Beto O'Rourke Needs To Mobilize Latino Voters If He Wants To Win Texas Senate Race
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
If Congressman Beto O'Rourke wants to beat Republican Senator Ted Cruz in the Texas Senate race, he needs to persuade voters to come out and vote. Well, Texas has a low voter participation rate, especially among racial minorities who are more likely to vote for Democrats. One group that O'Rourke needs to mobilize - the state's booming Latino population. Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin reports that's no easy task.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Here's a Beto O'Rourke ad that's been playing nonstop recently on one of Austin's Latino radio stations.
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BETO O'ROURKE: (Speaking Spanish).
LOPEZ: That's O'Rourke speaking in Spanish about health insurance. Radio ads have been a big part of his campaign's effort to reach out to Latinos after what was a disappointing performance with Latino voters during the Texas Democratic primary. That surprised people like Victoria DeFrancesco Soto with the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
VICTORIA DEFRANCESCO SOTO: There was a shock there. So from the get-go back in March there were questions about whether Beto O'Rourke was going to be able to capture the Latino vote.
LOPEZ: Since the primary, O'Rourke has been traveling around Texas and busting fundraising records. But Latino political groups say there's little evidence that his campaign is doing the harder work of turning a large number of nonvoters into voters. And it's a hard task for any Democratic candidate in Texas, says Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez. She created a group called Jolt that's trying to mobilize young Latinos.
CRISTINA TZINTZUN RAMIREZ: The challenge with a candidate like that, though, as great as he is is that there is so little infrastructure and resources spent in off-year election cycles.
LOPEZ: O'Rourke's campaign didn't respond to requests for comment, but historically there are a couple of reasons Democrats and third parties haven't made these investments. One, the Latino population is very young, and young voters typically don't vote. And two, voter registration drives are really labor-intensive and expensive in Texas. Ramirez says outside groups don't want to spend that kind of money here.
RAMIREZ: Too many times Texas serves as an ATM. Progressive dollars and dollars invested in the Latino community are sent to places like Florida. And they're not invested here in Texas because people don't see it as a competitive state.
LOPEZ: Campaigns also think in short cycles, Ramirez says. Because Latinos are less likely to vote compared to black and white voters, they often aren't a priority for campaigns. And that's the case in this election, too. According to voter registration numbers in Texas' urban counties and the heavily Latino counties in the Rio Grande Valley, there isn't a massive surge of new Latino voters. Manny Garcia with the Texas Democratic Party says this is an old problem.
MANNY GARCIA: For a couple decades now there has been a demographics-is-destiny narrative that has existed. And sadly, for many of those years, it seemed like base Democrats - communities of color - were taken for granted.
LOPEZ: Garcia says Texas Democrats are working harder these days to speak to the needs of Latinos and immigrants in particular. Garcia says he thinks issues like family separation have provided an opening for Democrats. Texas Republicans have actually won the Latino vote in recent elections. But Artemio Muniz, the chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans, says things are changing in the Trump era.
ARTEMIO MUNIZ: When you look at the numbers and you look at the data and you look at the trends, I think you realize that there's really something serious going on in terms of our short-term future. And that's where I think we need to wake up.
LOPEZ: Senator Ted Cruz, who is of Hispanic heritage, has maintained a hard line on immigration. During a rally in Katy, Texas, recently, Cruz said he thinks it's a key difference between him and his opponent.
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TED CRUZ: There is no race in the country on which the divide on immigration is greater. As for me, I'm incredibly honored to have received the formal endorsement of the National Border Patrol Council, the union of the men and women of our Border Patrol.
LOPEZ: But whether this is the year Latinos cost Republicans a statewide election is an open question. A Democrat hasn't won statewide in Texas since the mid-'90s, and the makeup of the Texas electorate hasn't really changed in recent years and is still dominated by Republican voters. Victoria DeFrancesco Soto says she thinks Beto O'Rourke might get slightly more Latinos to vote for him, but...
SOTO: Patterns are patterns. There's nothing I would like more than to be pleasantly surprised by an increase in voter turnout. But I think it's going to be a ripple rather than a wave.
LOPEZ: Soto says the fact that this race is closer than anyone thought is a sign that things are changing in Texas. It's just happening very slowly. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.