Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune
HOUSTON – President Donald Trump, speaking Monday evening here at an uproarious rally, cast his 2016 battle with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz as a thing of the past and blasted Cruz’s Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, as a “stone cold phony.”
“We had our little difficulties,” Trump told thousands inside the Toyota Center, recalling his rollercoaster fight with Cruz for the Republican presidential nomination. “It got nasty, and then it ended. And I’ll tell you what – nobody has helped me more with your tax cuts, with your regulations, all of the things we’ve been doing with your military and your vets, than Sen. Ted Cruz.”
Cruz is confronting a strong challenge from O’Rourke, an El Paso congressman who has set fundraising records in pursuit of becoming the first Democrat elected to statewide office in more than two decades. Trump happily played the role of attack dog on the first day of early voting in Texas.
“Ted’s opponent in this race is a stone cold phony named Robert Francis O’Rourke,” Trump said. “And he pretends to be a moderate, but he’s actually a radical open-borders left-winger.”
(Robert Francis O’Rourke is the congressman’s legal name. He has used a Spanish nickname since his childhood.)
Trump also credited Cruz, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with having shepherded through the nomination of his embattled U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
“Ted, you probably saw, did a beautiful job of staring down an angry left-wing mob in our recent Supreme Court battle victory,” Trump said.
Speaking before Trump, Cruz returned the praise, pledging his support for Trump’s own bid for another term in one of the senator’s biggest applause lines.
“I’m going to make a prediction to every person here: In 2020, Donald Trump will be overwhelmingly re-elected as president of the United States,” Cruz said. “I am honored that President Trump is here endorsing and supporting my campaign, and I look forward to campaigning alongside him in 2020.”
Trump and Cruz had a memorably rocky relationship during the 2016 Republican presidential primary but have since seemed to mend fences. Cruz has said he looks past the president’s 2016 campaign insults in order to cooperate on policy; he came on stage Monday evening cheering “God bless President Donald Trump!” Earlier on Monday, Trump re-christened his former competitor with a significant upgrade, dropping to old taunt "Lyin' Ted" in favor of “Texas Ted” and “Beautiful Ted.”
Cruz was not the only Texas Republicans who basked in Trump’s praise at the rally. The president also doled out shoutouts to a series of other statewide officials and congressmen, notably one who was not there: U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Houston, who is in a tough re-election campaign against Democrat Lizzie Fletcher.
“A great guy,” Trump said of Culberson. “Get out and vote for John. We’ve got a ton of money being poured against him.”
Trump also urged support for another endangered Texas congressman: U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas. Trump acknowledged the money flowing into that race as well and claimed Sessions is “still leading” against Democrat Colin Allred.
Even before Trump took the stage, the 18,000-seat arena was nearing capacity with a long line of supporters still gathered outside. Several speakers said Monday that there had been some 100,000 requests for tickets at the event, which was moved to a larger Houston stadium after demand seemed poised to exceed capacity at the original location.
Gov. Greg Abbott, the first speaker of the night, asked that full arena to “keep Texas as red as the MAGA hats you’re wearing tonight.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) situated that fight within the context of Republicans’ broader battle to protect their majorities in both houses of Congress.
“My friends, make no doubt about it: Texas is the firewall in this midterm election,” Cornyn warned.
The sign-waving crowd also heard from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who traveled to Washington, D.C. in July to ask Trump to come stump for Cruz.
Like other Texas Republicans, Patrick wasn’t short on criticisms for Cruz’s Democratic opponent.
“Beto: Border Enforcement Totally Optional,” Patrick said to raucous cheering.
O'Rourke was also in Houston on Monday, making several stops throughout the area to lead groups of supporters to the polls. At his first stop, shortly before polling places opened at 8 a.m., O'Rourke was swarmed by supporters as he made his way to their meet-up point in a strip mall parking lot.
"This is an extraordinarily beautiful day," O'Rourke told the group of early risers, speaking through a megaphone. "Look at this sky. It's cool, it's fall – we're gonna vote. Listen, we've all worked for a very long time to be here at this moment together."