BROWNSVILLE, Texas — As President Trump delivered an alarmist speech from the White House on Thursday, warning of a looming immigration crisis from an approaching caravan of Central American migrants still weeks away, Beto O’Rourke stood barely two miles from the nation’s southern border here, in a serene city park where the only impending conflict was over parking spaces for the hundreds of people who came to hear the Democratic Senate hopeful speak.
“There’s never been a better time for us to be alive, to be from Texas and to be from the U.S.-Mexico border,” O’Rourke, a congressman from El Paso, declared as he took the stage, offering an unusual split screen moment in the final days of a contentious midterm election when Republicans, including his rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, have sought to make the campaign a referendum on immigration.
While it’s still unclear exactly where the caravan is headed — or how many people will still be walking with the group when or if they reach the U.S. — Brownsville is the closest port of entry to where migrants are now, and in the hours before O’Rourke’s stop, the first of what is expected to be at least 800 troops arrived here, deployed by Trump to confront what he has described as an “invasion.”
But O’Rourke, who has attracted national attention even while consistently trailing Cruz in the polls, dismissed Trump’s decision to deploy troops as just politics. “This desire to stir paranoia and fear on the part of the American public is a political ploy five days away from the deciding election of our lifetimes,” the congressman said. “That’s all that it is, and the people of Texas need to remember that. We don’t need troops on the border.”
It was a message that O’Rourke repeated again and again Thursday as he spent a day traveling deep into the Rio Grande Valley, a remote region of Texas where roughly 90 percent of the residents are Hispanic. Statewide candidates rarely campaign here, in part because it’s so hard to get to. But also, there’s not much payoff. In the last several campaigns, barely 20 percent of those eligible have turned out to vote.
But in this campaign, the Rio Grande Valley has become a priority for both Democrats and Republicans.
After a poor showing in the Democratic primary, where he lost many counties here to a largely unknown Latino candidate, O’Rourke has made dozens of appearances in the region, hoping to stir what many have described as a sleeping giant of Latino voters to the polls by pushing back against Trump’s inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants.
But his efforts have been nearly matched by a GOP turnout machine headed up by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has invested millions of dollars and time into the belief that Hispanics are more conservative than Democrats think. Last year, his first campaign trip after announcing for reelection was to McAllen. In recent weeks, he’s made return trips — followed by Cruz, who earlier this week traveled through the region and is set to return there this weekend in the final days before Election Day.
At a stop earlier this week, Cruz took a shot at O’Rourke, an Irish American who has gone by the Spanish nickname for “Robert” since his childhood. Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, noted that he’s the real Hispanic in the race. “Listen, the O’Rourke campaign clearly hopes voters think he’s Hispanic,” Cruz told the Houston Chronicle. “He’s not.”
O’Rourke speaks fluent Spanish; Cruz is less comfortable in the language.
There are signs that voters in the region — and in other parts of Texas — are more motivated this year. Election officials have reported massive early voting numbers. In Cameron County, where Brownsville is located, voter turnout is nearly double what it was in the last midterm election, in 2014.
On Thursday, O’Rourke spent the day traveling through small towns including Raymondville, population 11,000, where he was greeted by a crowd of nearly 400 people, mostly Hispanics. They waved “Viva Beto” signs and wore campaign shirts that featured an O’Rourke logo in a Mexican design theme. Many said they had never voted before.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said Gina Benavides, a local Democrat who is running for reelection to a judicial seat. But she warned Democrats not to be complacent. “Have everyone else who hasn’t voted and get them out there,” she told the crowd.
At several points, O’Rourke conversed in fluent Spanish with voters, including a 91-year-old woman who slowly crossed a gravel parking lot with her walker. With the aid of a police officer clearing the way, she approached the candidate, speaking to him in Spanish.
“Beto,” she said, caressing the candidate’s face as he leaned down to speak to her. “Beto.”
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