voters. Fleeing Cuba as a teenage in the 1950s, Rafael Cruz arrived in Austin, Texas, unable to speak English. He washed dishes seven days a week, earning 50 cents an hour, and eventually earned a degree at the University of Texas. Cruz's father is now a pastor in Texas.
Cruz grew up fascinated by the Constitution: In high school he joined a group that toured the state, writing out the entire Constitution from memory on easels during civic gatherings. A former clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Cruz told voters that he would join a block of stalwart fiscal and social conservatives, led by DeMint, who adhere to the Constitution's restraint on the power of federal government.
"If you want to dramatically shrink the size and power of the federal government and address the debt, the Senate is the battlefield," Cruz told me last spring when I visited him in Houston. "Today there are six and or seven strong free market conservatives in the Senate. I think it is absolutely critical that we grow those numbers."
As the Republican primary winner for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Cruz will be the favorite in the general election this November. Texas has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.