By Zeke J Miller / Des Moines, Alex Altman / Des Moines, and Charlotte Alter
Updated: February 2, 2016 12:46 AM ET | Originally published: February 1, 2016

Texas Senator Ted Cruz won the Iowa Republican caucuses Monday night, cementing his status as the conservative front-runner and top rival to Donald Trump in the first contest of the 2016 presidential election. The Democratic race was locked in “a virtual tie” early Tuesday.

Tens of thousands of Iowans cast the first votes of 2016, with reports of record turnout on the Republican side and high turnout in the Democratic race. The contest was set to winnow a wide and fractured Republican field and provide a key test in the Democratic race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

With about 99% of precincts reporting in the Republican race, Ted Cruz had 28% of the vote, compared with 24% for Trump.

“The Republican nominee and the next President of the United States will not be chosen by the media,” Cruz, who is running as a proud scourge of GOP leaders, told cheering supporters in Des Moines. “Will not be chosen by the Washington establishment. Will not be chosen by the lobbyists.”

“Whatever Washington says, they cannot keep the people down,” Cruz added. “Courageous conservatives said, ‘yes we can.'”

What appeared to be huge turnout in the Republican race should have benefited Trump, whose campaign hoped high turnout would mean the billionaire businessman was drawing first-time caucus-goers to the process. But it didn’t turn out that way.

“We never thought Cruz could do this well at this turnout,” an official with a rival campaign said.

Addressing supporters in West Des Moines, Trump congratulated Cruz and thanked the people of Iowa. “We love you. We thank you. We will be back, many, many times. In fact, I might come here and buy a farm,” Trump said. And he looked forward to the next contest, where he continues to lead in the polls: “On to New Hampshire. So long, everybody.”

Marco Rubio was close behind Trump in third place with 23%, in line with where his campaign had set expectations after a late surge, but closer to the front of the pack than many had expected. And as he looks to consolidate establishment support after the race moves past Iowa, news broke that popular South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, whose state votes later this month, will endorse Rubio.

Addressing enthusiastic supporters in Des Moines, Rubio gave what amounted to a victory speech.

“So this is the moment they said would never happen,” Rubio said. “The people of this state have sent a clear message. After seven years of Barack Obama, we aren’t waiting any longer.”

Rubio used the speech, broadcast live nationwide, to make a clear argument that he is the most electable Republican. “When I am our nominee, we will unite our party, we will grow our party, and we will defeat Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders,” he said.

With about 94% of precincts reporting in the Democratic race, Clinton was clinging to a tiny lead over Sanders, with 49.9% of the vote to 49.5% for Sanders.

Taking the stage to address supporters in Des Moines even though the race hadn’t been called, Clinton pressed her argument that she is the most qualified candidate to continue President Obama’s legacy.

“I am a progressive who gets things done for people,” she said. “I am honored to stand in a long line of American reformers who make up our minds that the status quo is not good enough, that standing still is not an option.”

“When it is all said and done, we have to be united against a Republican vision and candidates who would drive us apart and divide us,” she added.

Sanders took the stage to raucous supporters a few minutes later.

“Tonight while the results are still not known, it looks like we are in a virtual tie,” Sanders said. “The people of Iowa have sent a profound message to the political establishment.”

The results quickly narrowed the race on both sides. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Iowa caucus winner who never contended seriously this time, dropped out before Cruz was declared the victor.

“I am officially suspending my campaign,” he said on Twitter. “Thank you for all your loyal support.”

And former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, whose Democratic campaign had been mired in single digits and did not gain any traction in Iowa, suspended his campaign in an email to supporters.

Late polling over the weekend and on Monday had showed Trump leading Cruz in the Republican race, while Clinton and Sanders were locked in a close fight.

With additional reporting by Tessa Berenson / Urbandale, Iowa; Philip Elliott / West Des Moines; and Sam Frizell / Des Moines

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