Democratic Congressman-elect Pete Gallego had an uphill battle in Texas’ 23rd congressional district, one which was drawn to specifically include low propensity Latino voters in its boundaries. The district stretches from South San Antonio to the El Paso area along Texas’ border, and ultimately, Gallego was able to oust incumbent Republican Quico Canseco by five percentage points.
We talked to two of Gallegos’ staff about the campaign strategy used to mobilize Latino voters in a district that was tight — between campaigns and third parties $7 million was spent on TV ads in this district — but was won by a comfortable margin on election day.
The key to victory in this race, said Campaign Director Anthony Gutierrez, was getting to know the Latino voters in the district, and more importantly, how to connect with them.
“When they did the initial polling, we knew that get out the vote was our path to victory,” he said, adding that the densely populated areas of the border were particularly important. Gallego served much of the area in the congressional district while in the state house, but Bexar County (San Antonio) was where Gutierrez said Gallego would “win or lose.”
Between August when Gutierrez came on board and the day before early voting began, he said the campaign worked hard on solidifying its list of potential voters. Volunteers were an important part of that strategy, and Gutierrez said the campaign had a staffer dedicated to rustling up volunteers, and they came from the neighborhoods where they worked, he said.
“Our volunteer office had more volunteers than OFA [Obama for America],” he said of the campaign’s North San Antonio field office. “In Hispanic neighborhoods, it was Hispanics who were from that area [blockwalking].”
But it wasn’t just targeting that helped Gallego win this seat, it was also messaging, said Rebecca Acuña, director of communications for the campaign.
“Initially we saw that Obama had a huge lead with Hispanics over Romney — and we had a lead, too — but ours wasn’t nearly as big. So then we asked them what issues were important to them,” she told Politic365.
“The DREAM Act polled well, so we targeted Hispanic local and city voters, who ranked immigration as a ‘very important’ issue to them and those are the people that got DREAM Act mail pieces, those same voters were the ones that were also being hit up on the ground,” Acuña explained.
Middle class issues, such as Medicare and Social Security were also vital to the campaign, Gutierrez explained, but the campaign message in both English and Spanish.
Knowing your voter, and their sensibilities, was key to Gallego’s victory, Gutierrez and Acuña explained, illustrating their case with an example of a Canseco mailer about abortion and gay marriage that featured an image of Jesus Christ. Acuña said the Gallego campaign was able to use that ad, meant to discredit Gallego, to promote the idea that Canseco was out of touch with voters, that this ad went too far.
“Jesus on the mailer was a huge deal — just because it was such a powerful symbol, that to the grandmas on the south side [of San Antonio], it didn’t matter what issue we were talking about, they still looked at him and thought, ‘What kind of person puts this kind of image on a mailer?’” Gutierrez recalled. “It was just flat out offensive to the sensibilities of these voters.”
In the end, Gallego didn’t win early voting — which saw historic levels of participation on election day — but he saw 62% of the vote on November 6, in part because of targeted Latino-to-Latino get out the vote efforts, Gutierrez said. Attack ads targeting DREAM Act, immigration and border security were also key, he said, and then of course there was the big endorsement and visit by former President Bill Clinton.
Acuña also pointed out that Canseco, who won his seat in 2010 during the Tea Party wave that swept Texas and other parts of the country, used similar tactics this year as in his last campaign. The boogeymen of Nancy Pelosi, socialism and Obamacare didn’t work as effectively as in 2010, and Canseco seemed unwilling to move to the middle even an inch to reach out to his constituents.
“The Republican Latino outreach strategy was hoping they would stay home,” she said. “They didn’t even try to get them to vote, they didn’t even talk to them — and that’s what happened in this election.”