Beto O’Rourke targets South Texas in bid to win back Democratic voters he’ll need to beat Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022
Beto O'Rourke CNN screenshot

In the first days of his campaign for governor, Beto O'Rourke made a beeline to this southernmost corner of the state, saying it was no mistake he was choosing to start his run in a part of Texas where Democrats have their work cut out for them after the 2020 election.

His supporters know it, too.

"We are being attacked at all ends," Amanda Elise Salas said as she introduced him here Wednesday night. "This is a Democratic area, and there is no way we are gonna let Republicans come in here and take over."

"They're knocking at our door," Mario Saenz, a Democratic precinct chair from Brownsville, said afterward. "We cannot let them in."

A lot of Democratic hopes are riding on O'Rourke this election cycle, but few may be more consequential to the party's future in Texas than his ability to stave off a strong GOP offensive in South Texas. Emboldened by President Joe Biden's underwhelming performance throughout the predominantly Hispanic region last year, Republicans have been pushing hard to make new inroads there, and O'Rourke faces an incumbent in Gov. Greg Abbott who been working for years to win Hispanic voters.

But it is not just about halting the GOP's post-2020 march in South Texas. O'Rourke, who is facing an uphill battle in the governor's race, has ground to make up after his own less-than-stellar performance with voters there in 2018 when he ran for U.S. Senate — and turning out more Latino voters has long been key to Democratic hopes statewide.

O'Rourke has been candid about the problem. Days after the 2020 election, which cemented Republican dominance across Texas, he told supporters that the fact that the border region "has been ignored for years by the national party, and even many statewide Democratic candidates, hurt us badly." Last week, he began his campaign for governor with a swing through the region, calling the early itinerary "very intentional" and vowing to return frequently.

"If the great sin committed by Republicans historically has been to disenfranchise voters, including those in the Rio Grande Valley, then that committed by Democrats has been to take those same voters for granted in the past," O'Rourke told reporters in San Antonio, before heading south to Laredo and the Valley.

O'Rourke got a wake-up call in South Texas during the 2018 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, losing many counties in the region to a little-known and little-funded opponent, Sema Hernandez. While it was not the first time a candidate with a Hispanic surname beat expectations in a statewide Democratic primary, O'Rourke acknowledged afterward that he needed to do more outreach.

Months later, in the general election, O'Rourke failed to make significant gains in South Texas compared to his party's 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, which would have been key to defeating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. In the largest South Texas county outside San Antonio — Hidalgo — O'Rourke barely improved on Clinton's vote share there, getting 68.8% after she got 68.5%.

Then came 2020, when Biden carried South Texas — and the Rio Grande Valley in particular — by a much narrower margin than Clinton did. He outright lost Zapata County, a longtime Democratic stronghold just north of the Valley.

Republicans charged into this election cycle determined to make further gains, and they have already had success. They flipped a state House seat on the South Side of San Antonio earlier this month, and on the same day that O'Rourke announced his campaign for governor, state Rep. Ryan Guillen, who has represented Rio Grande City as a Democrat since 2003, announced he was joining the GOP.

Abbott's top political adviser, Dave Carney, said the governor's campaign has "a lot of plans" for South Texas this election cycle and that Abbott is "gonna be there a lot." Carney said he was not worried about new Latino voters turning out next year.

"I want every Hispanic voter to turn out," Carney said. "That helps us."

Democrats say O'Rourke needs to keep his word and return often to South Texas, giving it the kind of attention that the Biden campaign did not last year. And while border communities are about "so much more than immigration" — as O'Rourke said at multiple stops last week — he will have to grapple with how to talk about an issue that is No. 1 for Abbott and a political liability for Democrats in Texas right now.

Republicans scoff at the idea that O'Rourke can rescue his party in South Texas. Monica De La Cruz, a GOP candidate to flip a congressional seat anchored in the Valley, said O'Rourke is "not the answer," and his positions on law enforcement, gun rights and border security are out of step with South Texas voters.

"I don't think it changes the landscape," De La Cruz said. "I think that South Texans have conservative values of faith, family and freedom, and I don't think Beto O'Rourke changes that at all."

The border

Taking on South Texas means O'Rourke will not be able to avoid tough questions about border security and immigration — issues with which Democrats have struggled in the past year to find a unified position under Biden.

Texas Republicans are largely narrowing in on border security as a winning issue for the party. And Abbott has taken sweeping — and at times unprecedented — action to fortify the border since Biden took office, charging migrants as criminal trespassers in state court and announcing the construction of a state-funded border wall.

While there is not necessarily broad support for everything Abbott has done on the border, Texas voters agree they do not like Biden's approach. The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey found that only 22% of voters approved of how Biden has handled immigration and border security, compared with 63% who disapprove.

In one of his first interviews as a gubernatorial candidate, O'Rourke criticized Biden's handling of the border, saying it is clear Biden "could be doing a better job at the border" and that it is "not enough of a priority for his administration." In that interview and other comments to reporters last week, O'Rourke called for "predictability," "order" and "rule of law" on the border. He also spoke frankly about the need for asylum-seekers to come to the country through ports of entry, not in between them, present their asylum claim and, if it is denied, face deportation.

It is the kind of rhetoric that would have been surprising to hear in O'Rourke's past campaigns. While it may appeal to voters looking for a harder line on the border, it could turn off Democrats hoping for a bold contrast with the GOP.

"He's taking up these right-wing talking points instead of pushing for a more humane approach to immigration, which is what he was doing back in 2017," said Denisce Palacios, a Democratic organizer from the Valley who volunteered for O'Rourke's 2018 campaign. "It looks like he's kind of moved more to the center in terms of messaging. That's kind of frustrating."

At the same time, O'Rourke said Biden needs to end Title 42, a policy that allows the administration to quickly turn away undocumented immigrants at the border, citing a public health crisis — the coronavirus pandemic. O'Rourke said that is fueling disorder at the border because those who are rejected are simply returning again and again.

It remains to be seen how much O'Rourke actively campaigns on border issues.

His announcement video did not mention the border. He prioritized other issues in interviews around the announcement. And he did not mention the border during his first public campaign event Tuesday morning in San Antonio. But hours later in Laredo, he was back in familiar form, extolling immigrants' value to the country and praising Laredoans for having "stood up" to city leaders to stop a border wall, a major rallying cry in his 2018 campaign.

Chants of "No more wall!" almost instantly broke out. Minutes earlier, the chair of the Webb County Democratic Party, Sylvia Bruni, had said while introducing O'Rourke that she was "so, so thrilled, I want to cry."

Dani Marrero Hi, a spokesperson for LUPE Votes, said now is not the time for O'Rourke to downplay immigration as an issue in South Texas. She pointed out that Abbott "talks about immigration all the time," and while she strongly disagrees with his policies and rhetoric, he is at least talking about it.

"When there's a space and Democrats don't talk about it with an alternative vision, it leaves room for Abbott and Trump … to come in and write the whole narrative about what the border is," she said.

Showing up

Beyond any issue, though, South Texas Democrats say O'Rourke needs to show up, especially after a presidential election that left them wanting. Biden never visited Texas, let alone anywhere in South Texas, during the general election, and his running mate, Kamala Harris, visited McAllen only in the final days of the race.

To that end, South Texas Democrats are not particularly concerned about O'Rourke, who is known for his relentless campaigning. He toured all 254 counties during his 2018 race, which included a bus tour specifically focused on the border.

"We're the poorest region of Texas, maybe one of the poorest regions in the nation, and you know, it was a huge letdown that Kamala and Biden didn't make a prolonged appearance here in the Valley, but Beto, you know, he's been recurringly focusing his presence here, especially in his past campaigns," said Sebastian Bonilla, a 25-year-old from the Valley who came to see O'Rourke speak in McAllen.

Abbott has put an emphasis on South Texas since his first gubernatorial campaign in 2014, and he has been increasingly traveling there in recent months, both in his official capacity and for political appearances. Carney said it will become "crystal clear" after the holidays that Abbott will be traveling to South Texas frequently.

Carney said Abbott's campaign has "already modeled a million Democrat voters who do not support Beto, the vast majority south of San Antonio." The voters say they support a Democrat in a generic gubernatorial ballot — an unnamed Democrat versus an unnamed Republican — but when asked about O'Rourke versus Abbott, they are undecided or pick Abbott.

"That's just such a hole to come out of," Carney said.

Bruni said she is optimistic that O'Rourke will not meet the same fate as Biden in South Texas because he will spend meaningful time there and Democrats will campaign in person, unlike in 2020, when they largely went virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

She said that allowed Republicans to campaign in person unchecked — and they "scared the Dickens" out of voters in places like Zapata County with claims that Biden would eliminate their oil-and-gas jobs and take away their guns.

"The only way we can resolve that [next year] … is by being out there and telling the right story," Bruni said. "That's the only way. We did not do that in 2020."

To the extent that anxieties about oil-and-gas jobs and gun rights fueled GOP gains in South Texas last year, O'Rourke entered the gubernatorial race prepared. He has been talking about a Texas AFL-CIO plan to generate 1 million energy jobs that would supplement — not replace, he emphasizes — existing jobs in the oil-and-gas industry. And while he has not backed away from his 2020 campaign pledge to "take" people's assault weapons, he has sought to reframe it in the context of Texas having a "long, proud tradition of responsible gun ownership."

O'Rourke touched on several other issues during his inaugural trip to the Valley as a gubernatorial candidate. He discussed COVID-19 with school board members in McAllen and with Hidalgo County Health Authority Ivan Melendez in Mission. The two spoke at length about how the region has been uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic, with its poverty and uninsured population, and they exchanged ideas on how to convince vaccine skeptics to get immunized.

Speaking with reporters after his McAllen rally, O'Rourke ticked through the unique issues that had come up in his conversations with South Texas leaders recently. O'Rourke said he spoke with Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez about expanding broadband internet, he spoke with Jim Hogg County Judge Juan Carlos Guerra about improving water quality and he talked with Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez about combating food insecurity, especially among children.

After the McAllen event, Ivan Duran Puente, a 22-year-old graduate school student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said he was taking the GOP threat in South Texas seriously but was hopeful Democrats have increased their numbers since 2018. At the same time, he acknowledged Republicans have a "major voice here, especially with our older conservative demographic."

"I don't want to give it power, but it's always something you have to be cautious about," he said. "We just need to put more faith in the campaign of Beto than give power to the voice of conservatives because that's how they are gonna win at the end of the day."