SAN BENITO, Texas – Bottles of beer cost $3 at the Hollywood Bar. After dark, bottles of very necessary mosquito repellant are passed around, gratis. It’s a hot night, fifty or so locals have come to talk and meet Republican candidates, and nobody’s got anything kind to say about the immigration detention center down the road. The Mexican border is just a few miles away. The reporters who trekked down to cover the late summer’s child migrant crisis? Long gone. Yet the building goes on.
“They’re actually opening up stuff faster for them than they are for us,” says Jose Pena, who works at a local appraiser’s office.
“Yeah, they put up a school for the immigrant kids like—whoosh—like that,” says Manny Rosales, a Navy veteran who’s still looking for work. “They took an old building, but they rebuilt it and got it up and running in a month. They couldn’t do it fast enough!”
It’s early October, right before the start of early voting in Texas’s elections. Rosales, Pena, and a few dozen other people who’d grudgingly shown up to support Carlos Cascos, a Cameron County judge who’d recently been winning elections as a Republican. The county, which runs along the Mexican border to the Gulf, is nearly 90 percent Hispanic. In the 2012 election, Barack Obama won it by 31 points. But when I ask him what he thinks of the president, Pena sounds like this year’s ever-growing posse of squirming Democratic Senate candidates.
“Obama 2008 or Obama now?” he says with a laugh. “Man, don’t get me started on that.” He switches the subject to Hillary Clinton, whom he’d be happy to support, because she’s always seemed competent. Over plates of brisket and tortillas, Rosales tries to convince Pena that Clinton’s past her prime. They finally reach an accord on the upcoming gubernatorial race between Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis.
“All I know about Davis is that she made that stand in the Capitol,” says Pena. He shrugs. “That got my interest, I guess.”
Neither is excited about that Democrat. They’re intrigued by Abbott. At a table nearby, Cascos is showing off photos of the pachanga he held this year, the one where Abbott showed up and stayed late. “Ninety percent of the people there were Democrats,” says Cascos, “but they see themselves as independents, and Abbott reached out to them.”
This was not supposed to happen in Texas—not this year, not to Wendy Davis. Twenty-one months after Obama campaign veterans launched Battleground Texas, on the theory that a majority-minority state could become competitive for Democrats, Davis is running far behind Abbott. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released this week found Davis trailing Abbott by 16 points. Among Hispanic voters, the race was almost tied: 48 for Davis, 46 for the Republican.
Battleground never pretended that Democrats could surge to victory in 2014. The point of their effort this year was to reveal that Texas was not actually red; their campaign would wake up the natural progressive voters who never turned out. Battleground Texas would serve as Davis’s de facto mobilization campaign, but the effort would outlast her. Executive Director Jeremy Bird always talked about a generational effort, of raising minority turnout to the level of white turnout and “mobilizing Texans who are already registered but haven’t been making their voices heard.” Even Bill Clinton, whose first thankless assignment in politics was to win Texas for George McGovern, repeated the wisdom that Texas Hispanics were “under-registered,” and just needed to raise their voices.
But what if their voices sing in chorus with Republicans? Democrats hardly considered that. None of the “purple Texas” plans contemplated a Republican candidate pulling 46 percent of the Hispanic vote. They assumed a backlash among Hispanics to the GOP’s right turn, as well as a boost from Davis’s Latina running mate, fellow Sen. Leticia Van De Putte. March’s primaries and May’s runoffs produced a rigidly right-wing ticket, starting with De Putte’s opponent, State Sen. Dan Patrick, a former radio DJ famous for storming out of Muslim prayers in the legislature.
The Texas GOP was being jerked to the right; this, thought Democrats, would help turn out Latinos. Rick Perry’s GOP had backed a state version of the DREAM Act, and the retiring governor, infamously, had wounded his 2012 presidential hopes by defending the state’s tuition breaks for non-citizens. Dan Patrick wanted to repeal the state’s DREAM Act. Greg Abbott wouldn’t veto it. Sen. John Cornyn had even voted against the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill.
The majority party’s candidates responded to the Battleground threat with a very strategic panic. They knew that Texas Latinos tended to have deep roots in the state, and weren’t going to embrace the Democrats on immigration the way that more recent immigrants did.
This freed them to act like the dams were breaking along the border. “The state of Texas is coming under a new assault,” Abbott told a crowd of Republicans, “an assault far more dangerous than what the leader of North Korea threatened when he said he was going to add Austin, Texas, as one of the recipients of his nuclear weapons.” He, and the rest of the ticket, would respond to aggressively to non-whites, particularly along the border.
And there was another plank to their Hispanic platform. Davis had risen to national prominence with an epic, and briefly successful, filibuster of an abortion restriction bill. Republicans had numbers, including a 2013 Wilson Perkins Allen survey that found Latinos in the states identifying strongly as “pro-life,” by a 2-1 margin. When he traveled to the valley, Abbott started reminding voters that he, too, was “pro-life and Catholic.” According to strategist Dave Carney, a veteran of Perry’s campaigns, the brain trust looked at the lost Davis counties and identified more than 1 million Hispanic voters who might be receptive to a social, economic conservative message.
Since the primary in March, Abbott has spent seven days in the Rio Grande Valley, with three visits alone to the small sprawl town of Edinburg. Abbott’s three valley organizers are triple the number that Rick Perry dispatched for his winning campaigns. Drivers who crane their necks from the highway have been seeing billboards that feature Abbott and his Latino wife, Cecilia—“Nosotros con Abbott”—or the candidate and his Latino mother-in-law. "I love having Greg Abbott as my son-in-law,” she says in one ad, as Abbott beams at her. “Texas will love having him as Governor."
Battleground sees this as a ruse. Its organizers point to data that shows registration up by 2 percent over 2012 in the state’s five most populous counties—and up 3.6 percent in Bexar County. Battleground’s 8,600 volunteers had, on average, visited 100 voters’ homes each. That reversed the post-2008, Obama-swoon decline of the Tea Party era. In Davis’s own Fort Worth district and in some other local races, Republicans admit that Battleground may make the Democrats competitive.
But it is inarguable that they are not closing the top-of-the-ticket races with Hispanic votes. The day after Cascos’s barbeque, I meet investor and Democratic mega-donor Alonzo Cantu at his usual table at McAllen’s Peppers restaurant. Cantu, a bundler for Hillary Clinton, had plowed even more money into his own long-term registration effort—the Advocacy Alliance Center of Texas. Cantu’s organizers, drawn from the local business class, used the same Catalist software that Democrats had used to shock Republicans in red and purple suburbs. This election’s goal was to bring turnout up to 25 percent, at least. Next cycle, the target was 40 percent.
“We’ve brought 30, 35 U.S. senators down to see the border,” says Cantu. He slams a fist next to his enchiladas to illustrate his points. “We’ve been changing their impressions of the valley, that it’s some dangerous place, the third world, where you need some kind of bulletproof vest. We have money, then we get the votes—we’re in!”
“In” did not necessarily mean that Valley Hispanics would build the new Democratic majority. Many of the people registered by the new push were going to go for Republicans. Cantu himself had already given $7,500 to Sen. John Cornyn, who’s been just as aggressive as Abbott in wooing Hispanic voters. The donor joked that a Cornyn rally in the county felt “like a Rush Limbaugh event,” but he’d shown up anyway.
Cornyn had reached out to Cantu. Abbott was reaching out to the whole valley.
The GOP approach seems to be working; while Cantu held court, two friends who’d traveled to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute with him stopped by and talked politics. They were left cold by the president’s approach to the border. They knew about Davis’s abortion filibuster, but couldn’t name anything else she’d achieved.
“There’s a perception that Wendy Davis is pro-abortion, and that’s hard to overcome with us Latinos,” says Cantu. “It’s been hard for her to get away from that.”
Abbott’s campaign has made yeoman efforts to lock in that view of Davis. The TV spots that star his mother-in-law have her telling voters that she “became his Madrina—his Godmother—when he joined our church.” The campaign recruited the Mexican-born actor Eduardo Verastegui for a TV ad warning that “our communities are being threatened by politicians who want to corrupt our values like faith, family, freedom.”
Democrats see this as comically off-base. “We had George W. Bush come down quite a bit, so what Abbott’s doing isn’t new,” says Ramon Garcia, a Hidalgo County judge who’s endorsed Davis. “People here are not nearsighted. We care about issues, and the candidates’ stands on issues, not how many trips they take. Greg Abbott admitted that he supported the repeal of the Texas DREAM Act.”
It’s certainly true that the state GOP has not moderated in any way to win over Latinos, and the Democratic ticket has attempted to cut these margins by campaigning for Medicaid expansion and higher-education funding. But the polling says that voters have ignored them. “I don’t think those messages get through,” says Sergio Sanchez, the GOP chairman of Hidalgo County, taking a short break after the weekday radio show he hosts. “Let’s say Wendy Davis came to south Texas, and hopped aboard the soapbox, and went to the colonias where many illegal immigrants live by the thousands. Let’s say she told them: I want to expand Medicaid for you. Can you imagine what the ramifications would be in other groups she’s trying to win?”
Texas Democrats may never find out. They’re ending the campaign by ignoring a steady thrum of stories about how Davis never really stood a chance. They’re in the field, turning voters out, even after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and Supreme Court upheld the state’s voter ID law, a jagged cut into Battleground’s voter outreach.
In McAllen, a few days after Carlos Cascos’s barbeque, I followed a mother-daughter team as they walked precincts for Battleground Texas. They met with a half-dozen other volunteers at the Wendy Davis office, located next to a dentist’s office that had posted signs confirming that it took Medicaid. One by one, the volunteers told basically the same story about what got them off the couch. They’d been thrilled by Wendy Davis; they worried that the new Republicans would allow Texas’s education standards and funding to swoon.
The volunteers set out for McAllen’s suburban tracts, to find voters who only needed a push to go blue. Most of the doors they knocked on stayed closed. They dropped off fliers—education, not reproductive choice, at the top—and regrouped in a park under the scorching sun.
“I knocked on 100 doors today,” said Luis Briones, a volunteer who’d shown up with his mother, and helped translate her Spanish. “I’m just going to keep on doing it.”