On Wednesday, the Signal spoke with Chris Chu de León about the election results, what went wrong for Biden, and how Biden could have increased his vote share among Latinos in border communities. Chu de León is the former Texas State Director for the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign, a former political advisor to Beto O’Rourke, and a regular contributing writer to the Signal.
The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.
I wouldn’t call Tuesday’s results a disaster for Texas Democrats since the party didn’t lose ground, but there were also no gains during a year with very high expectations. What do you make of the results?
Yeah, I think it was a tough night considering the expectations that Democrats had.
The expectations to not only gain ground in congressional seats, potentially even taking a majority among the Texas delegation, winning the Statehouse (which was the biggest prize) but also showing the state and country that Texas is truly a state in play and that Texas is a place that warrants a significant amount of national investment. So, I think it was really tough all around in that regard.
And I think it was in large part because of Biden’s inability to gain critical footing and support from the Latino community in the state.
Is that what you think the biggest problem for Biden was?
Yes, absolutely, unequivocally.
I think it’s really clear that there was massive turnout across the state, record-breaking, it was the highest turnout in decades. The predominantly Latino areas across Texas were no exception to that. They saw higher turnout.
The problem wasn’t necessarily turnout, though.
It was Biden’s inability to capture the Latino vote of both people who are voting for the first time or who are nonvoters, and also people who potentially may have leaned Democratic, but because Biden did not offer a powerful policy solution to some of the issues and challenges that they are facing in their lives, whether that is lack of healthcare, expensive education, putting food on the table — because there wasn’t an easy distillation of “how am I going to help you,” I think that led to a loss in the number of votes that Biden was able to get in the Latino community.
I think something we saw during the primary was Bernie Sanders’ success in the Latino community. That was in no small part because of the massive amount of investment, both monetarily, but also culturally and through organizing that Bernie put into the Latino community, all across the Valley, San Antonio, and El Paso. We were hosting cultural events, we were showing up to these communities as soon as we started our operation in Texas.
I know a couple of people are saying the COVID-19 crisis made it really difficult to organize and mobilize at the grassroots level in those communities — and I think that’s absolutely true — however, if Biden had already been investing in those communities before COVID hit when he should have been, months ahead of time and really throughout the entire primary process, he would have already had that foothold.
He would have been able to continue to marshall that support. And all these organizers on the ground who had these relationships with the Latino community would have been able to continue to organize and build on that support.
The support that [Sanders] saw was not because of Biden’s campaign, it was because of volunteers and activists and organizers who’ve been on the ground — long before Biden, long before Bernie — who’ve been putting their blood, sweat, and tears to turning out the Latino community.
I think there were critical errors made on the part of the Biden campaign, and I think a lot of was taking the Latino community for granted.
But you don’t believe that Trump somehow had a successful outreach message in these communities? You think this is really on the Biden campaign.
I think it was a combination of both. I think Biden was not really there and Trump was there to fill a void. Because [Trump] did start organizing in the Latino communities, he did start doing Spanish-language ads before Biden did, across the country and including Texas.
Part of it was the message that Trump was offering and part of it was the lack of outreach and presence that the Biden team had in Latino communities across the state. I don’t think you can divorce the two.
You mentioned the Democratic primary in Texas. Biden ended up with 24 percent of the Latino vote compared to Sanders’ 45 percent. This was something that was widely reported at the time but now seems to have more significance this morning. What was the Sanders campaign’s strategy to reach and connect with Latino voters in Texas?
The Sanders strategy was to show up to these communities, again, and again, and again. To connect culturally, but also to connect without volunteers on the ground who were from those communities themselves.
We put all of our offices across the state in predominantly Black and Brown areas. We had presence and staff in predominantly Latino areas; San Antonio, the Valley, El Paso, in east Houston, which is largely Latino, as well as east Austin in a more predominantly Latino area.
We sent every single one of volunteers to working class Black and Brown communities, to knock doors and make phone calls. We also expanded the typical electorate that one would reach out to. We didn’t want to only talk to your stereotypical Democratic voter.
Often the Latino community, because of any perceived infrequency of voting, are not going to show up on a partisanship index of being a very likely voter and a very likely Demorat, which means most campaigns aren’t reaching out to those people.
Beyond all that, it was the policies. It was the policies that would materially change the condition of Latino communities in Texas. The state is 40 percent Latino, and yet 60 percent of everyone uninsured is Latino. The Latino community disproportionately bears that burden, along with the COVID-19 crisis. Whether its healthcare, education, criminal justice or climate change, a lot of these issues weigh most heavily on working class Black and Brown communities. I think the policies that the Sanders campaign offered really resonated with the Latino community.
Ok then, I have to ask. Bias aside, would Bernie have won Texas? Be honest.
It’s hard to say. I think Bernie would have performed really well in the areas Biden performed poorly in. The places where Biden had the lowest margin compared to 2016 Clinton; Zapata County which Biden ended up losing and Clinton won, Star and Willacy County in the Valley where Biden barely hung on and where Clinton had a commanding lead in. I think we would have swept in those areas.
I do think we would have come very close, and I think there’s very much a possibility that we would have won. But I don’t want to definitively say.
How should Democrats in the state be processing the results?
I think Democrats in the state need to understand that a progressive message is one that has resonance and one that will win the Latino community over. And one that can win across the state.
And yes, people might poke holes in that logic — we had moderate, progressive and not-so-progressive Democrats on the ballot and most of them came up short – but I think one of the differences is who is leading the top of the ballot.
Take Beto O’Rourke in 2018 who took more bold, more progressive stances. At the time he was fighting for single-payer healthcare, fighting to get us closer to a Green New Deal, very explicitly written on literature and said at every rally and town hall. And Beto came much closer in terms of margin than Biden did. I think that should be the lesson for the type of candidates we run and expect to win at a statewide level.
What I would say to Democrats is: yes, lick our wounds, mourn today, but tomorrow we organize. It doesn’t matter that there is another presidential cycle in four years. We need to continue hitting the ground, knocking doors, making phone calls and sending text messages, every single day from now all the way up until the next election and that’s the only way we’re going to win Texas
Photo: Chris Chu de León/ Facebook
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at email@example.com