O'Rourke scrambles to win over Latino voters in Texas

SAN ANTONIO — Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeBiden will help close out Texas Democrats' virtual convention: report O'Rourke on Texas reopening: 'Dangerous, dumb and weak' Parties gear up for battle over Texas state House MORE's chances of unseating Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Money: Trump signs order targeting social media firms' legal protections | 2M more Americans file new jobless claims, pushing total past 40M | White House to forgo summer economic forecast amid COVID-19, breaking precedent Trump signs order targeting social media firms' legal protections Overnight Defense: Trump ends sanctions waivers for Iran nuclear projects | Top Dems says State working on new Saudi arms sale | 34-year-old Army reservist ID'd as third military COVID-19 death MORE (R-Texas) likely hinge on Latino voters, a group that has remained elusive to the rising Democratic star.

While some recent polls show O'Rourke's numbers with Latinos rising, the figures suggest he is shy of the two-thirds support he probably needs from the group to defeat Cruz in deep-red Texas.


The reasons vary, according to strategists in both parties, but include a lack of long-term investment in Latino outreach by Democrats, a historical enthusiasm gap and the relative conservatism of some Texas Hispanics.

Narrowing that gap in support will be critical if O'Rourke is to deliver a stunning upset in Texas as Cruz continues to lead by mid-to-high single-digit margins thanks to the strong backing of reliable GOP voters.

Political strategists are cautious about whether the Democratic star can get there.

Though O'Rourke has taken Texas and the country by storm, drawing thousands of people to rallies and shattering fundraising records, turning out more Hispanic voters could take Democrats well beyond November.

“He’s been hitting all the right notes messaging wise and identifying himself with the Latino community,” said José Parra, Democratic strategist and CEO of consulting firm Prospero Latino.

“At the end of the day, to build turnout in a state of that size, it’s something that takes several cycles.”

On paper, O’Rourke appears to have all the attributes to win over Latino voters. Though he's Irish-American, he goes by a Hispanic nickname. He grew up along the border in El Paso and is fluent in Spanish, which he often uses on the campaign trail.

Cruz is Cuban-American and isn’t fluent in Spanish.

Democrats have seen an improvement from O’Rourke’s lackluster primary results from March, when he lost multiple Hispanic-heavy counties along the southern border to a little-known opponent with a Hispanic surname.

Polls from earlier this month found O’Rourke leading with the support of a little over 60 percent of Latino voters, below the two-thirds that Texas strategists argued he’ll need.

They also said he needs the support of more than 70 percent of voters in the Rio Grande Valley — the southernmost part of the state — and other border cities. And he needs to run up the score in cities and close the gap in suburban Houston and Dallas.

Texas Democrats said O’Rourke has made a concerted effort to reach Latinos — running Spanish-language ads and visiting all 254 counties.

But there's still more to be done. A survey released in early October from Latino Decisions found that 58 percent of Latinos in Texas hadn’t been contacted by a campaign or party about registering to vote.

Democrats had also been banking on major backlash to President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America MORE’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration among Hispanics. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTop Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP Longtime Democratic pollster: Warren 'obvious solution' for Biden's VP pick How Obama just endorsed Trump MORE performed better than past Democratic presidential nominees in Texas, keeping Trump’s margin of victory under 10 points.

But that anger doesn’t necessarily translate into revenge at the ballot box, especially with a lack of voter contact.

Plus, Latinos in Texas are also not a monolithic group.

They have a history of supporting Republicans, and many are religious and tend to be single-issue voters on positions such as abortion.

Cruz became the first Hispanic elected to the Senate in Texas, winning around 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2012.

Speaking to reporters in San Antonio a day after the final Senate debate, Cruz argued that O’Rourke and the media get Texas Hispanics wrong.

The conservative firebrand supports Trump’s call for a border wall and repeatedly accused O’Rourke of wanting open borders. Cruz has also invoked his father’s story of emigrating from Cuba.

“We’re not liberals. They think the way you get Hispanic votes in Texas is you embrace open borders and amnesty and socialism and late-term abortions. That’s not the Hispanic community,” Cruz said following a private roundtable with law enforcement.

“Our community believes in faith and family and patriotism.”

And in Texas’s governor's race, Hispanics favor Republican Gov. Greg Abbott over his Democratic rival Lupe Valdez, who’s Mexican-American, 49 percent to 45 percent, according to a survey from Quinnipiac University Poll.

In his first election in 2014, Abbott won 44 percent of Hispanic voters.

“The Hispanic population in Texas is very diverse within itself,” said Mary Beth Rogers, who ran the campaign of the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D). “One message does not fit all.”

But Democrats believe there's still a chance for O'Rourke to win over more Hispanic voters in time for Nov. 6.

The interest in the midterms from Latinos appears to be growing in the final stretch, mainly because of their attitudes towards Trump.

A Pew Survey released this week found that a little over half of Hispanic voters nationally have thought about the midterms a lot.

And as early voting enters its fifth day in Texas, Democrats are feeling encouraged by the numbers, especially in places where O’Rourke needs strong performances.

In the first three days of early voting, counties with sizable Hispanic populations surpassed 2014 midterm levels and aren’t far behind presidential early voting numbers from 2016, according to a tally from The Texas Tribune.

In Harris County — home to Houston — early vote totals in the first three days more than doubled that of 2014 and weren’t far behind 2016. Dallas County and Bexar County had similarly higher turnout.

And in El Paso County — O’Rourke’s hometown — early vote totals mirrored 2016 numbers, which marked a huge spike from 2014.

The bigger payoff for Democrats, however, may lie in the long term if O'Rourke succeeds in making inroads among Latinos for the party.

Rogers said Democrats must continue to tailor a message, specifically to young Latino voters, “that lets them know they have a stake in the future of Texas.”

“It’s still an important question that we as Democrats don’t totally have a magic answer to that at this point,” Rogers said.

“I really think the prospects are good for the future — we’re just not in the future yet.”