When Democratic candidate Wendy Davis lost the gubernatorial election to Republican Greg Abbott in Texas in 2014, it didn’t surprise political pundits, particularly those on the conservative side. Many election experts said her campaign took the Latino voter for granted, which may have ultimately cost her the election. Findings from a poll – conducted by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund/Latino Decisions earlier this month – that tracked and interviewed 500 registered Latino voters, show evidence that this segment of US voters is once again being pushed to the back burner by major campaigns, political parties, and funders.
“If we want to make significant progress increasing the number of Americans who vote, we cannot afford to have history keep repeating itself by continuously ignoring the nation’s second largest population group election cycle after election cycle. The time for change is now,” said Arturo Vargas, NALEO Educational Fund chief executive officer, in a report published by Latino Rebels.
In Texas, Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke, a politician and businessman from El Paso, is looking to unseat Republican Ted Cruz from the US Senate seat. O’Rourke – whose charisma and personality has been likened to the late New York Senator Bobby Kennedy, former president Barack Obama, and late Texas governor Ann Richards – may have taken some lessons from Davis’s failed campaign.
He’s led an unprecedented campaign, traveling to all Texas counties, even in rural areas where he will almost assuredly lose votes to incumbent Cruz, and engaged with constituents in town halls and other community events. That accessibility has not gone unnoticed, particularly by key Latino voters, including those who traditionally vote conservative or may be undecided.
By September 12, O’Rourke trailed Cruz by three points, according to a survey from Crosswind Media. He’s steadily closed the gap between the two that a September 19 poll of likely voters put him ahead – for the first time – by two percentage points. As Mother Jones put it, Cruz is in the “race of his life.”
As the election nears, we decided to talk to political experts and young activists engaged in Texas politics – specifically the Latino voter – about the top five reasons Latinos may lean toward O’Rourke. Here’s what they had to say.
Beto is focusing on the right issues.
While Cruz has not publicly embraced his Latinidad, O’Rourke has managed to tap into the issues that Latinos care about. “To me he’s a candidate who meshes very easily with a potential Latino voter,” says Andrés Lopez, who has worked on Democratic campaigns, but who didn’t speak to us on behalf of any candidate.
Lopez faced challenges when canvassing for Wendy Davis in 2014, but speculates that O’Rourke has proven to be a more tactile candidate, which may make it easier for his staff and volunteers to campaign on his behalf..
With campaigns selling a message, it’s important that O’Rourke’s resonates with Latino voters. “It was particularly difficult because there wasn’t a lot of common ground or values,” Lopez said, referring to the Davis campaign. O’Rourke, on the other hand, has gained traction with many segments of the Latino community because he focuses on the issues that everyone seems to care about, ranging from jobs to education.
Beto embraces the Latino community.
In O’Rourke – an El Paso native who has a Spanish nickname and spent substantial time in the bordering Mexican community of Juárez – Latinos have found a candidate who not only speaks Spanish fluently but appears to genuinely respect, appreciate, and embrace Latino heritage.
That connection transcends political affiliation and age, says Rene Lara, who serves as legislative director at the Texas headquarters for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
“The formula here is he’s an Anglo who speaks fluent Spanish, who appeals to young people and who came from the border as an elected official. Put together, it’s a unique package because obviously you have Latino politicians who speak English, let’s say Julian Castro or Joaquin Castro who are national figures, but this is even more unique than that,” Lara says.
Spanish fluency is important to some Latino voters, but that connection to their Latino heritage, regardless of whether the voters speak fluently themselves, makes O’Rourke a more appealing candidate. “Speaking Spanish is not necessarily a fluency test, it’s a symbol of how connected you are to the culture,” Lara says.
A young Latino voter could then view O’Rourke as a candidate who could also carry a conversation with their abuelita. “If you have a Latino who doesn’t speak Spanish and then you have this guy who speaks fluent Spanish side by side, it has an effect on the Latino voter’s perspective of the Latino who doesn’t speak Spanish,” Lara adds.
O’Rourke is a moderate Democrat.
While candidates challenging the establishment have garnered headlines and electrified voters, in Texas, the fact that O’Rourke doesn’t lean more socialist will work in his favor, according to experts.
“He’s still a millionaire small business owner. He’s not adverse to capitalism,” Lopez adds. “It’s important now because we’re entering a different stage now where we have a fleet of Democratic candidates who are embracing socialism. You didn’t have this 10 years ago.”
Moderate conservatives – Latinos or otherwise – are key voters. One group of Latinos who may find his less-polarizing campaign especially appealing are older voters who traditionally vote Republican or Independent.
O’Rourke has built an “army of retirees,” Latinos and otherwise, who have spent the last year-and-a-half campaigning on his behalf and going door-to-door and filling campaign rallies, usually vastly attended by their younger counterparts.
Latinos are actively working to turn Texas blue.
The harsh immigration policies, which have turned the lives of many Latinos upside down throughout the country, are center stage in Texas. As such, organizations across the state are mobilizing voters. Jolt, for example, is working to register as many Latino voters as possible through October 9 – just in time for the midterm elections in November. The organization is canvassing by sending its army of volunteers door to door, on college campuses and other venues. Members believe that the way to affect change in Texas is by voting in candidates who will represent them fairly and with dignity.
In Texas, there are 10.8 million Latinos, and by 2030, Latinos are expected to become the state’s majority population. One in three eligible voters is Latino, and though they showed up to the polls in greater numbers in 2016, more need to vote to make a significant difference.
Berenice Ramirez said Jolt launched canvassing efforts in Dallas in August to knock on the doors of 35,000 voters, with plans to expand efforts into Austin.
Young Latinos are compelled to vote.
For the first time since Obama’s race, millennials (and now the younger Generation Z) are becoming less indifferent and more invested in their country’s political future, and Latinos are no exception.
Gabby Garza was a lead organizer for a recent Beto O’Rourke event held on her college campus. She helped reach out to the campaign and coordinated performers and volunteers for the Texas State University Bobcats for Beto event.
“I feel like a lot of Latino voters are children of immigrants and a lot of us want to be able to help get more rights for our people because a lot of them can’t vote for themselves and now we’re coming to that age where we can vote, we want to be able to do that to get more rights for all of us,” Garza says.
In O’Rourke, they have found a charismatic and approachable candidate who has embraced social media and seems to understand their concerns as young students, professionals, parents and Americans.
“All the people who said their voice didn’t matter and didn’t vote in 2016, being that (the presidential) election was so close, it honestly would’ve made a huge difference,” says Anahi Ponce, president of the newly-formed University of Texas at El Paso Jolt Chapter. “Just based on the current administration, Latinos are facing a lot of prejudice, and people can complain, but the only way we can affect change is by getting behind someone who won’t implement these policies that will impact our communities in negative ways.”
The chapter wants to register as many as 600 voters, both on campus, at high schools, and within the community, by mid-October.
Ultimately, she says, young people are ready for a more transparent form of government. “That’s been problematic in this administration,” she says. “We want someone who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk, and that will be key for turning out voters this election.