Never have midterms captivated millions who don’t even have the right to enter the US, let alone vote there. The biggest draw? Immigration. We talk to journalist Robert Moore to dig deeper into one particular race.
The migrant caravan heading to the US-Mexico border from Central America, combined with President Donald Trump’s stance on Dreamers and his assertion he can overturn the birthright to US citizenship, have prompted candidates from both sides to make immigration their key issue, even overtaking health care, during the midterm elections.
Texas, one of the four border states, has been electing Republicans to the Senate for nearly 27 years. Which makes the Texas Senate contest between El Paso-born Democrat Robert ‘Beto’ O’Rourke and Canadian-born American incumbent Rafael Edward ‘Ted’ Cruz, the most closely watched race this midterm.
While both have shared an anti-Trump platform (Cruz during his presidential bid), each candidate appears to live in the other’s upside down world.
Beto, as the sweaty social-media friendly congressman is known, is a white Democrat whose chosen nickname reflects his intimacy with his border city’s Hispanic roots. He focused his campaign on travelling to all constituencies in Texas, documented on iPhone-style cameras.
The more well-known politician, Cruz, whose father is Cuban, goes by a tag which evokes more Theodore Roosevelt and Ted Kennedy. Yet, Cruz’s voter base isn’t heavily diverse and his ads mock O’Rourke for not being the right kind of Texan, who hides his real roots with a “nickname and a grin”.
Both family men stand across the aisle on a whole host of policies: immigration, same-sex partnerships, the environment, gun control, abortion and taking the knee. But can both represent the Lone Star State?
We speak to Robert Moore, a longtime Texas journalist whose 27 years in El Paso covered two stints as the EP Times editor and who currently writes for The Washington Post, Texas Monthly and other publications. Moore, whose work focuses on immigration and borders, breaks down the dynamics of Texas, where no Democrat has won a statewide election since 1994.
But, Moore told TRT World, Texas has seen profound demographic changes in recent years, particularly the growth of the Hispanic population and a substantial migration of people from other states seeking jobs and affordable housing. Big cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin — are growing rapidly and becoming increasingly Democratic.
Those changes are influencing the state's political climate. Moore reminds us that Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama in Texas by 18 points in 2012; Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by only nine points in 2016.
Question. Cruz has a tough anti-immigrant stance. O' Rourke supports demilitarised borders and citizenship for Dreamers. How will the latter’s stance impact voters of a state where a majority feel the admission rate of immigrants is too high?
Robert Moore. Texas, like the nation, is deeply divided on immigration.
Polls show strong support though, for providing a path to citizenship for Dreamers.
But Cruz clearly views their differences on immigration as a key opportunity for him to exploit. That's probably a good bet with traditional voters. But O'Rourke is betting that his stances can bring a lot more non-traditional voters to the polls.
Q. How do you perceive Cruz as a legislator when it comes to border control?
RM. Cruz is a hardliner on border security. He promoted more aggressive security measures, including physical barriers, before running for president. He is absolutely opposed to what he calls "amnesty" for anyone in the country illegally, including the Dreamers.
Q. When the Trump administration separated families at the border, Cruz introduced legislation to keep them together. Is that approach indicative of a softening of a hardline policy against immigration?
RM. Cruz initially supported the family separation policy. A week before introducing his legislation to end the practice, Cruz said: ‘‘When you see Democrats saying, ‘Don’t separate kids from their parents,’ what they’re really saying is don’t arrest illegal aliens.’’
He introduced the legislation only after it was clear that family separation was terribly unpopular. He hasn't softened his immigration positions. His legislation on family separation also called for quicker deportation of asylum seekers.
Q. Border towns such as El Paso are usually seen through the lens of their neighbours — homicide-ridden Juarez in this case. Do you see immigration as a burgeoning problem for US border towns in terms of safety or the economy?
RM. Immigrants generally are a boon for border communities. Immigrants, for the most part, are resilient and tenacious. They are also far less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Most of the United States probably doesn't understand that.
But those of us who live on the border see it every day. Trade with Mexico is also a vital part of El Paso's economy; indeed, it is crucial to the US and Texas economies, though many Americans don't understand that.
Q. Cruz thinks El Paso is safer because of the border wall; would you agree?
RM. El Paso doesn't have a border wall, it has fencing. Cruz and Trump have called it a wall as a way of claiming that construction of the border wall has begun.
El Paso's crime rate was among the lowest in the nation for years before construction of the fencing began in 2006. Crime rates are affected by a variety of factors. It's almost certain that the heavy presence of federal law enforcement and the extensive border fencing play a significant role. El Paso's population is 20 percent immigrant, and immigrants commit crimes at a rate far below native-born Americans.
Finally, local law enforcement has done a very good job over the years of building relationships with the community. That is probably the key factor in our low crime rate.
Q. Can a single legislator from a border-town impact US border policy?
RM. With deep divisions in the United States, particularly over immigration policy, one person can only make a small difference.
O'Rourke, if elected, would bring the unique perspective of being the only senator who lives along the US-Mexico border. That would give him a powerful stage to push back against repetitive falsehoods from the Trump administration about the border and immigration.
The most significant promise O'Rourke must strive to keep if elected is to work in a bipartisan fashion. That is extremely difficult in this political climate.
Q. What are the trickiest spots in the state which O'Rourke and Cruz would need for a win? And what are their weakest links?
RM. Cruz clearly believes all he has to do is to turn out the traditional Republican base. He is not doing anything to bring in moderate voters. He's betting there are enough conservative voters in Texas to outvote everyone else.
O'Rourke knows he has to vastly expand the voter universe to win. That means convincing young voters and people of colour — people who typically don't vote in midterm elections — to go to the polls. Those groups deeply dislike Trump, so they may be more motivated than usual to vote.
At the beginning, O'Rourke lacked experience outside of El Paso. He was little known, and Texas is a huge state. He has certainly made mistakes along the way, but has proven to be a formidable candidate. But in the end, he is a liberal in a state that has a very conservative history. That's his biggest challenge.
Cruz's biggest challenge is that he is widely seen as unlikable. Even his fellow Republicans in the Senate dislike him, by and large.
Q. Texas is known for sticking to family values and loyalty; Cruz and his family were blasted by Trump. How do you think that impacts his following?
RM. I think Cruz's initial refusal to endorse Trump in 2016 hurt his standing with Texas Republicans. That's likely why he reversed course and endorsed Trump late in the campaign.
Democrats and independents are put off by Cruz's embrace of Trump after his family was so viciously assaulted, but it doesn't bother Republicans. That's Trump's party now. What matters to Republican voters is how loyal you are to the president.
Q. Would a high early-voter turnout in El Paso be a reason for the O'Rourke camp to be hopeful about any chance of a win?
RM. The huge increase in turnout in his hometown — which usually has one of the nation's lowest voter turnouts — could be significant in a very close race, because he will win El Paso by a large margin.
Q. People have compared O' Rourke’s style to Obama. But Obama promised real change just by being a black man running for an office which no one else like him had ever seen. What do you think O'Rourke offers?
RM. O'Rourke offers an optimistic view that is very similar to Obama's, and remarkably different from the dark view of the US offered by Trump. O'Rourke has shown more ability to mobilise Democrats than anyone since Obama in 2008. Whether he can sustain that is an open question.
Q. How would you describe O'Rourke as a politician, a man and a Texan?
RM. I've known O'Rourke for almost 20 years. He is deeply committed to public service. He very much loves his hometown. He is very devoted to his wife and three children. Being away from them for much of the last 18 months has been very hard on him.
I believe he is a once-in-a-generation political talent because he is a tremendous listener and values the input of others, even those who disagree with him.
Q. Whether O'Rourke wins or loses, how would it impact Democrats at a time when they are sorely in need of shoring up support and rebuilding the party?
RM. The Democratic Party remains in search of an identity. I think O'Rourke, win or lose, has created a standing among Democrats that means he'll play a role in developing that party identity.
Q. What would it take for Texas to go Democrat again?
RM. Texas likely will become more competitive for Democrats as Hispanics begin voting in bigger numbers. Hispanics made up 38 percent of Texas' population in 2016 but cast only 20 percent of its vote. In part, this is because many Hispanics are too young to vote yet, or not citizens.
But even Hispanics registered to vote don't turnout out at the same levels as other groups. Democrats have to more aggressively court Hispanic voters. Right now, Democrats take Hispanics for granted and Republicans largely ignore them. That's a prescription for disengagement.
Q. People outside the US think cowboy boots, westerns and barbeques when they hear Texas. How would you describe Texas in 2018?
RM. Those stereotypes still hold true, to some degree. But Texas is so much more. Houston is the most diverse city in the country.
Within a couple decades, whites will no longer be a majority in Texas. More than half the children in Texas schools are Hispanic. Texas is an economically successful state because it has been able to diversify its economy instead of relying on oil production.
International commerce is a major driver of the economy.
Q. Would a Republican woman vote O'Rourke post #meToo? What about younger women in the state?
RM. The question of where women stand is largely driven by two factors: race/ethnicity and education. White women without a college degree are still major supporters of Republican candidates. Women of colour represent the Democrats' most loyal voting bloc.
White women with a college degree have tilted increasingly toward Democrats since Trump's election.
That is playing a major role in the suburban areas around Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin.
Younger women are a major Democratic constituency, though they historically don't vote in large numbers. There is some evidence this year that younger voters are turning out in much larger numbers than previous midterms.
Q. Would you say Cruz or O'Rourke are aiming to run for president?
RM. I think Cruz continues to have presidential ambitions. Obviously, he'd have to wait until 2024 at the earliest.
O'Rourke may also harbour such ambitions, though he doesn't strike me as having the same burning desire you see with someone like Cruz. I don't think O'Rourke would run in 2020, but down the road, who knows?
Answers have been edited for space and clarity