AUSTIN, Texas – Ted Cruz is fond of saying that when he began his run for U.S. Senate, he was at 2 percent in the polls against Texas Republican juggernaut David Dewhurst, the state's lieutenant governor for nearly a decade.
Actually, the 41-year-old former state solicitor general seemed an even longer shot than that.
Gov. Rick Perry and much of the rest of the Republican establishment lined up to endorse Dewhurst for their party's nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and the party's mainstream doesn't lose much in Texas. After all, the state hasn't elected a Democrat to statewide office in nearly 20 years.
But Cruz pulled off what had seemed an unthinkable upset Tuesday, and it wasn't even close. He trounced Dewhurst by about 13 percentage points, shaking one of America's reddest states to its political core.
His victory was all the more stunning considering Cruz lost to the lieutenant governor 44 percent to 34 percent during the state's May 29 primary. But simply making it to a second round of voting proved a major momentum-builder for Cruz, who vowed to prevail since his supporters were dedicated enough to turn out during the Texas summer doldrums.
Cruz got there by spending months sitting in on Republican women's meetings at Denny's, chatting up pastors at Bible studies and addressing tea party gatherings across Texas. Eventually, he became enough of a grass-roots sensation to attract the support of national conservative groups such as the anti-tax Club for Growth, which branded Dewhurst as too moderate and spent millions to help defeat him.
"We are witnessing a great awakening," Cruz told cheering supporters in Houston shortly after Dewhurst called him to concede Tuesday night. "Millions of Texans, millions of Americans are rising up to reclaim our country, to defend liberty and to restore the Constitution."
The race had been closely watched nationally as one of the most-vivid contrasts between the GOP mainstream and grass-roots, conservative activists. Shortly after most of the polls closed statewide, it had become a cakewalk for Cruz.
"We're just tired of the government ignoring the Constitution," said Don Steinway, a 76-year-old retired commercial airline pilot, who lives in Houston and described himself as a staunch supporter of the tea party.
Cruz's father Rafael was born in Cuba and fought with Fidel Castro's rebels before they embraced communism. The elder Cruz fled the island and arrived in Texas in 1957 with $100 sewn into his underwear. His son, meanwhile, is a onetime Ivy League debating champion with a fiery stage presence and a brand of populism that energizes grass-roots groups.
Dewhurst oversaw some of the most-conservative state legislative sessions in Texas history and helped speed the passage of laws requiring women to undergo a sonogram before having an abortion and voters to show identification at the polls. However, he also occasionally compromised with Democratic lawmakers to keep the legislative agenda moving.
Looking exhausted and shaken, Dewhurst told a small crowd in another part of Houston late Tuesday, "We got beat up a little bit but we never gave up."
Perry then released a statement calling Cruz "a force to be reckoned with: an excellent candidate and a great conservative communicator."
Also Tuesday, Democratic state Rep. Paul Sadler easily bested perennial candidate Grady Yarbrough to capture his party's nomination and face Cruz in November's general election, but Cruz begins that race the overwhelming favorite.
Sadler said that he stood "alone as the only nominee of a major political party in Texas because the Texas Republican Party has been hijacked by the tea party."
It doesn't look like a hijacking from where Cruz now sits. He successfully painted his opponent as wishy-washy — even though they actually disagree on little.
Dewhurst also was endorsed by former baseball great Nolan Ryan, as well as former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, who finished third in the Republican primary, and ex-NFL running back and ESPN commentator Craig James, the primary's fourth-place primary finisher.
None of it was enough. Cruz was endorsed by ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, radio talk show host Glenn Beck, U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Kentucky's Rand Paul, as well as former GOP presidential hopeful and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
"The message of this race couldn't be clearer for the political establishment: the Tea Party is alive and well and we will not settle for business as usual," Palin said via Facebook.
Cruz has drawn comparisons to Indiana, where state Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeated incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. But in Texas, the nation's second-most populous state, a win by a tea party-backed candidate is likely to resonate even more.
To Dewhurst's supporters, Cruz said, "We ask you to join us."
"We want you on our team," he continued. "In the heat of the campaign there have been harsh words spoken but I am hopeful that all of us can put them behind us and work together going forward."