Miram Garcia remembers interning for Beto O’Rourke in 2015 when the El Paso congressman was only known within the border city’s limits. Garcia talked to O’Rourke about his possible run as a Democrat for U.S. Senate and how O’Rourke said he would ignore political strategists and appeal to a historically apathetic demographic — young voters.
“I honestly saw a lot of potential in him the first time that I interned for him,” said Garcia, an international relations and government senior. “I said it many times to many friends — that I felt Beto had a charisma and a kind of exceptional personality that I felt would have catapulted him to a bigger position in politics.”
UT-Austin students are caught in the crosshairs of the rallies, social commentary and mobilization efforts to move a typically nonvoting population to the polls.
The race between O’Rourke and incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is one of the most closely watched Senate races in history. There has not been a Democratic senator from Texas since Sen. Bob Krueger lost reelection in 1993.
O’Rourke is seen across social media giving impassioned speeches and sweating in a blue button-down, while Cruz rallies his Republican base next to President Donald Trump.
“I think there was a lot of excitement over the Wendy Davis campaign back in 2014, but nowhere near as much excitement as there has been around Beto,” said Joshua Blank, manager of research and polling for the Texas Politics Project, a nonpartisan political research outfit.
There is certainly excitement around the midterm elections as a whole on campus, as 23,795 people early voted at the Flawn Academic Center and the Perry-Castañeda Library polling locations, according to Travis County Clerk’s Office data. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 6,164 people early voted at UT’s FAC polling location, the only one on campus at the time.
“I think Beto’s campaign has certainly created a lot of enthusiasm for younger voters, and especially for Democratic voters, particularly in a state like Texas, where the Democratic party rarely runs a candidate that excites a large number of people,” Blank said.
O’Rourke has visited UT-Austin multiple times, including a talk at the AT&T Conference Center and a late night event at Kerbey Lane on Guadalupe Street. He has visited other universities such as Texas A&M, Baylor University and the University of Houston as a part of a tour of college campuses.
Cruz, on the other hand, did not visit the UT-Austin campus during the campaign, but did hold events at the campuses of Texas A&M and Midwestern State University and Christian Fellowship Church near UT–Rio Grande Valley. In a statement to The Daily Texan, Cruz said he expected young people to vote for him because they would see his policies are simply better than O’Rourke’s.
“Young people are smarter than they’re sometimes portrayed in the media, and a lot of them are seeing through Beto’s flirtations with socialism and extreme rhetoric,” Cruz said. “They, like a vast majority of their fellow Texans, want unity, freedom, and prosperity, and that’s what I work every day to deliver.”
Cruz said he supports young people’s engagement — no matter their politics. When it comes to the race, Cruz said O’Rourke undermines young people’s desires for success and freedom. Cruz also said O’Rourke wants policies that could negatively affect young people, such as higher taxes.
“For the same reason, it’s a big mistake to put young people into Beto’s basket,” Cruz said. “A lot of younger voters are just getting their first jobs and feeling the sting of taxes for the first time — taxes that Beto O’Rourke voted against lowering.”
The O’Rourke campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Texan.
Blank, the political researcher, said Cruz’s tactics appeal mainly to older and conservative audiences, but that will help him gain the support of conservative young people because of his hardline politics. Attracting voters from the Democratic Party will be difficult for Cruz because he campaigned to generally turn out reliable older Republican voters, Blank said.
In the 2014 midterms, 49 percent of registered Texas voters aged 60 to 69 voted in the election, compared to only 15 percent of voters aged 18 to 29, according to U.S. Census data. Young voters ages 18 to 35 make up Travis County’s largest voting bloc of registered voters, according to data released by Travis County officials.
Linguistics senior Kathleen Doviken, communications director for UT’s University Democrats, said the fervor among UT students, no matter their views, is inspiring.
“There’s been more students voting, and I think that having a second polling location also helps, as well as having that candidate at the top of the ballot that many students have been excited about,” Doviken said.