O’Rourke vs Cruz: The results in Texas will depend on turnout
Sen. Ted Cruz (left) and Rep. Beto O'Rourke | AP

HOUSTON—-Turnout, turnout, turnout. And, just as importantly, who turns out.

In Texas, as elsewhere, the result of the 2018 mid-term election – and particularly whether Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, will oust nasty right-wing GOP Sen. Ted Cruz — depends on which side will motivate and turn out more of its voters.

O‘Rourke supporters, both those enthusiastic for him and those who are less so, fret over that. That’s because, as Communications Workers District 6 organizer Maria Baca put it, “Texas isn’t a red state or a blue state. It’s a non-voting state.”

Proof? Data show that in the last two mid-terms, in 2010 and 2014, only one-third of registered Texans voted. That percentage was dead last in the country.

The solution? “We want to grow the electorate,” says Mary Moreno, communications director for the Houston-based Texas Organizing Project (TOP). Its growth target is like its staff and volunteers: overwhelmingly Latino, Latina and African-American. And then make sure, through postcards, calls and rides to the polls, that they vote. Including, though they don’t openly say so, for O’Rourke.

Is all this enough to boost him? With three weeks to go before the Nov. 6 election in the nation’s second-most-populous – and in reality, deep red – state, Cruz leads opinion polls by from five to nine percentage points. The latest poll, which CNN released Oct. 16, gives Cruz a 52-45 edge. But 13 percent of Cruz’s share say they could change their minds, compared to eight percent of O’Rourke’s backers.

Those Cruz leads are important. The Texas race is one national Democrats and progressive allies look to offset losses elsewhere and, though the possibility is slim, take over the U.S. Senate.

The anti-worker, anti-woman, anti-minority GOP holds 51 of the 100 Senate seats, including both from Texas. The Democrats hold 47 and Democratic-leaning independents have two.  But Dems are defending 24 seats, plus both independents, to the GOP’s nine. And 10 incumbent Democrats are running in states GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump won in 2016.

There are several factors to consider in the Texas tilt:

  • Texas Democrats and their progressive allies have not won a statewide top-tier race since the late Ann Richards won a second term as governor in 1990 – and then she lost to George W. Bush four years later.
  • Texas is not a progressive state, in either party. Establishment Democratic favorite Hillary Clinton clobbered Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary by a 2-to-1 ratio, then lost to Trump that November in a state Clinton never contested.
  • TOP, the non-partisan grass-roots group of Latinos, Latinas and African-Americans, is trying to change that, at least in the state’s three largest counties: Harris (Houston), Dallas and Bexar (San Antonio).

Mapping plans to get people to the polls

It plans to increase those underrepresented and often-ignored groups not just by getting people to the polls, but training them to be activists on issues that matter to them personally, year-round: good jobs, decent housing, better schools, police accountability. In just one week of work in Houston, it registered 1,400 new voters. Its goal is far beyond that.

Left unsaid: TOP’s Drive for Democracy canvassers talk about the election, too, and backing Democrats.  Indeed, TOP’s ahead of local Democrats on issues – unless the Democrat is like Penny Morales Shaw, a Latina lawyer seeking a Harris County commissioner’s post against one of that governing panel’s “good ol’ boy” Republicans. Those pols control a $2 billion budget.

  • In a state where you need a lot of money for TV ads in multiple big media markets, O’Rourke – with more than half of his contributions from small donors – outraised Cruz in the latest reporting period by a 3-to-1 margin ($38 million-$13 million). O’Rourke also had more money in the bank. But outside right-wing groups, including the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, rushed to Cruz’s rescue with at least $3.7 million in ad buys in October alone.
  • O’Rourke also counters Cruz with a stronger presence and a more positive image on social media. Again unlike Cruz, O’Rourke has campaigned in all 254 Texas counties, a monumental feat in a physically large state.

“I don’t know if I’m going to win more votes than the last Democrat who ran in those” rural and GOP-voting counties he visited, he told one interviewer.  “But I know that not enough Democrats have been showing up in those counties in the first place. And they haven’t been reflecting the needs of those counties.”

  • O’Rourke has been pushed into some progressive positions. He’s pro-reproductive rights and lately endorsed Medicare for All. Though Cruz has hammered him in speeches and TV ads, O’Rourke didn’t back down from supporting NFL players’ right to kneel during the playing of the national anthem, to highlight the issue of police killing unarmed African-Americans. And he wasn’t pushed into that.

And O’Rourke recently joined that criticism of the criminal justice system’s bias against minorities, including in a debate with Cruz.

Some progressives are leery of conservative sections of O’Rourke’s voting record. Given Cruz as an alternative, though, they’re stumping for the Democratic congressman.

Still, in a state known for its oil industry – and oil barons’ clout — O’Rourke supports using current energy during “a transition” to new sources while increasing federal environmental oversight of oil fracking, drilling and pipelines.

And in a state full of male machismo – Cruz included – O’Rourke stands for “ensuring all Americans are paid equally and treated fairly, regardless of their gender.” That includes LBGTQ people. His platform adds: “It is critical we support policies that end wage discrimination and close the gender pay gap.”

“There’s voter suppression and all sorts of other sneaky ways of preventing people from voting,” says Morales Shaw. One Texas twist she reported: Abbott got the overwhelmingly GOP state legislature to repeal straight-ticket voting, starting next year.

That means voters have to pick their way down the ballot race by race, often skipping those at the bottom. Abbott’s reason, Morales said: Straight-ticket voting benefited the Republicans in only two counties of 254.

O’Rourke got a 94 percent “right” score from the AFL-CIO during his 6-year House career, 90 percent from the Communications Workers, 100 percent from AFSCME, 91 percent from the Teamsters and 86 percent from the Government Employees (AFGE). Cruz got zeroes from all of them.

But O’Rourke also got 49 percent from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And he says he wants to work across the aisle, despite the extremist stands of Trump and the GOP. His non-progressive notes, including a House vote or two, don’t stop unions and other progressive groups from backing him.

National Nurses United, one of labor’s most-progressive and outspoken unions – and which just reached a new contract covering 3,000 RNs in Texas and 4,000 in four other states — endorsed O’Rourke, on Oct. 11.

“From supporting Medicare for All to supporting NNU’s federal safe nurse staffing bill, the 150,000 RNs of NNU, including our Texas nurses, know Beto O’Rourke would provide the kind of leadership we need in the Senate to protect patients, nurses and our communities,” said NNU Co-President Jean Ross, RN.

But endorsements or not, voting records or not, the problem unionists and progressives face in Texas is getting people interested in the race, even though early voting starts Oct. 22.

“The majority of those that vote will vote the right way,” says Communications Workers Local 6222 President Steven Flores. “But most don’t take the time or don’t care.”

“We outnumber them, but we’re just not voting,” Flores says of progressives, Democrats, unionists and minorities combined.

Fighting hard to get the word out

“It’s hard to get the word out, and people are so busy and being in their own little world, and not paying attention,” says Communications Workers Local 6222 member Betty Ortega, after she walked a precinct with Baca, campaigning on behalf of an underdog Democratic state senate candidate, Rita Lucido.

On that Saturday morning in Houston’s heat, around half of the 77 doors they knocked on went unanswered. Reception from the rest ranged from enthusiasm to neutrality, with only one turndown, and even that was polite. “Thank you, but I am not interested,” the woman said.

In keeping with the state’s individualistic ethos – which also hampers unionizing — many younger Texans, including younger unionists, have swallowed the Trump line, Flores notes. It’s parroted by right-wingers such as Cruz and talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, crowing about the “great economy,” ignoring the question of “Great for whom?” or whose actions helped the nation recover from the 2008 crash.

“And I tell my people, ‘You gotta talk to the white guys, older and younger,’ because 65 percent of Texas Anglo men vote Republican, Flores adds. “Guns and immigration” – two favorites of Trump and Cruz – “are a big issue with them.”

Texas also has many white and conservative areas, once you’re out of central cities Houston, San Antonio, Austin and parts of Dallas-Fort Worth. Flores lives in one right-wing enclave, Fall Creek, a “planned community” outside of Houston. In areas like that,  “Democrat” is a dirty word.

In the 2012 and 2016 presidential balloting, Flores’ neighbors deliberately would make sure their dogs peed and crapped on his lawn. One Democratic neighbor was harassed so much six years ago, in Obama’s re-election race, the family had to move.

“I put up my ‘Vote for Beto’ sign first, and now there’s another at the other end of the street and two more in the other direction,” he says. “There’s only one Cruz sign, total.” That, Flores adds, is progress of a sort.

The O’Rourke-Cruz race isn’t the only key congressional tilt in Texas, at least in the Houston area.

TOP’s office includes a precinct-walking map for the Seventh Congressional District. Democratic nominee Lizzie Panhill Fletcher, who picked up Local 6222’s endorsement on Sept. 25 – on top of other union endorsements – is in a toss-up race against right-wing veteran GOP Rep. John Culberson in a district Clinton narrowly carried. Culberson repeatedly sponsors national right-to-work laws, votes against raising the minimum wage and to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

“Here in our community, and across the country, CWA and other labor organizations have fought for protections that benefit all Americans. The right to organize and to advocate are central to our democracy. I look forward to working together with CWA to ensure that those rights are protected and that working men and women in our community have the representation they deserve in Congress,” Fletcher said.

And not every union sector is in O’Rourke’s corner. Following up on its 2016 Trump endorsement – because its members hated the Obama administration’s immigration policies – the National Border Patrol Council, an AFGE sector, endorsed Cruz.

That’s a bellwether for several reasons: The council is a law-enforcement organization, and such groups are traditionally more Republican, conservative and the NBPC is predominantly male, and men, especially white men, tilted for Trump.

“Stand with those who put our lives on the line” at the U.S.-Mexico border “and vote for Ted Cruz,” Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd said in April.

The state Fire Fighters Association, an IAFF affiliate, stayed out of both the senatorial and gubernatorial races. IAFF nationally is virtually evenly split in party registration. Its Texas affiliate endorsed Mike Collier, the Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial nominee. In Texas, voters cast separate ballots for those top two state spots, as the Texas lieutenant governor has real power over the legislative agenda.

An important labor endorsement for O’Rourke

The Harris County (Houston) AFL-CIO endorsed O’Rourke, but it also backed four Republicans for lower-level offices. The pro-GOP votes led Flores, who sits on the organization’s political committee, to vigorously dissent, then leave. “These guys (the GOP) have never supported us,” he says.

Those defections don’t bode well for O’Rourke. Neither do demographics, for a simple reason: Latinos, whom he’s counting on, are 38 percent of all Texans. But only two-thirds of them are over 18. The third who aren’t are the highest proportion of any state in the union. Meanwhile, Texas Tribune demographic breakdowns of the state show older and whiter Texans are much more likely to register, and to vote, than are others, just like nationwide.

In a way, Owen Ortega, Betty’s grandson, typifies the problem O’Rourke faces in the Hispanic-named community, despite O’Rourke’s Hispanic ancestry through his mother and his fluent Spanish. “Owen tells me ‘The way they’re tearing up the country, there won’t be a country for me to grow up in. There’ll be no air to breathe and no water to drink,” Betty Ortega says. Owen and Betty were born in the U.S.

But Owen Ortega doesn’t live in Texas. Even if he did, he, like that one-third of Texas Hispanic-Americans, couldn’t vote for O’Rourke. He’s 12.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).