Midterms exposed border as biggest weakness for Texas Democrats

Beto O’Rourke has long made the U.S.-Mexico border a core part of his political identity, once calling it “central to who I am” and “a big reason why I ever wanted to serve in office.”

Facing brutal midterm conditions, Democrats hoped the El Paso native could use his command of border policy to go head-to-head on the issue with Gov. Greg Abbott, who left little doubt he would make the border a centerpiece of his campaign and seek to tie O’Rourke at every step to President Joe Biden’s unpopular immigration policies.

IN-DEPTH: Texans trust GOP for border and economic policy, but not on abortion and guns, polls show

But while O’Rourke tried to refute Abbott’s border-focused attack ads during campaign stops and their lone televised debate, he ignored the issue in his own TV spots, focusing instead on topics like abortion and expanding Medicaid. He briefly ran social media ads laying into Abbott for busing migrants to east coast cities and “wasting BILLIONS of taxpayer dollars” on his signature border initiative, Operation Lone Star — then dropped the ads after polls showed a majority of voters approved of the policies.

O’Rourke’s border struggles underscore how immigration emerged as a glaring political liability for Texas Democrats in this year’s statewide midterm races. With record numbers of migrants trying to cross the southern border, voters throughout the campaign ranked border security and immigration among their top issues and said they preferred Republicans over Democrats to handle the situation, typically by wide margins.

After losing every statewide race by double digits earlier this month, Democrats are openly acknowledging their failure to combat Republicans’ border-centric campaigns and present their own vision. The issue has long served as a political gold mine for Republicans in a state that covers nearly two-thirds of the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly this year as Abbott and other statewide candidates hammered relentlessly at Biden’s border policies.

That only magnified Texas Democrats’ long-running struggle to distill their message on immigration and border security — topics they argue are enormously complex and lacking in clear, easy fixes — into campaign-friendly soundbites. The messaging void allowed statewide Republicans to control the narrative, Democrats acknowledge, and generally portray the border as a hellscape overrun by drugs and gang violence — with little pushback to misleading claims, including false attacks tying fentanyl overdoses to illegal migration, not the ports of entry where it mostly flows into the country.

Democrats likely could have generated stronger turnout among Latino voters — a key voting bloc fiercely targeted by both parties — had they spent more time campaigning on border-related issues, said Roberto F. Carlos, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It did seem like the policies were largely focused on getting out messages that white liberals would be excited about,” Carlos said. “And it’s tough to have nuance in a campaign, especially in a state as diverse as Texas. But I think that there were opportunities there, where maybe focusing on issues like (the border) in a way that could potentially attract Latino Democrats just didn’t pan out.”

A bright spot for Democrats came in South Texas, where they won two of three congressional districts aggressively targeted by national Republicans who had hoped to capture all three.

Lessons from border-district wins

The two winning Democrats, U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, echoed Republican calls for stricter border enforcement in an effort to distance themselves from Biden’s immigration policies.

Cuellar said multiple Democrats who are expected to assume new leadership roles in the House — including U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who is likely to succeed Speaker Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats — have sought his input on “what the strategy should be for Democrats” to sharpen the party’s message on immigration.

“With all due respect to our state and national Democrats, yes, they’ve tried to sweep it under the rug, or as I call it, put their head in the sand thinking it’s going to go away,” said Cuellar, who was re-elected by 13 percentage points despite an onslaught of GOP spending. “I mean, Republicans were banging Democrats left and right with open borders, etc., being weak on border security. And there’s a way that you can do both: still secure the border, but still provide legal relief to asylum seekers and other folks.”

Shortly before early voting began, Cuellar — one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress — aired a TV ad that said he had “delivered millions for law enforcement and border protection” and “stands up to radicals in both parties.” 

Democrats captured statewide offices running on a similar message in Arizona, where U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, said in his own TV ad that he was “closing gaps in the border wall” and calling out Biden when the president “gets it wrong.” Kelly also vocally opposed Biden’s decision to lift Title 42, a public health order invoked by then-President Donald Trump at the onset of the pandemic that allows immigration authorities to expel migrants from the country before they can apply for asylum.

O’Rourke at first pushed for an end to the policy — which advocates say has undermined the U.S. asylum system while doing little to deter migrants from trying to cross — before later calling on Biden to keep the order in place until he came up with a plan to handle an anticipated post-Title 42 surge in border crossings.

Beyond the border, Texas Democrats have pinned their statewide losses on several factors they say were nearly impossible to overcome, pointing out that the incumbent president’s party historically suffers losses during midterm elections. They have also noted that Abbott and other Republicans began their campaigns with massive financial advantages, and argued turnout suffered statewide partly because Republican lawmakers redrew Texas’ political maps last year to shore up their incumbents, eliminating most competitive races.

Jamarr Brown, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a memo circulated to the party’s “staff and stakeholders” that Democrats were hindered by each of these factors, along with Republican-backed state voting restrictions. But he also said Democrats must acknowledge the “tough truth” that border security is “a hugely important issue to our state.”

“Democrats across the country have for too long wanted to sweep it under the rug and hope voters just don’t pay attention to it — but the fact of the matter is that Texas is the biggest border state in the country, and Texas Republicans will continue to use every single bad-faith political stunt in the book to keep illegal immigration top-of-mind for voters,” Brown said.

He also singled out Cuellar for his “long track record of speaking and acting firmly in favor of real action on border security and unequivocally in support of law enforcement.”

O’Rourke campaign operatives said after the election that Abbott’s team stayed disciplined throughout the race by focusing on issues that favored the governor, including the border. O’Rourke’s team felt it would be a better use of their own campaign money, they said, to focus on issues where Democrats held a clear edge, rather than changing voters’ attitudes on topics they felt were too deeply ingrained.

Orlando Sanchez, founder of Texas Latino Conservatives, a political organization that supports Latino Republican candidates and aims to increase Latino representation in GOP politics, said O’Rourke passed up a clear chance to seize the middle ground on immigration issues, which Abbott largely ceded while pushing for a revival of Trump-era border policies.

One way to do this, Sanchez said, would have been to remind voters of his cross-country road trip with former congressman Will Hurd, a Republican whose district covered the border for hundreds of miles between San Antonio and El Paso. O’Rourke and Hurd livestreamed the drive and fielded questions for viewers about divisive policy issues, building bipartisan cred for O’Rourke ahead of his 2018 run against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Sanchez said voters are “fed up with Washington infighting” and hungry for a return to functional governing, a sentiment he said O’Rourke could have capitalized on with a more serious…

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