McALLEN, Texas – When Beto O & Rourke arrived for his first election rally of the day at the historic Cine El Rey Theater, it had already reached its capacity of 500. Before he went into the house, he walked through the overflow crowd in the bar next door, soaring supporters as they made selfies.
Then he left the bar, and when the crowd chanted his name, he took the stage in the theater, where he sang praises on border towns.
"The border between the US and Mexico is in many ways the center of the universe for me," he told the cheering crowd
O & Rourke, who describes himself for life fronterizo – Spanish for "border-dweller" – has not always felt such pride. Like many young people in the remote border zone, he grew up and wanted to leave El Paso, he said. Only when he left and returned as an adult did he consider the importance of growing up in a city that produced the bands At the Drive In and Mars Volta (O Rourke has personal connections to both) with Elizabeth Taylor first honeymoon and wrote Mariano Anzuela Los de abajo one of the defining novels of the Mexican Revolution.
"Children like me had internalized what the rest of the country thought about us," said O & Rourke. "We should not do that too much, that we were just a dusty border town." That's wrong, he claimed. The cities of the US-Mexico border are "a place for the ambitious", for those who want to "take a risk and put everything on size and size".
O & Rourke, a Three Democratic Congressman who has led a ruthless campaign to oust Rep. Senator Ted Cruz, did not name any. But his hopeful message across the border was against President Donald Trump, who had characterized one of the safest regions in the country as a morass of violence and lawlessness and promised to separate them from phantom ranks of rapists and killers.
The Mobilization Election
O Rourke has staged a surprisingly competitive campaign in a state that has not elected a Democrat for a statewide post since 1994, and his positive message about the border is the key to his strategy. If he has a way to victory, he'll go straight through Hispanic communities like McAllen – places that are solidly democratic but cut short in midterm elections.
He has excitement on his side. Although he avoids company donations, he is almost equal to Cruz in fundraising. A poll by NBC News and Marist which was released last week, O & Rourke had just 4 percentage points behind it. An electronic poll released by Emerson College on Monday had nearly tied two candidates with Cruz at 38 percent against O'Rourke's 37 percent and more than a fifth of those questioned undecided ,
But O & Rourke faces the same problem that has plagued the Democratic Party of Texas for decades: how to translate its natural demographic advantage into elections. White, non-Hispanics account for only 42 percent of the Texas population and reflect the demographics of the solid blue California. But the low turnout among Latinos who have stood against the Democratic Party – along with barriers to representation such as Germandyring and a controversial Photo ID requirement – has kept the Republicans in control of all nationwide offices and both Houses of Parliament.
In a typical interim election, only about 22 percent of eligible Hispano voters cast a vote. For O Rourke to have a chance at all, according to Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, this number must rise at least 10 percentage points. Even if that happens, O Rourke will also need a bump in the millennial vote – another low tilt voter group.
"If we look at the normal half-time turnout in Texas, O & Rourke has no realistic chance," Jones said. "He has to increase Latino turnout, win a bigger share of the Latino poll and then reduce Cruz's advantage under Anglos."
The Latinos who cast ballots do not favor Democrats as much as they do in California. Governor Greg Abbott, whose wife Cecilia is Mexican-American, defeated Democratic challenger Wendy Davis in 2014 with 44 percent of Hispanic votes. (In contrast, Jerry Brown's Republican opponent won only 27 percent of Latino votes in the same year in the Californian governor's race.)
O'Rouke makes no excuse to focus his efforts on a particular group. The cornerstone of his campaign is his pledge to visit all 254 counties in Texas – which he executed in June – leaving aside the traditional logic of focusing on the state's capitals, where Democrats have an advantage to defuse in the name of the polarization of the Trump era. If he follows his message positively, he rarely attacks Cruz, except to beat him for being more interested in campaigns in Iowa than in Texas. "If you're a Republican, you're in the right place," O Rourke said in more than one speech.
The reality, however, is that O Rourke has little chance of winning by convincing Cruz voters to switch sides, according to James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas ,
"This is a mobilization vote, not a persuasion," Henson said. "Each candidate has to mobilize its partisan base, and none of the candidates have a great opportunity to change voters' minds because of the gap between the two candidates."
The campaign knows that. Developed by the El Paso Democratic Party Strategy aims to increase Boundary Participation – an alternate for Latino voter turnout in a region where Hispanics represent by far the largest majority of the population – by 20 to 35 percent, a target that requires an additional 170,000 voters.
"If the border comes out of this election in record numbers, we might be the reason Texas sends its own to the Senate," read a paper describing the "Border Surge" strategy.
O & Rourke's strategy is not new – Democrats have been trying for a generation to increase their turnout in Texas. Prior to the last interim election, in 2014, the party launched a multi-million turnout, largely funded by donations from outside the state and led by Democratic advisers who made a name for themselves in Obama's presidential campaigns . It failed miserably. Wendy Davis, a gubernatorial candidate who had received national attention for a 13-hour filibuster to stop a state anti-abortion law, lost 20 points. Latino turnout hardly moved.
This humiliating defeat casts a long shadow on this year's election, which shows no such glittering, partisan efforts to make Texas "purple". Even if O'Rourke loses, his campaign will be unique because he's been trying 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 is pursuing a presidential run – dropped the race for the nationwide office. In a poll-winning election, the top of the Democratic ticket lacks the star power beyond O & Rourke.
That does not mean that the Democrats have given up their hopes of turning the state around. Battleground Texas, the group charged with the failed turnout in 2014, remains active. And the Democratic Party's strategy has shifted to the election of low-propensity voters, another code word for Hispanic. O & Rourke resonates with other prominent Democratic candidates such as former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez on South Texas Governor and Veronica Escobar, who could take O Rourkes' seat in the House of Representatives, involved door-to-door campaigning, to personally solicit potential voters.
But this year's progressive turnouts have fallen largely on grassroots and grassroots non-political groups, such as Voto Latino, which aims to register between 50,000 and 75,000 new Texas voters in this cycle and pursues a digital strategy around them before election day to be aware and to be aware of voter ID requirements.
"People hate spending resources on young voters, especially young voters because they say they can not come to fruition," said Cristina Tzintzún, the director of Jolt, an Austin drop-out Vote Efforts Targeting Young Latinos. "But then there is an investment problem."
The El Paso Man
Even without a major democratic attempt to beat Latino voters, Cruz's team sees O Rourkes intercultural appeal as a strength worth attacking. In March, for example, the incumbent's election campaign launched a radio juggling which mocked the Democrat's Spanish nickname, implying that he changed it to curry political favor. (O & Rourke's first name is Robert.)
It's easy to see why the Cruz Camp saw the jingle as an effective tactic. Among the Latinos who vote, O & Rourke faces a discrepancy in popularity. The problem became clear two days after the jingle's release, when the far less famous "Berniecrat" Sema Hernandez beat O Rourke in an otherwise straightforward electoral victory over the counties of South Texas . The obvious explanation was that the region's predominantly Latin American voters opted for the candidate's rather Spanish-sounding name.
But Cruz's attack was probably a misstep. It was inaccurate when O? Rourke advised posting a childhood photo on Instagram nicknamed on his sweatshirt. But more importantly, the attack on his identity drew attention to O'Rourke's borderline background.
O & Rourke is so nimble. At a time when the Democratic Party is trying to bridge the growing gap between its progressive and established wings, O Rourke manages to make a fine line. He supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Campaign against Bernie Sanders, but advocated a gradual approach to a single-payer health insurance system. He is a longtime advocate of marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform, but as a border dweller a confessed free trader. He supports a comprehensive immigration reform and often points out that a Dream Act aimed at averting undocumented immigrants arriving as adolescents should not come at the expense of increased enforcement against their parents – the "original dreamers" – in his words. But he expresses this position without a combative attitude towards Border Patrol, which he describes as unfairly in the midst of America's toxic immigration policy.
People are loath to spend resources on young voters, especially young voters of color, because they say they do not surrender. But then there is an investment problem.
Cristina Tzintzún, director of Jolt
At the age of 44, he is also relatively young – and with his lanky body, jeans and rolled-up sleeves, he looks even younger. But after spending three terms as US Representative for El Paso, he shielded him from the constant attacks on inexperience accused of other rising members of the left wing of the Democratic Party such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
And O & Rourke's bilingual and bicultural heritage also helps him on the election campaign. At the McAllen event, he had much to say about meeting parents who had separated from their children on the border – an emotional issue in a place like McAllen, the zero point of the White House's family separation policy.
But he also showed more knowledge about the concerns of Hispanic voters than many Democratic politicians, who often refuse to see Latin American voters go through the prism of immigration policy. His repeated statistics that the county's largest provider of mental health services in the state of Texas seemed to be the county's prison system also seemed to be in a state where nearly a third of Latinos had no insurance .
He spoke fiercely about the region's bilingual schools, where children would one day learn Spanish and English. He mocked the border checkpoints that keep some parents from taking their children to the hospital. And his repeated exclamations to veterans evoked cheers in a region where military service has long been the safest way to middle-class or college education.
There were touches like these, more than his ethnicity with the crowd.
"Anyone living on the border will get it – they'll understand our way of life," said 31-year-old Sarah Tamez, who attended the McAllen event and cited O & Rourke's support promoting access to health care as the main reason for its support. "It does not matter if you are Hispanic or Caucasian – you will get this life, he comes from the border, he lived it, he embraced the culture, he understands us."