Commentary: O’Rourke must reboot his Latino voter outreach efforts

On the night of the primaries, all eyes were on Texas. Democrats across the country were celebrating as one of the reddest states in the country watched record Democratic voter turnout in the primary — and a chance to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. But, as someone who has worked with getting Latinos engaged and voting in Texas, I see trouble ahead for Beto O’Rourke’s campaign.

The primary revealed real challenges facing O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Cruz. He may have won the primary with 62 percent of the vote, but he lost nearly every county in the Rio Grande Valley and took serious hits in counties with a large Latino population, such as Harris, Dallas and Bexar.

O’Rourke’s main primary contender, Sema Hernandez, a progressive Latina, spent just $4,000 and took 24 percent of the votes. In comparison, O’Rourke’s campaign spent $4.2 million, holding town halls in nearly every corner of the state.

FIRST READING: On the deeper meaning of Ted Cruz’s jingle about Beto O’Rourke’s nickname.

Many news reports, like NPR’s “Morning Edition,” wrongly reported that O’Rourke’s poorer-than-expected performance was simply his lack of name ID. Yet, Beto spent $2.6 million on digital advertising alone — and his campaign has been covered in every major news outlet in the country. The report failed to mention where he lost and who he lost — many Latino voters. It’s shallow analyses like this that give me déjà vu of Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial campaign.

If O’Rourke doesn’t reset his campaign fast and focus on Latino voters, there is a potential repeat of 2014 for progressives. In 2014, Davis underperformed against Reynaldo Madrigal, a widely unknown candidate. He won numerous counties in the Valley and 22 percent of the vote, even though she had the entire Democratic Party behind her.

Many running the Davis campaign failed to understand the significance of her poor performance with Latino voters in the primary and its impact for the general election. Like O’Rourke, she, too, saw huge crowds at campaign events; unfortunately, they often didn’t look like who Texas is today.

TWO VIEWS: Texas primaries were an eye-opener, but not a game-changer.

Today, Texas is a majority-minority state, where Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s population — and 12 percent are African-American. Many politicos wrongly assessed that once Davis was at the top of the ticket, Latino voters would fall in line and turn out with the zeal they expected to see from white progressives. That didn’t happen. Greg Abbott won a whopping 44 percent of the Latino vote. Even though one in three eligible voters in the state are Latino, they are often treated as an afterthought by many Democratic party campaigns.

Abbott, on the other hand, spent time building a robust Latino voter outreach operation and messaged directly to the community. Sadly, many Democratic candidates think running ads on Spanish-language television and tossing out a few Spanish words in a speech will suffice for the Latino outreach. Many reason that the other side is so terrible that Latinos will show up at the polls during general elections and realize that they only have one choice. But that is a failed strategy. As a result, Latinos end up staying home, unmotivated to turn out for a candidate they feel hasn’t turned out for them.

TWO VIEWS: Democrats shook up the Texas primaries. Now finish the job.

O’Rourke is running a dynamic, progressive campaign and building a war chest from small donor contributions, even as he has refused to take PAC dollars. However, this won’t be enough to get him over the finish line. His campaign must take the results of the primary election as a wakeup call and reboot his Latino voter outreach efforts.

O’Rourke must work with Latinos, hear their issues, engage deeply with community leaders and build an effective door-to-door outreach effort led by grassroots Latino leaders. At the end of the day, Democrats can’t win in Texas without Latinos. Candidates need to put in the work and resources toward reaching Latinos from the very beginning to earn their respect and votes.

Tzintzún is the founder and executive director of Jolt, a Latino civic engagement organization, and author of “Pressente! Latino Immigrant Voices in the Struggle for Racial Justice.”

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