Congressman Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso Democrat hoping to oust Sen. Ted Cruz in November, is not shying away from talking about race. And black voters are noticing.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll released last month, 97 percent of black voters surveyed said they favor O’Rourke.
“We don’t expect anything to be 97 percent in almost any category,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at UT Austin.
Henson said it’s possible there’s a slight quirk in this poll, but that, overall, black voters have a baseline of support for the Democratic Party that has always been strong. So, he said, it’s likely O’Rourke’s support among black voters is really that high – it's definitely not below 80 percent.
“We expect the number among African-Americans in terms of support for Democratic candidates … to be very lopsided,” Henson said.
Black voters say they think O’Rourke’s campaign has done a good job of exciting them, which is something the Cruz campaign has noticed, too.
Last month, Cruz tweeted a video of O’Rourke standing in front of a crowd of African-Americans in a church in Dallas.
The crowd was on their feet, cheering, as O’Rourke talked about what happened to Botham Jean, a black man who had been fatally shot in his own home by a white Dallas police officer.
“How can we continue to lose the lives of unarmed black men in the United States of America, at the hands of white police officers?” O’Rourke said. “That is not justice. That is not us. That can – and must – change."
While O’Rourke condemned the shooting and said it pointed to a larger problem facing black people in America, Cruz has said he is weary of jumping to conclusions about what happened.
In his tweet, Cruz wrote, “In Beto O'Rourke's own words,” as if O’Rourke made a huge misstep.
But black voters say these aren’t mistakes.
“I think that he is speaking to issues that hit at the core of issues that are facing black people,” said Latreese Cooke, the executive director and founder of the MELJ Justice Center, which works with people who have been incarcerated.
Cooke said she’s not surprised to see O’Rourke doing well among black voters. O’Rourke is talking about police violence and race, she said, the kinds of things politicians typically tread carefully around.
“People are afraid to talk about what’s going on right now,” she said. “People are a little bit more cautious about people’s feelings – especially when it comes to this, because there is so much tension right now.”
O’Rourke has also weighed in on the controversy surrounding professional football players kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police violence. In a viral video from a campaign event, the congressman told a person in the crowd that he could "think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights anytime, anywhere, anyplace.”
“When he said that I was like, ‘Yes!’” said Grant Loveless, an Austin Community College student and black activist in Austin.
Loveless said he appreciates that O’Rourke has acknowledged life is harder for black people in the U.S. than it is for many whites.
“We have to jump hurdles,” he said. “We have to go in trenches in water just to get where we want to.”
During his first debate with Cruz, O’Rourke was asked about a DWI arrest when he was young. O’Rourke said it was a big mistake, and he was grateful to have been afforded a second chance in life.
“As a white man in this country, there’s a privilege that I enjoy that many African-American men and women in this country do not,” he said.
Cooke said she thinks the manner in which O’Rourke is talking about these issues also resonates with black voters like her. He knows he’s probably upsetting some white voters, she said, but she’s glad he’s talking openly.
“I think one of the things that we fail to do as a society is talk about it and talk about things in real time,” she said. “And talk about it in a way that is not edited — or where you are using cautionary language.”
Gaubrielle Pritchard – a black activist with Austin Justice Coalition, which works on racial justice issues – said it would be a bigger deal if O’Rourke didn't talk about these issues.
“I think it would have been a huge misstep and just a huge letdown if this hadn’t been part of the narrative at all,” she said.
Pritchard said she agrees that O’Rourke is saying all the right things, but she also wants to see details and a plan to actually address these issues. She said she also wants people to hold him accountable if he doesn’t do or say the right thing.
“There’s kind of this whole ‘Beto will save everything,’” she said, “but we also have to hold these people accountable. So, if they say something that you are not quite on board with, making sure you call them out.”
So far, though, the campaign hasn’t gotten pushback from black voters. Instead, polls are showing increasing support for O’Rourke.
Peck Young, a professor with Austin Community College and a longtime Democratic strategist, said it is not surprising that O’Rourke is doing so well with black voters, whom he describes as “the backbone of the Democratic Party.”
In fact, Young said, he is more surprised that the party as a whole isn’t reaching out to black voters as consistently as O’Rourke is.
“The problem is that a lot of the leadership around him and other parts of the state are still a part of this ‘We have to find the swing voter,’” he said. “Well, when 50 to 60 percent of the voters vote brand – which is straight-ticket voting – your first job is to find those people and be sure they are motivated on your side to go vote. And the Democrats haven’t done that.”
The O’Rourke campaign said it is working hard to make sure communities feel heard and understood. A staffer said O’Rourke “is purposefully not shying away from these issues,” because he understands they are important to people.
The campaign also said it was focusing efforts in the coming weeks aimed at making sure black voters in Texas are engaged and voting.