McALLEN, Texas — By the time Beto O’Rourke arrived at the historic Cine El Rey theater for his first campaign speech of the day, it had already reached its capacity of 500. So before going inside, he walked through the overflow crowd in the bar next door, high-fiving supporters as they snapped selfies.
Then he left the bar, and, as the crowd chanted his name, took the stage at the theater, where he sang the praises of border towns like this one.
“The U.S.-Mexico border, in so many ways for me, is the center of the universe,” he told the cheering crowd.
O’Rourke, who describes himself as a lifelong fronterizo — Spanish for “border resident” — didn’t always feel such pride. Like many young folks in the brain-drained border zone, he grew up wanting to leave El Paso, he said. It wasn’t until he left and returned as an adult that he began to rethink the significance of growing up in a city that produced the bands At the Drive In and Mars Volta (O’Rourke has personal connections to both), where Elizabeth Taylor spent her first honeymoon and where Mariano Azuela wrote Los de abajo, one of the defining novels of the Mexican Revolution.
“Kids like me had internalized what the rest of the country thought about us,” O’Rourke said. “That we weren’t supposed to amount to much. That we were just a dusty border town.” That’s wrong, he contended. The towns and cities of the U.S.-Mexico border are “a place for the ambitious,” for those who want to “take a chance and bet everything on bigness and on greatness.”
O’Rourke, a three-term Democratic congressman who has run an unrelentingly upbeat campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, didn’t name names. But his hopeful message about the border cut against the one emanating from President Donald Trump, who has characterized one of the safest regions in the country as a morass of violence and lawlessness, promising to wall it off from phantom hordes of rapists and murderers.
The Mobilization Election
O’Rourke has mounted a surprisingly competitive campaign in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, and his positive message about the border is key to his strategy. If he has a path to victory, it runs straight through Hispanic communities like McAllen — places that are solidly Democratic but turn out at rock-bottom rates for midterm elections.
He has excitement on his side. Despite eschewing corporate donations, he’s nearly matched Cruz in fundraising. A poll by NBC News and Marist released last week had O’Rourke trailing by just 4 percentage points. An electronic poll released by Emerson College on Monday had the two candidates nearly tied, with Cruz at 38 percent against O’Rourke’s 37 percent and more than a fifth of respondents undecided.
But O’Rourke faces the same problem that has bedeviled the Texas Democratic Party for decades: How to translate their natural demographic advantage into success at the polls. White, non-Hispanics make up just 42 percent of the Texas population, mirroring the demographics of solidly blue California. But low turnout among Latinos, who lean Democratic — along with obstacles to representation like gerrymandering and a controversial photo ID requirement to vote — have kept Republicans in control of all statewide offices and both chambers of the state legislature.
In a typical midterm election, only about 22 percent of eligible Hispanic voters cast a ballot. For O’Rourke to even have a chance, that number needs to rise by at least 10 percentage points, according to Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. Even if that happens, O’Rourke will also need a bump in the millennial vote — another “low-propensity” voter group.
“If we look at normal turnout for a Texas midterm, O’Rourke has no realistic chance,” Jones said. “He has to increase Latino voter turnout, win a larger share of the Latino vote and then reduce Cruz’s advantage among Anglos.”
The Latinos who do cast ballots don’t favor Democrats as heavily as they do in California. Gov. Greg Abbott, whose wife Cecilia is Mexican-American, defeated Democratic challenger Wendy Davis in 2014 with 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. (By contrast, Jerry Brown’s Republican opponent the same year in the California governor’s race won just 27 percent of the Latino vote.)
O’Rourke makes no pretense of targeting his efforts toward any particular group. The cornerstone of his campaign is his pledge to visit all 254 counties in Texas ― which he accomplished in June ― casting aside the traditional logic of focusing on the state’s major cities, where Democrats have carved out an advantage, in the name of defusing the polarization of the Trump era. Keeping his message positive, he rarely attacks Cruz by name, except to jab him for taking more interest in campaigning in Iowa than Texas. “If you’re a Republican, you’re in the right place,” O’Rourke said at more than one speech.
The reality, though, is that O’Rourke has little chance of winning by convincing Cruz voters to switch sides, according to James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
“This is a mobilization election, not a persuasion election,” Henson said. “Each candidate has to mobilize its partisan base. Neither candidate has much of a chance of changing each other’s voters’ minds because of the gulf between the two candidates.”
The campaign knows this. One strategy developed by the El Paso Democratic Party aims to increase border turnout — a proxy for Latino turnout in a region where Hispanics make up by far the majority of the population — by 20 points to 35 percent, a goal that requires mobilizing an extra 170,000 voters.
“If the Border comes out in record numbers this election, we could be the reason Texas sends one of our own to the Senate,” read a paper detailing the “Border Surge” strategy.
O’Rourke’s strategy isn’t new — Democrats have been trying to increase their turnout in Texas for a generation. Ahead of the last midterm elections, in 2014, the party launched a multimillion-dollar turnout effort largely financed by donations from outside the state and led by Democratic consultants who made their names running Obama’s presidential campaigns. It failed miserably. Wendy Davis, a gubernatorial candidate who’d gained national attention for a 13-hour filibuster to halt a state anti-abortion law, lost by 20 points. Latino voter turnout barely budged.
That humiliating defeat casts a long shadow over this year’s election, which features no such glitzy, partisan effort threatening to turn Texas “purple.” Even if O’Rourke loses, his campaign will be unique because he tried to run at all. Despite the wave of progressive enthusiasm inspired in opposition to Trump, several top Texas Democrats — most notably former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who’s scouting a run for president — skipped running for statewide office. In an election where turnout means everything, the top of the Democratic ticket lacks star power beyond O’Rourke.
That doesn’t mean Democrats have abandoned their hopes of flipping the state. Battleground Texas, the group charged with the failed turnout initiative of 2014, remains active. And the Democratic Party’s strategy has shifted toward targeting “low-propensity” voters, another code word for “Hispanic.” O’Rourke’s swing across South Texas with other high-profile Democratic candidates like former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who is running for governor, and Veronica Escobar, who is likely to take O’Rourke’s House of Representatives seat, included door-to-door canvassing to make personal pleas to potential voters.
But this year’s progressive turnout efforts have fallen largely to civic and grassroots groups without political affiliations, like Voto Latino, which is aiming to register between 50,000 and 75,000 new Texas voters this cycle, and is carrying out a digital strategy to keep them engaged and aware of the voter ID requirements ahead of Election Day.
“People are loath to expend resources on young voters, especially young voters of color, because they say they don’t turn out,” said Cristina Tzintzún, the director of Jolt, an Austin-based get-out-the-vote effort targeting young Latinos. “But then there’s an investment problem.”
The Man From El Paso
Even without a major Democratic effort to turn out Latino voters, Cruz’s team clearly sees O’Rourke’s cross-cultural appeal as a strength worth attacking. In March, for example, the incumbent’s campaign launched a radio jingle mocking the Democrat’s Spanish nickname, intimating that he changed it to curry political favor. (O’Rourke’s given name is Robert.)
It’s easy to see why the Cruz camp would view the jingle as an effective tactic. Among the Latinos that do turn out to vote, O’Rourke faces a name recognition gap. The problem became clear two days after the jingle was released when the far lesser-known “Berniecrat” Sema Hernandez walloped O’Rourke across the counties of South Texas in an otherwise easy primary election win. The obvious explanation was that the region’s predominantly Latino voters opted for the candidate with the more Spanish-sounding name.
But Cruz’s attack was likely a misstep. It was inaccurate, as O’Rourke pointed out by posting a childhood photo to Instagram with the nickname written across his sweatshirt. But more importantly, attacking his identity drew attention to O’Rourke’s border background.
O’Rourke is nimble like that. At a time when the Democratic Party is struggling to bridge the growing chasm between its progressive and establishment wings, O’Rourke manages to walk a fine line. He backed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders during the 2016 campaign but favors an incremental approach toward a single-payer health care system. He’s a long-time champion of marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform, but, as a border resident, an avowed free trader. He backs comprehensive immigration reform, often pointing out that a Dream Act to shield undocumented immigrants who arrived as youths shouldn’t come at the cost of increased enforcement against their parents — the “original Dreamers,” in his words. But he presses that position without a combative stance toward Border Patrol, whom he describes as unfairly caught in the middle of America’s toxic immigration politics.
People are loath to expend resources on young voters, especially young voters of color, because they say they don’t turn out. But then there’s an investment problem. Cristina Tzintzún, director of Jolt
At 44, he’s also relatively young — and with his lanky frame, jeans and rolled up sleeves, he looks younger still. But having served three terms as a U.S. Representative for El Paso shields him from the constant attacks over inexperience leveled at other rising members of the Democratic Party’s left wing, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
And O’Rourke’s bilingual and bicultural heritage helps him on the campaign trail, too. At the McAllen event, he had plenty to say about his experience meeting with parents split from their kids at the border — an emotional issue in a place like McAllen, ground zero for the White House’s family separation policy.
But he also showed more knowledge of the concerns of Hispanic voters than many Democratic politicians, who often default to viewing Latino voters through the prism of immigration politics. His repeated statistic that the largest provider of mental health care services in the state of Texas is the county jail system also appeared to resonate in a state where nearly one-third of Latinos lack insurance.
He spoke glowingly of the region’s bilingual schools, where children learn in Spanish one day and English the next. He derided the Border Patrol checkpoints that impede some parents from taking their children to the hospital. And his repeated shout-outs to veterans drew cheers in a region where military service has long offered the surest path toward the middle class or a college education.
It was touches like those, more than his ethnicity, that connected with the crowd.
“Anyone who lives in the border, they’re going to get it — they’re going to understand our way of life,” said 31-year-old Sarah Tamez, who attended the McAllen event and cited O’Rourke’s support for expanding access to health care as her main reason for backing him. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Hispanic or happen to be Caucasian — you’re going to get this life. He comes from the border, he lived it, he embraced the culture. He understands us.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of author Mariano Azuela.