Editor's note: This story has been updated.
DES MOINES, Iowa — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won Iowa's GOP presidential caucuses on Monday, edging out billionaire Donald Trump for the top spot in the first-in-the-nation nominating contest.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Cruz led Trump 28 percent to 24 percent, according to unofficial returns. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida posted a stronger-than-expected showing at 23 percent.
Taking the stage at his election-night party here on the Iowa State Fairgrounds, Cruz proclaimed the win as a "victory for the grassroots" while claiming he won the most votes ever cast for any Republican caucus winner — 48,608.
"Tonight, the state of Iowa has spoken," Cruz declared. "Iowa has sent notice that the Republican nominee and the next president of the United States will not be chosen by the media, will not be chosen by the Washington establishment, will not be chosen by the lobbyists, but will be chosen by the most incredible, powerful force where all sovereignty resides in our nation — by we the people."
The victory represents a remarkable rise for Cruz, who just four years ago was a virtually unknown candidate running for U.S. Senate against then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Since then, the former state solicitor general has emerged as a star of the conservative movement with a following far beyond Texas.
Yet here in Iowa, Trump had posed an unpredictable obstacle to Cruz’s master plan to consolidate conservative support. On Monday night, Cruz’s campaign moved quickly to portray the win as undercutting Trump’s ability to turn out the thousands of people who pack stadiums for his rallies.
“All the people who were watching this race were asking, ‘Are Trump voters real?’ and it turns out they were not,” Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler told reporters. "They weren’t real today, they won’t be real next week and they won’t be real the week after that.”
Cruz had emerged as a frontrunner for the caucuses last month, propelled by an aggressively anti-establishment message in a season of intense voter unrest. Yet the tide seemed to be turning against Cruz in recent weeks as he faced increasing scrutiny in the Hawkeye State — not only from his opponents but also the ethanol industry and allies of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who himself had publicly rooted for Cruz's defeat.
Cruz's campaign held firm that its get-out-the-vote operation would carry the day against Trump, whose ground game was something of a mystery. Trump delivered an unusually brief and modest concession speech, offering his congratulations to Cruz, with whom he had forged an alliance up until the final weeks before the caucuses.
Even before all the results were in, Cruz's surrogates were expressing hope that his showing would take the wind out of Trump's sails. Speaking with reporters here, Cruz campaign national co-chair Bob Vander Plaats said even a narrow loss to Cruz by the billionaire would "puncture his narrative" that all he does is win.
"I think after this, I think New Hampshire is going to take a lead from Iowa that Trump is not inevitable, he's not unstoppable, he's not the winner all the times that he says he is," Vander Plaats told reporters.
Cruz had campaigned hard in the state, visiting all 99 counties — a milestone he marked just hours before the caucuses — and building a ground game his team had hailed as second to none. On caucus night, he had 1,573 precinct captains making the case for him across the state, leaving very few areas unaccounted for.
Among those advocates was Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the chairman of Cruz's campaign in Texas. Speaking after Rubio at a caucus in Clive, a suburb of Des Moines, Patrick pitched Cruz as the only conservative candidate with the money and organization to go the distance in the primary.
"We cannot come out of Iowa with a candidate who you like and caucus for but can't win," Patrick said, recalling how another candidate he supported, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, failed to gain traction after winning the Iowa caucuses in 2008.
Gavin Quill, an attorney from Clive who had planned to caucus for Cruz in Clive, said regardless of what happened Monday night, Cruz "has been planning for 50 states from day one." Quill, a volunteer for the campaign, described the senator's candidacy as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to "take the country in a very strong and positive new direction."
"I was not quite 18 years old when Ronald Reagan ran the first time, and I just barely missed the chance to vote for a historic figure in American history," Quill said. "I don't want to miss out on the chance to support the next Ronald Reagan, the next historic figure."