EL PASO—Driving around Juarez in late September, Bob Pena remarked wistfully about the city that once was, the city he knew as a child. A once-swinging nightclub turned into a dusty shell. A glitzy hotel reduced to cheap, crumbling apartments. A mansion sacrificed to scavengers and the elements.
All of it is reason for Hispanics like himself to continue voting for Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz, he said. Pena is the executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party but he’s not an outlier. Thirty-seven percent of Hispanics in Texas support Cruz for re-election against his Democratic rival, Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll. The poll is in line with others showing Cruz with the support of a more than one-third of likely Hispanic voters despite his hardline stance on immigration and newly found admiration for President Trump, who is historically unpopular among Hispanics nationwide.
Cruz leads O’Rourke by an average of seven points in polls, but O’Rourke has record-breaking fundraising and has packed town halls across the state, including an Austin rally with Willie Nelson that drew an estimated 50,000 people. That O’Rourke is within shouting distance at all has scared Cruz enough to call for backup: Trump announced last month he would host a rally for Cruz in Dallas in October.
But O’Rourke has his own problems, including Cruz’s popularity among Hispanics, a key demographic for O’Rourke, who has made immigration issues like Trump’s family separation policy central to his campaign. Cruz flip-flopped on separating immigrant families at the southern border, initially talking about them in supportive terms before the images came out. Then he introduced a bill that would keep families together after being detained. Cruz has been consistent, however, about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Initially prepared for a few hundred people to attend a Cruz rally in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso on Saturday, Pena was forced to move the event to a gymnasium to accommodate a crowd of about 2,000 people, many of them Hispanic.
“I’m looking down at our list of people and half of them are Mexican,” Pena said. “They’re Perez and Rodriguez. And keep in mind this is in Beto’s backyard.”
O’Rourke is unfailingly popular in El Paso, where he is a one-word entity and bona fide political deity. He’ll win this border town, no doubt. The question is whether he can replicate that success elsewhere in the state, a challenge made even greater if he can’t increase his support among Hispanics.
Why the support for Cruz, who has cozied up to Trump, released fear-mongering campaign ads in Texas focusing on crimes committed by illegal immigrants, and has taken a hardline stance on immigration? The answer is simple, Pena and others said: Hispanics are conservative, just like Cruz.
“I’m a pro-life person, as are most Hispanics,” Pena said. “We come from a Catholic culture.”
O’Rourke, broadly, supports abortion rights. In 2017 he voted against a measure that would ban abortions after 20 weeks.
Enter Cruz, who portrays himself as the protector of unborn life from the liberal hordes apparently threatening it, in addition to perhaps bringing such unthinkable things to Texas as tofu, hair dye, and silicone. (Cruz has apparently never visited Dallas’s Highland Park, where heavily made-up blonde women eat sushi and drive Range Rovers to shop Fendi, Balenciaga and Valentino on a mini Rodeo Drive.)
But it’s not just abortion that swings many Hispanics to Cruz. Tencia Ruiz, whose father emigrated from Mexico, said O’Rourke’s stance on immigration doesn’t fall in line with those who have come to the United States legally.
“He went through the naturalization process,” Ruiz said of her father. “It’s not that hard if you do what you’re supposed to do instead of coming in illegally. Cruz is just saying that not everybody can come here. He’s saying we don’t want criminals here.”
Rose Wilcox, a Dallas woman whose great-grandfather emigrated from Mexico, echoed that sentiment. It’s not just white voters who are opposed to illegal immigration, she said.
“There’s a lot of immigrants coming in here that are illegal,” Wilcox said. “That’s the issue. Because we don’t have secure borders we don’t understand what they’re coming in for or what their intentions are.”
Asun Weninger, a 29-year-old Peruvian woman in Dallas who emigrated legally to the U.S. in 2016, says that Democrats have done a good job of convincing Hispanics to vote for their candidates—despite those candidates holding values that are antithetical to voters like herself.
“When I moved here to America I was already conservative,” Weninger said. “All my friends tell me I’m loco when I say I’m voting for Cruz. But when you’re moving from one place to another you can feel lost. If you don’t have a dad or a mom who can remind you who you are, you may forget.”
“Beto wants socialism,” Pena says, taking a line that several Hispanic Cruz supporters repeated to The Daily Beast in recent days, a charge that comes from the candidate himself. “What Cruz is saying is hitting home.”
Then there is race. Cruz, Ruiz noted, is of Cuban descent, while O’Rourke is white.
“I run into older people who I have to tell that Beto is not Hispanic. They think he is because of his name,” she said (Beto is short for Robert, O’Rourke’s Mexican nickname from his childhood). “But he’s not. Cruz is.”
Despite socially conservative beliefs, Hispanic support for Democrats goes back decades in Texas thanks to John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president. The Kennedy family’s popularity remains strong in the Hispanic community, a fact made powerfully apparent when Kennedy’s great grand-nephew, Rep. Joe Kennedy, visited a child detention center just outside El Paso in June to wild applause.
“In my house when I was growing up, we had a statute of Our Lady of Guadalupe with a candle under it, a bust of Pope Pius XII with a candle under it and another of John Kennedy with a candle under it,” Pena said. His father, born in Mexico and with deep family connections in Juarez, emigrated legally to the United States.
Pena insists, however, that most Hispanics will vote for Cruz, bucking the expectations of political commentators in New York and D.C. who, Pena says, have no business commenting on life on the border, immigration, and Texas.
“I’m Hispanic, I’m Mexican-American, my father was a naturalized citizen, I’ve worked all my life in Mexico, crossing that bridge every day,” Pena said of Paso del Norte, where thousands cross between El Paso and Juarez each day, including many migrants and asylum seekers. “I understand better than anyone else, probably, the border situation. My father was as Democratic as they come; he’d probably be rolling in his grave if he knew I was a Republican.
“We used to vote party line Democrat because that’s what what we believed we were supposed to do. That has changed.”