A new type of dirty trick has entered one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country. On Wednesday, an unidentified volunteer for Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat who is running against Senator Ted Cruz, gained access to the campaign’s mass-texting system and sent a series of unauthorized messages to Mr. O’Rourke’s supporters.
“We are in search of volunteers to help transport undocumented immigrants to polling booths so that they will be able to vote,” read one of the messages, which claimed to be from an O’Rourke volunteer named Patsy. “Would you be able to support this grass-roots effort?”
A second message, also sent by a purported volunteer named Patsy, claimed that the campaign was conducting an internal poll, and asked recipients for their opinions on “the dangers of socialism.”
Screenshots of the text messages circulated on social media on Wednesday. Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign confirmed that the messages came from the campaign’s systems, but a campaign spokesman, Chris Evans, blamed them on an “impostor.”
“That was not an approved message by the campaign,” Mr. Evans said.
The messages were sent by a first-time volunteer who had signed up for a shift on the campaign’s “texting team,” and whose real identity was still being investigated, according to a campaign staffer. The campaign believes the messages reached fewer than 1,000 people, the staffer said.
Mr. Cruz and other Republicans have criticized Mr. O’Rourke, who stands within spitting distance of Mr. Cruz in recent statewide polls, as being weak on immigration and supporting socialist policies.
Mr. Cruz’s campaign denied any involvement.
“Our campaign had no involvement in the alleged abuse of the O’Rourke campaign’s texting platform. We don’t condone anyone who would engage in such action,” said Emily Miller, a campaign spokeswoman.
Text messages have been hailed as the breakout technology of the 2018 midterms. New peer-to-peer texting apps allow campaigns to send rapid-fire text messages to voters, personalized with details like the voter’s name and nearest polling place, without running afoul of anti-spam regulations that prohibit unsolicited bulk messages. Candidates including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrat from New York, and Andrew Gillum, who won last month’s Florida Democratic primary for governor, have used peer-to-peer texting apps to drive voters to the polls.
Among mass-texters, Mr. O’Rourke has been particularly aggressive. The campaign has used Relay, which was developed by alumni of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, to contact millions of Texas voters with messages urging them to donate, attend local events and pledge their support on Election Day. Progressive groups have rallied behind Mr. O’Rourke’s “texting team,” which has set a goal of texting all 3.5 million cellphones contained in a statewide voter records database.
An O’Rourke campaign staffer said the texting team’s policies were being reviewed to see if more careful vetting of volunteers was needed. Currently, volunteers who are approved are given training on using Relay to send text messages, and are able to request lists of dozens of voters to text on Mr. O’Rourke’s behalf. Similar to a phone bank, volunteers do not get access to the campaign’s entire voter database.
A typical message from the O’Rourke campaign begins about the same as Wednesday’s message, with an introduction from the campaign volunteer. It then usually asks who the voter will be choosing in November’s election.
“We’re texting Texas voters today about the upcoming November election,” a recent text read. “Will you be voting for Beto O’Rourke or Ted Cruz for Senate?”
Relay shut down its O’Rourke-related operations for hours on Wednesday after the campaign realized what had happened.
Frank Freeman, a Houston-based espresso machine repairman who supports Mr. O’Rourke, received the fishy text message on Wednesday, and posted a screenshot to Facebook.
“It felt off immediately,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was going to be someone who infiltrated the campaign.”
Dan Lundeen, a Houston-based attorney who has volunteered for Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign, received the message about the “dangers of socialism” poll on Wednesday afternoon. He quickly reported the message to the campaign.
“I hate to see someone contaminate our positive message,” said Mr. Lundeen’s wife, Marcee Lundeen, who is also a volunteer for Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign.
Katrien Vanstaen, the head of Mr. O’Rourke’s texting team, sent a follow-up message to people who had received the two messages, apologizing for the breach and saying that the campaign had “taken the necessary steps to make sure that they do not continue sending text messages with our campaign.”
Mr. O’Rourke’s texting operation has been robust enough that it has even reached Mr. Cruz and his father, Rafael, on more than one occasion. Several members of Mr. Cruz’s staff, and some of their family members, have also received texts from the O’Rourke campaign.
The texts have even annoyed some of Mr. Cruz’s supporters at recent campaign events.
“I know, I know,” Mr. Cruz responded. “I’ve gotten three of them myself. My dad has gotten five. By the third one I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should vote for him.’”
Mitchell Ferman contributed reporting from McAllen, Texas.