Born in the US but raised across the border in Juarez, Carlos Moreno became politically active during the last election cycle “when I started hearing Trump call us rapists and criminals.” And since last year, he’s been knocking on doors across Tarrant County, one of Texas’s most conservative, in hopes of getting Latinos to vote for for Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke.
“There’s a lot of people that still don’t know much about Beto. My main message is to tell them why Beto is a person that will fight from the Hispanic community, for women, for teachers,” Moreno, who lives in Fort Worth, the county seat, said. “We will have a voice in Beto.”
O’Rourke, the congressman from Texas's 16th District, has become a national phenomenon as he’s gained steam in an attempt to unseat Ted Cruz. Once seen as a longshot, O’Rourke has trailed Cruz in recent polls by single digits in what has become the costliest midterm Senate race. The Democrat has earned celebrity endorsements and been profiled multiple times by national media outlets; he’s famously campaigned in all 254 Texas counties. The prospect of him becoming the first Democratic senator elected in Texas since 1988 has energized progressives in Texas and around the country. But his chances of winning could be contingent on the fastest growing demographic in the state: Latinos.
“In Texas, the Latino vote is critical for any progressive candidate to win,” said Cristina Tzintzun, the executive director of Jolt, a Texas progressive organization working to politically engage the demographic. “In 2016, Texas was within single digits of [going for Hillary Clinton], and that happened in large part due to Latino voters.” As the Austin American-Statesman reported, there were nearly 400,000 more voters with Spanish surnames in 2016 compared to 2012. “Beto needs all of them for him to make it to the finish line.”
Latino volunteers recognize that there’s tremendous political potential within their own communities. From 2010 to 2017, Texas's Hispanic population increased by nearly 2 million. But data from the Texas secretary of state’s office shows that while there were 3.5 million registered voters in 2016 with Spanish surnames, only about half voted that election year, and more than a million eligible Latinos were still not registered to vote. (Turnout in midterm elections is generally much lower than in presidential years.)
Among the campaign’s efforts to appeal to Latino voters are Spanish-language radio and TV ads. Unlike Cruz, O’Rourke, an El Paso native, is fluent in Spanish, and has hosted town halls where he’s met and listened to Latinos and their concerns. He also challenged Cruz to a Spanish-language debate , which the Republican declined.
But despite the potential O’Rourke has as a candidate, some say they expected more of the campaign in terms of Latino outreach.
While O’Rourke’s campaign raised $38.1 million in the last three months alone—three times more than Cruz in the same period—on-the-ground outreach efforts seem to have been fueled largely by grassroots volunteers who are not affiliated with the campaign.
Volunteers like Moreno have organized local events and rallied with other community leaders and have walked house to house, knocking on doors to reach the state’s growing Hispanic population, along with other voters.
But an effective campaign can’t rely on volunteer operations, Tzintzun said. “In a state like Texas you have to spend significant dollars on knocking on voters’ doors, and you need to hire folks from those communities to do that,” she said. “A volunteer operation will not give you that because most black and brown folks in the state are working class, and they don’t have the time or luxury to do that on a volunteer basis.”
It's unclear how much money or how many positions the O’Rourke campaign has dedicated to Latino outreach. But he lost heavily Hispanic counties along the US–Mexico border in the Texas Democratic primary, surprising some experts and suggesting to observers like Tzintzun that O’Rourke didn’t do enough Latino outreach early on.
“Where we wanted to see more from him earlier on was more investment in get out the vote operations, with staffers embedded in brown and black communities,” she said. “Town halls are important, but when the town halls are not majority black or brown, there’s a problem because that is what Texas is. That is the population progressives need to win.”
The O’Rourke campaign did not respond to specific questions about criticism of its Latino engagement, but Victor Landa, the campaign’s Latino communications director, said in a statement:
Beto has visited all 254 counties in Texas, taking no one for granted, going to every community to listen to people’s hopes and aspirations, to listen to their concerns and honor their contributions.
Texas Latinos are energized when they’re counted on to bring a positive change. Beto’s message of inclusion resonates with people of every race, culture and ethnicity. It’s no different from what we do in any other community because everyone is worthy of being heard.
What O’Rourke does have going for him is most important a platform that aligns with the core values of the Hispanic population, said Ambar Calvillo, vice president of campaigns for the nonpartisan organization Voto Latino. Among the top issues for Latinos are access to healthcare, education, jobs, and immigration reform, according to polls conducted this fall by Latino Decisions.
“The big thing with any candidate, campaign, or party is that they often limit the issues they talk about with Latinos,” Calvillo said. “But Latinos care about more than immigration. Fair wages, jobs, healthcare should be a part of the conversation, and you see this reflected in Beto’s campaign.”
“We believe that Beto stands on the right side of the major issues that impact our community,” Tzintzun agreed. “We don’t see that [Cruz] has anything in common with our community or our interests.”
A striking difference in the race is how accessible O’Rourke is compared to Cruz, Calvillo said. “One of the things that he’s doing that’s been really important is town hall conversations in every single county in Texas. For Latinos that have not been reached by other candidates or political parties, or honestly even grassroots organizations because of where they live, the fact that he prioritized that and traveled across Texas to talk to people is huge.”
This, and his platform, suggests to Calvillo that O’Rourke has the right strategy to engage Latino voters.
But Tzintzun isn’t alone in the feeling that Latinos have not been at the forefront of the campaign’s strategy. Moreno said he’s tried to organize a Spanish-language town hall in Tarrant County for Latino residents since February. But the campaign didn’t respond to his request. “They want to reach everyone,” Moreno said.
Christel Bastida, a volunteer in Houston, said the lack of focus on Latinos has been disheartening.
She’s noticed that many of Houston’s Latino residents were overlooked by the campaign until very recently. Like Moreno in Tarrant County, Bastida and fellow local O'Rourke supporters in Houston talk and organize online in Facebook groups for efforts that are not tied to the campaign. But when she worked for his campaign as a field organizer this summer, her peers often didn’t think that contacting or reaching out to Latinos was part of their job, she said. (The campaign did not respond to questions about Bastida and Moreno's experiences.)
As of early October, the campaign was still setting up pop-up offices and hiring neighborhood coordinators, at least in part with a focus on Latino neighborhoods.
“That’s a good first step. I really wish this step had [taken place] a year ago,” Bastida said.
Tzintzun agreed: “It’s my understanding that they’re hiring a lot more folks, but it is October now.”
A recent poll shows that this lack of engagement isn’t unique to a single candidate or race. In fact, a whopping 60 percent of Latinos across the country had not been contacted by any candidate or party in advance of midterm elections as of late September.
Within the past week, Bastida has opened a pop-up office in her home, where she is organizing with Spanish-speaking volunteers to block-walk and arranging rides for early voting. But as of late last week, she had not heard whether it’s a paid position or there’s any financial support.
Still, the campaign’s efforts haven’t been lost on people like Bastida or Moreno. O’Rourke has held many of its town halls and community-driven events in Latino neighborhoods over the past year. He’s has spoken and listened to residents in places like Del’s Icecream Shop, a Hispanic-owned small business in Bastida’s Northside Houston neighborhood. Earlier this month, he also sat down to speak with families seeking asylum.
But ultimately, Bastida worries that if O’Rourke doesn’t win, the blame will fall on Latinos for not voting. “It’s disturbing to me when people say, ‘Latinos don’t vote,’” she said. “If you invest zero dollars, zero staff, and you don’t hire from the neighborhood, what do you expect to happen? It just doesn’t work that way.”
Julissa Treviño is a Texas-based journalist.