When presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders held a recent campaign rally in El Paso, it made sense to kick things off with the beloved local band Sparta.
The group played a few songs as people took their seats in a downtown concert hall. Then frontman Jim Ward addressed the crowd.
“I’m a fourth-generation El Pasoan,” he said. “We have a dilemma. We have a thought that we’re not as important as the rest of the world sometimes.”
That’s wrong, Ward said.
“Thank you so much to this campaign for coming here just to say that this town is important,” he told the crowd, to cheers.
Sanders’ campaign stop was somewhat unusual.
“Generally the only way you see a presidential candidate in El Paso is when they land here to drive to Las Cruces,” said Richard Pineda, director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. That city is just across the border in New Mexico, which has long been considered a battleground state.
Pineda mentioned a potentially apocryphal story about then-presidential candidate John Kerry stopping to eat in a town that straddles state lines.
“Somebody realized they were on the Texas side and they scurried across the street to the New Mexico side to make sure they got in their New Mexico vote plug,” he said.
Whether or not the story is actually true, it captures a true feeling about where El Paso stands on candidates’ priority lists. It’s typically ignored by both parties, Pineda said. Republican candidates don’t focus much attention on the deep blue county, and Democratic candidates are more likely to stop in larger, wealthier cities with larger, wealthier donor bases.
“It boils down to money, quite frankly,” Pineda said.
But this election cycle is different. President Trump has made El Paso ground zero for his immigration rhetoric and new immigration policies. Just over a year ago, he came to the border city to launch his reelection campaign.
“We started a big, beautiful wall right on the Rio Grande,” he told a cheering crowd. “Right smack on the Rio Grande.”
Soon after, another candidate kicked off his presidential bid in El Paso. Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke offered a very different vision of his hometown.
“We are safe not despite the fact that we are a city of immigrant and asylum seekers,” O’Rourke said, standing on a platform just a few blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. “We are safe because we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers.”
In August, a mass shooting at a local Walmart thrust the city back in the spotlight. Police say the suspect drove hundreds of miles to El Paso from a Dallas suburb and that he claimed the shooting was a response to “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Many here say the President’s rhetoric put a target on El Paso and fueled the attack.
All this led some to wonder whether more candidates may focus on the city.
“It provides them the stage to be able to launch, I think, a very full-throated attack against the Republican position on guns or on violence or potentially even the conversation on immigration,” Pineda said. “You can use El Paso as a focal point to counterbalance the Republican narrative.”
Yet that’s only happening to a degree. Two candidates held campaign rallies in El Paso ahead of Super Tuesday: Senator Sanders and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who also opened a field office in the border city. Pineda says this wouldn’t have happened in past election cycles.
Other candidates, however, are focusing on the more expected cities. Elizabeth Warren spent the run-up to Super Tuesday in San Antonio and Houston. Joe Biden opened offices in other major Texas cities, but not El Paso.
None of this is surprising, said Enriqueta Triana, a veteran who lined up early to nab a seat at the Sanders rally.
When it comes to presidential candidates, “I think we’re sometimes the last ones that they consider,” she laughed. “It'd be nice if they would think of us first sometimes.”
She was excited that her preferred candidate did think of El Paso this time, and that for one politician, her city was on the map.