EDINBURG — Flanked by a nine-piece mariachi band, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez leaned on Beto O'Rourke’s roots while introducing his congressional colleague to a crowd of Rio Grande Valley residents at a recent campaign event.

“Beto is one of us,” Gonzalez told the nearly 400 people who crowded into a local football stadium concourse on a humid May afternoon. “He’s from the border. ... He understands our culture. El nos conoce.” ("He knows us," the McAllen congressman said.) 

It was one of just a few nods O’Rourke, his supporters and the Hispanic campaign surrogates joining him on a four-day swing through the border would make to the Democratic candidate’s ties to the border and to the state’s Hispanic community. The next morning, O’Rourke opened a town hall at a McAllen park by speaking almost completely in Spanish. And later that day in Laredo, a band warming up the standing-room only crowd played Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” before the lead singer remarked, “We finally got a candidate from the border.”

Around the same time this month, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was huddling with a group of Hispanic business owners at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Houston. One of the organizers, longtime Cruz supporter Jacob Monty, admitted some of his friends were skeptical he could get Latinos to turn out for the senator, but he sought to prove them wrong. About 30 business owners ended up attending, and Monty estimated he could've gotten 100 if they had a bigger venue.

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"The issue I always start with is we need more Latino senators, not fewer Latino senators, and you can say whatever you want about a particular vote, but Ted is Hispanic," Monty said. "He is Latino."

The split-screen campaigning by Cruz and O'Rourke illustrated their unique — even peculiar — connections to a Hispanic community that many see as the future of Texas politics. O'Rourke is white but has spent most his life on the Texas-Mexico border and has imbued himself with Hispanic culture, while Cruz is a Cuban-American from Houston whose political career is not as often closely associated with his Hispanic identity. 

The ways in which the two candidates’ unique relationships with the Hispanic community have already intersected in the high-profile race are numerous. There was Cruz’s ridiculing of O’Rourke’s first name “Beto” even though Cruz is best known by his own diminutive nickname. There was O’Rourke's conspicuous underperformance in border counties that called into question his support among Hispanic voters. And more recently, there was O’Rourke’s request to debate Cruz twice in Spanish, though Cruz is anything but fluent in the language.

And while the Hispanic vote in Texas strongly leans Democratic, neither candidate appears to be taking anything for granted.

“The Hispanic community in Texas is a conservative community,” Cruz said in a recent interview. “The values that resonate in our community are faith, family, patriotism ... and the American Dream.”

Campaign contrasts

Cruz is the son of a Cuban immigrant, and his father’s story has been a staple of his stump speeches — how he fled the communist Cuban regime in the 1950s and came to America not knowing any English, possessing nothing but $100 sewn into his underwear and washing dishes for 50 cents an hour to pay his way through college. It's an experience many Hispanic Texans can relate to, Cruz says.

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O’Rourke is a self-described “son of the border” who grew up in El Paso and has spent most of his life residing there. While campaigning, he regularly reflects on his experiences growing up and representing a bicultural community that’s inextricably linked to Mexico.

A post-election survey done by Cruz’s pollster in 2012 found Cruz got 40 percent of the Hispanic vote against Democratic opponent Paul Sadler when he was first elected — a figure he often cities to show he outperformed Mitt Romney, the party's presidential nominee at the time.

O’Rourke has never campaigned statewide before, but he’s been remarkably successful in El Paso, where Hispanics make up 81 percent of the population. O'Rourke unseated a longtime Hispanic incumbent in 2012 to represent the 16th Congressional District and sailed to re-election twice.

The two candidates are at odds on key issues for Hispanic voters. Cruz is a long-standing foe of the Affordable Care Act, through which more than a million Texans — many of them Hispanics — obtained health insurance. O’Rourke wants to put the country on a path toward universal health care.

On the immigration front, Cruz supports funding a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and rails against “amnesty” for people living in the country illegally. That includes protections for “Dreamers," the common term for young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. O’Rourke is vehemently opposed to a border wall and wants a permanent solution for both Dreamers and their parents.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at the kickoff of his 2018 re-election campaign in Stafford on April 2, 2018.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at the kickoff of his 2018 re-election campaign in Stafford on April 2, 2018. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

The candidates also have somewhat different attitudes toward Hispanic outreach.

In his current campaign, Cruz said he is focused on continuing to make “the case that the values of Hispanic voters, like the values of Texans throughout the state, are conservative values.” He is also seeking to persuade Hispanic voters that the modern Democratic Party has become too liberal for them, and that the party overlooks that "one of the communities that is harmed the most by unchecked illegal immigration is the Hispanic community."

Meanwhile, O’Rourke struggles with the idea of making distinctions among voters based on ethnicity for fear of pandering to certain voters. O’Rourke said he prefers to strike a balance between the issues that matter to a community and more universal concerns. In places like McAllen, that may mean talking about the border wall but also making the case for more affordable health care, he added.

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“I have a hard time going too far in tailoring a message,” O’Rourke said in a recent interview. “I don’t want anyone to feel that they’re being played to.”

In a state where Hispanics tend to favor Democratic candidates, few are predicting that the support of Hispanic voters in Texas — both those living along the border and those residing in massive numbers in the state’s biggest cities —  is truly up for grabs in this race this fall. But the O’Rourke-Cruz matchup nonetheless provides an unusual case study on the ability of two candidates with unique ties to the state’s Hispanic community to appeal to voters who many prognosticate hold the political future of state in their hands.

Voters tend to support candidates who either reflect their positions on the issues that matter most to them or who they can identify with personally or a combination of the two, said Victoria De Francesco Soto, a political science lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who focuses on Latino politics.

“It’s kind of like poli sci 101,” she added. “What Beto represents is this really weird, quasi best of both worlds for Latinos where substantively he’s in line with most of the issues that the majority of Latinos care about and support. Descriptively, he’s not Latino, but he’s culturally Latino-friendly.”

Cultural credentials

In kickstarting the general election, the Cruz campaign itself focused on one of O’Rourke’s most personal connections to the border community — his name.

Within minutes of O’Rourke winning the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in March, Cruz’s campaign released a country music jingle needling the Democrat over his first name, a kind of Spanish-language nickname for “Roberto” that dates to his childhood. “Liberal Robert wanted to fit in,” the song went, “so he changed his name to Beto and hid it with a grin.”

The jingle drew attention to O’Rourke’s cultural bonafides on a level he had not previously experienced as an El Paso congressman. But it additionally shined a spotlight on Cruz, who also doesn’t go by his birth name: Rafael Edward Cruz.

“He may just be unfamiliar with this part of Texas culture that you would find in El Paso or in Del Rio or Eagle Pass or Laredo,” O’Rourke said, pointing back to his recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley during which several supporters approached him to declare “I’m Beto, too.” 

“It’s really only when you’re just not familiar with those communities where millions of our fellow Texans live or are from that you can make that mistake or that you can not understand,” O’Rourke added.

To Cruz’s campaign, the episode was a political victory, regardless of the claims of hypocrisy. “Everybody now knows his name is Robert Francis O’Rourke — Irishman — and [Cruz’s is] Rafael Cruz,” Cruz strategist Jeff Roe later gloated.

O’Rourke’s recent return to the border came two months after he handily won the Democratic nomination but ended primary election night behind relatively unknown Houston activist Sema Hernandez in several border counties.

It wasn’t an uncommon outcome in state Democratic primaries in which, experts have said, Hispanic-sounding surnames go a long way with Hispanic voters when name recognition among primary candidates is low. A similar outcome happened in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor, when Wendy Davis lost several border counties with large Hispanic populations to a little-known opponent named Ray Madrigal.

But it opened up a line of questioning over O’Rourke’s efforts to engage with Hispanic voters along the border where turnout is often depressingly low. Even the Democratic nominee for governor, Lupe Valdez, would go on to declare that the congressman was “weak on the Hispanic vote” in what seemed like a reference to O’Rourke’s performance on the border on primary night.

O’Rourke's primary performance went far from unnoticed by Cruz, a political obsessive in his own right. After the results came in, Cruz asked his team to run the numbers on which candidate earned more votes in his respective primary in the counties where Hispanic adults make up at least 40 percent of the population. Cruz had a higher tally than O’Rourke in 39 out of 62 of them.

While Democrats and analysts chalked up O’Rourke’s and Davis’ primary problems to the presence of Hispanic surnames on the ballot, Cruz offered a different explanation.

“[O’Rourke] lost many, many more counties in the Democratic primary than Wendy Davis did, including virtually every county up and down the Rio Grande, and I believe the reason is the same: His policies are much too liberal for most Hispanic voters in Texas,” Cruz said.

O’Rourke actually won the most populous counties on the border, including his home county of El Paso and most of the border counties in West Texas. He also won Hidalgo and Cameron counties — key counties in the Rio Grande Valley. And O'Rourke's vote tallies in most of those counties far surpassed votes for Cruz in the Republican primary.

He conceded that he needed to spend more time in border counties but noted he has been pursuing a "much longer strategy" of visiting every corner of Texas to reach voters of all political stripes, not just seeking to drive up turnout in traditional Democratic strongholds.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke announced his bid to run for U.S. Senate while speaking to supporters in El Paso on March 31, 2017.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke announces his bid to run for U.S. Senate while speaking to supporters in El Paso on March 31, 2017. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

More recently, the candidates’ cultural credentials took center stage again with O’Rourke challenging Cruz to six debates — two in Spanish.

While O’Rourke is fluent in Spanish, Cruz has never been known as a proficient speaker, and it has come up on occasion in his political career. Most famously, during the 2016 presidential race, Marco Rubio, a fellow Cuban-American senator, alleged Cruz “doesn’t speak Spanish” at a debate — and the Texan retorted with a stilted statement in the language.

When he was initially asked about O’Rourke’s hopes for Spanish-language debates, Cruz admitted his Spanish “remains lousy” and then offered a sentence in the language: “I understand almost everything, but I can’t speak like I want to.” He attributed it to the “curse of the second-generation immigrant,” speculating that many in the Hispanic community could sympathize.

“Democrats sometimes do this when they want to be cute,” Cruz later said in a radio interview. “No, we’re not going to debate in Spanish. And, look, for a simple reason: No. 1, most Texans don’t speak Spanish, but No. 2, my Spanish is lousy. We wouldn’t have a very good debate.”

For O’Rourke, who easily transitions from English to Spanish at campaign events, the proposal for a Spanish-language debate was rooted in a desire to engage with the millions of Texans who primarily speak Spanish or to whom being able to be listened to in Spanish “is a sign of respect.”

“If you want everyone engaged in our democracy, which I think we all do regardless of your background and regardless of the language you speak, you’ve got to be able to listen to and work with everyone, and so that was the intent,” O’Rourke said.

Immigration debate

To Cruz’s fiercest critics, it’s perplexing that the son of a Cuban immigrant can hold such hard-line immigration stances — to the point that in February he was the sole senator to oppose even starting debate on a proposal that would have granted a path to citizenship for Dreamers. And throughout his career, his positions have invited uncomfortable questions about his standing within his own ethnic group.

In the current race, that vexation was most prominently displayed during a recent Spanish-language interview between Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos and O’Rourke. Ramos, who frequently challenges elected officials over their positions on immigration, bluntly asked O’Rourke if he believed Cruz was a traitor to Latinos.

O’Rourke declined to indict Cruz as a race traitor and instead pointed out ways in which he believes Cruz’s politics are out of line with the beliefs of Texas Latinos. After additional prodding by Ramos, O’Rourke eventually conceded that Cruz does not represent Latinos.

It was a sentiment echoed by some Hispanic supporters of O’Rourke.

Under the sweltering sun of a May morning, McAllen resident Fidel Garcia was among the roughly 150 Rio Grande Valley residents that gathered around the gazebo of a local park to hear from O’Rourke. Sporting a “Beto for Texas” button on his yellow cotton button-up, Garcia cited Cruz’s politics as they relate to Latinos as the main reason he was supporting O’Rourke.

“The other candidate is Cuban, but he has no interest in helping Latinos,” Garcia said in Spanish, referring to Cruz. “He doesn’t have a heart for the Latino people ... He doesn’t have a conscience for immigrants.”

On the other side are Cruz loyalists like Janie Melendez, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee from McAllen. Melendez, a Mexican-born teacher, said she feels well-represented by Cruz as a Hispanic Texan: She does not want "amnesty" for people in the country illegally, she is unapologetically anti-abortion and she would like to see gun rights expanded.

"I'm not a big fan of Robert O'Rourke," she said in an interview.

In an interview with the Tribune days later, O’Rourke said he was surprised by Ramos’ use of the term traitor. Still, O’Rourke continued to make the case that — beyond his political positions — Cruz has not shied away from using disparaging language to refer to other Latinos.

O’Rourke recalled Cruz’s reaction to his initiative to bring an El Paso “Dreamer” as his guest to the State of the Union Address. While noting his own choice of guest — Sutherland Springs hero Stephen Willeford — Cruz referred to the “Dreamer” as an “illegal alien.” But that choice of words, O’Rourke argued “is the kind of dehumanizing language you use for people for whom you don’t have respect.”

Cruz chalked up the Ramos interview to another example of the willingness among Democratic politicians and national media reporters to engage in “race-baiting and trying to use racial stereotypes and bigotry"

“Many Democrats view it as unacceptable for an Hispanic or for an African-American to hold any views other than the liberal Democratic orthodoxy,” Cruz said in an interview.

He recalled fondly how he confronted that orthodoxy on the college debating circuit, when he and his partner David Panton, a native of Jamaica, once argued against race-based affirmative action. To liberals on campus, it was “shocking” that the two men, Hispanic and black, would take such a position, Cruz said.

They ended up making their case successfully and handily winning a student vote.

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