Beto O'Rourke's Path to Governor Runs Through Latino Voters, But They're No Sure Thing

Beto O'Rourke's first two weeks on the campaign trail have featured rural roundtables and raucous rallies, with an undercurrent of celebrity-like energy not often seen in politics. But they've also included a sober assessment from analysts and the candidate himself that he faces long odds in unseating Governor Greg Abbott a year from now.

An issue that has thus far gone under the radar represents a microcosm of the race itself.

The votes O'Rourke needs in order to run up his numbers and shock the country are available in Texas — among Latino voters. But just when he needs them most, the electorate appears to peeling off in favor of Republicans at the worst possible time for Democrats.

In 2018, with Hispanics making up more than one-quarter of the Texas electorate, O'Rourke garnered 64% support from Latinos, while his opponent Ted Cruz netted 35% support. But Abbott fared better in his 13-point drubbing of Lupe Valdez, gaining 42% of the Latino vote.

A consistent theme then and now from organizers who worked on the 2018 campaign was that O'Rourke seemed somewhat shocked by the level of attention and support his candidacy received, and supporters acknowledge that Latino engagement was too little and too late to be decisive.

Four years and a failed presidential campaign later, O'Rourke's campaign and supporters insist they will prioritize Latinos.

Texas State Senator Cesar Blanco says he's known O'Rourke since he was a city councilman a decade ago, and is advising the campaign as a senator and as a friend. He argues that campaigns have two forms of currency, time and money, and at the outset the campaign is devoting O'Rourke's valuable time on the trail to South Texas and speaking to Latino voters on the ground.

"It matters, particularly in Texas, where a candidate first stops, and when you look at where Beto kicked off his campaign, the first places he went were to the border," Blanco told Newsweek. "I think he understands the path to election is really through the Democratic base and independents, and the growth in the electorate is minorities, particularly Latinos."

Early on O'Rourke held events in Hidalgo county with health care leaders, McAllen with organizers and Brownsville with law enforcement leaders, all areas with more than 92% Hispanic residents.

O'Rourke, whom Blanco says grew up in the Latino community and is fluent in Spanish, is telling Latinos "you matter," while courting their vote and spending time in their communities. He also nodded to an oft-repeated refrain from Democrats, that O'Rourke now has data from 2018 and knows which counties he did well in and where he needs to improve.

"He's not starting from scratch, he spent time building infrastructure, and now he's starting with that infrastructure," he said.

But Abbott is fighting for the Latino vote, too. He met with Nueces County Republicans in Corpus Christi to rally Hispanics on November 7, delivered tamales to law enforcement and military members last week in the Rio Grande Valley, and returned to hold a meet-and-greet in Edinburg on Tuesday, where he talked up his past Latino support and pledged to do even better in 2022.

"Every year that I have run for governor, I have gotten about 45% of the Hispanic vote," he said.

"This election year I will get more than 50% of the Hispanic vote in the state of Texas," the governor added.

Abbott could also be buoyed by changes along the Rio Grande Valley, where Donald Trump won Latino support in five border counties in 2020.

Abbott's former spokesman John Wittman told Newsweek the governor's investment with those south Texas Hispanics is often missed, and argued their values are not Beto O'Rourke's values.

"They want tougher border security and support conservative family values," he said. "Beto's message of defunding police, not enforcing laws along border and taking people's guns away is not going to play well in Texas."

A CNN fact check found that the Abbott campaign, which preempted O'Rourke's announcement with clips of the candidate speaking on issues like guns and immigration, deceptively edited O'Rourke's statements on defunding the police to make it seem like he gave the issue his full-throated support.

But beyond policing, Hispanic Republicans believe O'Rourke's statement at a debate that "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," will hurt him in courting Latinos who they say support gun ownership.

"A lot of Texas voters who are of Mexican heritage or Hispanic think the gun issue is a huge deal," Artemio Muñiz, the chairman for the George P. Bush campaign's Tejano committee, told Newsweek. "I'm from Houston, all of my buddies, even the Democrats, are pro-gun. It's the gun culture in Texas, it's self defense, and can be traced back to the struggles we had at the Alamo."

While many supporters point to O'Rourke's adopted nickname of Beto as a signal that he's one of them and has life experiences that lead to empathy and compassion for others, Muñiz said many Hispanics question the "Beto" name.

"He uses Beto like he's our Mexican tío, but you're not," he said. "Just because you put the name out there doesn't mean I'm going to invite you to my house like you're my tío."

"What do you stand for?" Muñiz concluded.

One longtime Texan who has been a Democrat for more than three decades agreed that a challenge for O'Rourke and his party is in how Democrats are viewed statewide, particularly among small business owners. The source recalled a recent chat with a childhood best friend who said, "the truth is I vote Democrat because we love you, you are our friend, but nothing you guys are selling is anything we want to buy."

The friend juxtaposed Democrats who "talk to me like I'm this helpless Latino, always in the fetal position, and has a hard time voting because I don't carry an ID, when all I want to do is make more money with my business and hire more people."

But organizers who worked on O'Rourke's campaign in 2018 say that while then he had a lack of enough Spanish-language ads and campaign literature, it won't be a problem this time, and he can win over Latinos by listening to them and the issues they care about.

Amanda Salas is the kind of organizer who doesn't have a high profile outside of Texas, but is worth their weight in gold to Democrats who dream of a blue Texas somewhere over the horizon. She has registered voters for Battleground Texas, the Bloomberg presidential campaign and for O'Rourke in 2018, and is involved in his campaign once again.

Her lived experience — a former Republican who received scholarship money from Republicans and comes from a conservative family, and as a "regional organizing director," which she says means she was basically responsible for half the state's voters in previous campaigns — enables her to communicate effectively with Texas Hispanics.

The numbers for Latinos to serve as the decisive force in the gubernatorial race are there, she said, with new citizens in Harris and Hidalgo counties alone since 2018 comprising more than the 215,000 votes O'Rourke lost by three years ago.

Following the path created by Stacey Abrams, who lost her Georgia governor's race before making it her mission to register enough voters to foster the environment that led to the election of two Democratic U.S. senators earlier this year, O'Rourke created Powered By People.

His organization has worked to make it easier for Texans to register to vote, helping to register 260,000 Texans in a year and a half, but like many like-minded organizations it switched gears during the pandemic.

Salas recalled her birthday on April 5, 2020, when she was on the phone with O'Rourke coordinating food banks across the state and in Laredo. That type of expansive work has given O'Rourke data he didn't have in 2018, but Salas says it's about more than that.

"The data should always back relationships," she told Newsweek. "Too many times data is just data. It's just votes. It's not people, it's not households, it's not impact. But Beto has done something our state Party and county Party hasn't been able to do."

Salas said Latinos have "jobs on their minds, lack of resources, the freeze again when the cold comes, and flooding when the rain comes. Basic necessities is what Latinos care about the most."

The pandemic also revealed that internet access is as important a necessity as air conditioning in Texas, she said.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a former Texas candidate for U.S. Senate who serves as the executive director of NextGen, said the Latino vote is not monolithic, "which Beto understands."

"The Latino population is very young in the state, and there are clear gender differences," she told Newsweek. "Latinas and young people are sizable but underinvested in. If you invest in them, you win."

Victor Leal, who served as the mayor of Muleshoe, Texas, and as finance commissioner for former Republican Governor Rick Perry, also owns Leal's Mexican Restaurant, which was founded in 1957 as a tortilla factory to provide Mexican farm workers with their beloved foods.

He told Newsweek he was impressed when O'Rourke visited his hometown of Muleshoe in 2018.

But Leal also said not being a monolithic community cuts both ways, and Hispanic Texans "want more vetting and security" when it comes to the border, because "in this day and age there is human trafficking, cartels, and fentanyl coming across the border."

As did other Republicans who spoke to Newsweek, he said O'Rourke will be dragged down by President Joe Biden's approval rating, which doomed previous presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in the midterms.

But he noted that while he's a Republican, the same can not be said for the rest of his family.

His two sons, one who is an engineer for Soundcloud, and another who is a Yale law school graduate, along with his wife, are "Beto fans."

The same way Biden is struggling due to his performance, Leal said Texans will remember the power grid failure under Abbott that left millions without power in a deadly winter chill that killed hundreds, a fact that O'Rourke has taken to mentioning early and often during his remarks crisscrossing the state.

"Beto will make some inroads with folks pointing that out and using it as one of his talking points," he said, calling O'Rourke a "charismatic, handsome, articulate campaigner" who may be able to neutralize Abbott's war chest.

"The biggest challenge to Abbott is changing demographics," Leal said. "New Yorkers, Coloradans and others are moving to Texas to establish their businesses and bringing their politics with them."

beto o'rourke dancing
Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke dances with a supporter at a campaign rally on November 16, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. O'Rourke drew a large crowd at his first campaign event since announcing his candidacy on Monday, November 15, for what could be a closely watched 2022 Texas gubernatorial race between O'Rourke and Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images