SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - In a packed Texas convention center, Democrat Beto O’Rourke drew cheers last weekend with a blistering critique of Republican rival Ted Cruz’s support for deporting young undocumented immigrants, part of a stump speech aimed at inspiring Hispanic voters in the country’s most expensive and closely watched Senate race.
It was the kind of rousing rhetoric Democrats have hoped would rally the state’s surging Latino population around O’Rourke in his quest to become the first Democratic candidate to win a Texas statewide race since 1994 - a feat that would shake Texas’ political identity.
But that tide of support is not happening. And Democrats are worried.
Despite a record fundraising haul, a dizzying travel schedule to all 254 of the state’s counties and a Republican president who has disparaged Mexico and pursued a hard line against immigrants, O’Rourke is struggling to win over Hispanic voters on the scale needed to unseat Cruz in the Nov. 6 election. The trend is playing out with Democrats across the country.
For O’Rourke, a telegenic U.S. congressman and fluent Spanish speaker, the issue dogs a campaign that built a fundraising juggernaut from small donors. O’Rourke raised over $38 million between July and September, the biggest quarterly haul of any U.S. Senate candidate in history. Yet he is falling behind Cruz in opinion polls that just a month ago showed the race nearly even.
Democrats need a net gain of two seats to take control of the 100-seat Senate in next month’s congressional election. But they are defending 26 seats, including 10 in states Donald Trump won in the 2016 presidential election. They have a better shot at assuming control of the House of Representatives, where they need a net gain of 23 seats to win the majority.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, executive director of Jolt, an organization focused on getting young Latinos to vote, said O’Rourke cannot win Texas without significant Latino support – and he needs more than he is getting now.
The Democrat trailed Cruz by seven points among likely voters in a CNN poll conducted on Oct. 9-13, drawing 62 percent of Hispanic support compared to Cruz’s 35 percent. Other recent polls showed O’Rourke attracting between 56 to 61 percent support among Hispanics, but behind Cruz by five to nine percentage points overall.
O’Rourke needs backing from at least two thirds of Hispanics to have any chance of beating Cruz, said David Wasserman, a congressional analyst with the non-partisan Cook Political Report, an electoral-analysis firm that considers the Texas race a toss-up.
“It’s his main problem at the moment,” said Wasserman, and added it was one shared by Democrats in close Senate races in Florida, Arizona and Nevada, which have large Hispanic populations.
Nationally, Hispanic voters favor Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans 60 percent to 32 percent, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling data. Translating that into electoral gains is difficult. Hispanic turnout hit a record low in the 2014 midterm congressional elections, according to the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
“It’s a challenge if Beto is not able to make gains with Hispanic voters, and it’s a challenge for any Democrat,” said Emmy Ruiz, a Democratic strategist from Texas.
“But he is also taking a multi-strategy approach: he’s prioritizing Latinos but also looking to expand the (Democratic) electorate in more conservative parts of the state, and with younger voters.”
O’Rourke and Democrats more broadly face another issue: many voters in America’s heavily Catholic, socially conservative Hispanic population disagree with their support for abortion rights, gay marriage and gun control. Twenty-seven percent of registered Hispanic voters support additional fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border, Reuters/Ipsos polling shows.
Take Roger Luna, a metal sheet worker who boasts of his Mexican immigrant forebears. O’Rourke is a good man, he says, but there’s no way he’s voting for him.
He’s too liberal for Texas and too weak on border security, says Luna, who is convinced he will do nothing to stop “dangerous, violent” immigrants from entering America.
“That wall has to be built,” said Luna, who lives in San Antonio, the state’s second-most populous city where more than 60 percent of the residents are Hispanic, referring to the wall that Trump has vowed to erect along the U.S.-Mexican border.
O’Rourke’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
In a year of surging Democratic enthusiasm, O’Rourke, a one-time member of a punk rock band, has received a rock-star reception in a seemingly improbable run as a left-wing progressive Democrat drawing large crowds in one of the nation’s staunchest Republican states.
He has said he wants to undo parts of Trump’s 2017 tax cut, ban assault weapons and legalize marijuana.
At a time of polarized and coarsening politics, O’Rourke, 46, casts himself as a beacon of civility and compassion.
Some Hispanic voters said O’Rourke was just what the state needed.
“He seems to be more empathetic for people who are really struggling,” said David De La Rosa, a car dealer who has voted for both Republican and Democratic candidates.
Leslie Cavazos, a school cafeteria worker, said she liked his ideas. “It is time for a change.”
Local activists and political strategists disagree on whether O’Rourke is doing enough to engage Hispanic voters, who make up one in three of the state’s eligible electorate.
O’Rourke, an Irish American known by a Latino nickname since his childhood in El Paso, is fiercely critical of Trump’s immigration policies. He opposes a border wall and supports granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, known as “Dreamers.”
In his first Spanish-language television ad, launched last month, O’Rourke said he wanted “to represent every person in our state.”
His refusal to hit back at attack ads from the Cruz campaign is hurting him, said Albert Morales, senior political director at the polling firm Latino Decisions and a Texas native.
“Cruz is launching cruise missiles, O’Rourke is responding with letters of kindness,” he said. “That doesn’t work in Texas.”
O’Rourke became more aggressive during a debate on Tuesday, calling Cruz dishonest.
Cruz, 47, a Cuban-American who supports Trump’s call for a border wall and an end to illegal immigration, is running a digital ad featuring his father. Rafael Cruz, popular with many Hispanic voters, recalls in Spanish how he escaped Cuban Communism and went on to live “the American dream.”
Emily Miller, a spokeswoman for Ted Cruz, said: “We believe his optimistic vision for Texas that continues to embrace low taxes, reasonable regulations, and individual liberty resonates with Texans of all walks of life, including Hispanics.”
Tzintzún at Jolt said she worries the O’Rourke campaign is not doing enough door-to-door campaigning and spending in Latino communities to get them out to vote.
As of Tuesday, 58 percent of Hispanics in Texas had not been contacted by any political campaign, according to a poll by Latino Decisions for the nonpartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“O’Rourke has a lot of ground to make up with Latino voters, and victory for him is very difficult without them,” Tzintzún said.
Reporting by Tim Reid; Additional reporting by Chris Kahn in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jason Szep and Frances Kerry