One path to victory for Democrat Beto O’Rourke in his quest to unseat incumbent Republican Ted Cruz in the state’s marquee political race this year lies with his ability to turn out the Hispanic vote along with the progressive white base that is showing him solid support.
That presumes that O’Rourke naturally appeals to Hispanics because of his political party, his border roots in his native El Paso, and the hope that having Lupe Valdez running for governor against Republican Greg Abbott would help increase Hispanic turnout.
But a couple of developments this week now suggest the strategy is less a foregone conclusion and more of a growing imperative for O’Rourke if he is to succeed.
First came news that Valdez’s lackluster campaign is delivering equally lackluster results. A new Quinnipiac University poll on Tuesday—the first this season to measure sentiment among likely voters in Texas instead of simply registered voters—shows that Hispanics actually prefer Abbott to Valdez. Hispanic respondents, in fact, preferred the incumbent Republican by a margin of 49 percent to 45 percent over Valdez. While the 4.1 percent margin of error tightens that race a bit, the fact that Abbott leads with his substantial war chest mostly intact, suggests an election night slaughter for that race that could extend to higher than normal Hispanic support for the governor and potential coattails for people like Cruz.
The second development this week may be a bit more troubling for O’Rourke: the election of a Republican in a district that has been solidly Democratic for 139 years, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Republican Pete Flores, backed by endorsements from Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Cruz and U.S. Senator John Cornyn, won a stunning upset victory over well-known Democrat Pete Gallego in a San Antonio special election to capture a state Senate seat. The election was to fill the remaining term of disgraced former state Senator Carlos Uresti, who resigned his seat after being convicted in federal court of eleven felony charges. This marks the first time a Hispanic Republican has been elected to the Texas Senate and the first time the Senate has had twenty-one Republican senators.
Both the polling development and the special election suggest that Democrats may get what they wish for—a more engaged Hispanic electorate who will turn out to vote—but may regret getting their wish if these Hispanics just as easily cast their ballot for Republicans.
“I don’t know that there’s much evidence that Hispanics are embracing progressivism, but are they clamoring for the hard right? Not necessarily”
“I don’t know that there’s much evidence that Hispanics are embracing progressivism, but are they clamoring for the hard right? Not necessarily,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant who advised Flores in the San Antonio race, suggesting the Hispanic vote, like the group itself, is not as monolithic as it tends to be treated.
In other words, Texas Hispanics have a streak of conservatism that earlier this year prompted one national pollster in Washington to call Texas the Bible belt of Hispanics. Part of the Flores message in the San Antonio race was his pro-life position, a stance that Mackowiak believes resonates with Hispanic voters more than people realize.
BS, calls Democratic political consultant James Aldrete. Certainly there are conservative streaks in the Hispanic community, but a larger motivating factor for Hispanics on election day is one of showing respect over public policy issues—something that he believes O’Rourke has been effective at in his campaign because conveying respect more often requires face-to-face contact with voters. Aldrete points to another part of the Quinnipiac Poll as evidence. It shows immigration to be the number one issue among all respondents, including Hispanics. Abortion did not even measure as one of the top six issues of the poll.
In that poll, self-identified white voters in this poll expressed support for President Trump’s handling of his job by a margin of 63 percent to 36 percent. Self-identified Hispanics, however, disapproved of President Trump’s job in office by a margin of 65 percent to 33 percent. Because immigration has been at the forefront of Trump’s policies this year, it’s reasonable to infer that Hispanics do not necessarily approve of the president’s policies on that issue.
For O’Rourke to appeal to Hispanic voters on this issue, he must appear sympathetic to the immigrant while acknowledging the need for border security. All the while he must not appear to be too far outside of the mainstream, Mackowiak said. This is where Cruz appears to see an opening. On Wednesday, Cruz released a TV commercial that is reminiscent of the Willie Horton ad that ran during the 1988 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush. That commercial attacked Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and a prison furlough program he oversaw as governor of Massachusetts. Horton, convicted of murder, was on such a furlough when he failed to return to prison and instead fled to Maryland where he twice raped a woman after pistol-whipping and binding her boyfriend. Dukakis’s running mate and former Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen called the ad racist. Others agreed.
Much like the Horton ad, Cruz flashes to images of three men who illegally entered the United States and later committed violent crimes, including murder and rape. Then the ad asserts O’Rourke wants to decriminalize illegal border crossing and is open the idea of getting rid of the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. None of the cases mentioned in the commercial involve crimes in Texas.
“It’s a very thin line,” Mackowiak, who had not seen the Cruz ad, said of attacking like that. If Cruz is successful in portraying O’Rourke as out of touch with the mainstream, then the Cruz ad is successful. If, however, Cruz is seen as being xenophobic, the ad could well backfire.
While the Cruz campaign is masterful at producing such attack ads, the Democrats so far have not responded in kind. Critics of the O’Rourke campaign suggest that is because his staff does not have a war-room component that can quickly respond to fire with fire of its own. Indeed, appearing on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” last week, O’Rourke responded this way when asked by Colbert how the candidate felt that Trump announced his intention to come to Texas to campaign for Cruz and against O’Rourke. “We are running not against anyone or anything or any other political party. We are running for this country and I’m so excited to be a part of it.”