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. He replaces retiring Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Dallas.
Cruz has vowed to limit spending and shrink the size of government and promised to do so again during his victory speech in Houston, saying if President Barack Obama is re-elected "the next four years will be challenging indeed."
"If President Obama means what he says on the campaign trail, if he is interested in working to bring people together to reduce the deficit and get people working, then I will work with him," Cruz said. "But if he is re-elected and intends down this same path, then I will spend every waking moment to the fight to stop it."
Sadler was in Austin and said in a subdued concession speech, "I am proud to stand in front of you and say we have a new senator-elect whose name is Ted Cruz."
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.
Texas Democrats gave Sadler 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.
"Our state is worth the fight and our country is worth the fight," Sadler said in a phone interview of a campaign that was a long shot from the start. "We expanded the debate and made people think maybe about issues a little deeper."
The campaign got heated at times, with Sadler even calling Cruz "a troll" during one debate. But he said the pair will now "link arms and move our state and nation forward." Asked if that will be difficult, he joked: "For two lawyers that's not tough at all. That's the fun part."
Betty Blanton, a 60-year-old educator and administrator at Texas Tech University voted for Sadler saying of the tea party: "they're just way too far right."
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.