Democrat Beto O’Rourke plunged into the party’s crowded presidential nomination race, banking on the star power and fundraising prowess he demonstrated during his run for the Senate in Texas last year to prevail in a months-long primary campaign.
The former Texas congressman narrowly lost the Senate contest to Republican Ted Cruz in 2018 but managed to build a nationwide following with his unconventional and optimistic style combined with a populist message that brought in almost $80 million in mostly small donations.
O’Rourke announced his run via a video announcement, skipping the traditional set piece speech in his home state and foreshadowing an unconventional approach to the campaign. He headed directly to Iowa for a three-day trip to meet with voters who’ll be taking part in the state’s caucuses next February, the first official contest in the nomination race.
“I’m running to serve you as the next president of the United States of America,” O’Rourke said in the video released Thursday morning. “This is a defining moment of truth for this country and for every single one of us.”
O’Rourke said one of the reasons he was entering the race is that “the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy and our climate have never been greater.”
Peril and promise
“This moment of peril produces perhaps the greatest moment of promise for this country and everyone inside of it,” he said.
The announcement put an end to months of speculation and doubts about O’Rourke’s intentions that were stoked by his musings on blog postings as he traveled about the country after leaving Congress at the beginning of January. “Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk,” he wrote on Jan. 16.
Early polls of potential Democratic nominees put O’Rourke in the top tier of candidates. But his challenge now that he’s a candidate will be to show the party’s voters where he fits between the unabashed progressive stances of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and centrists such as Senator Amy Klobuchar. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are attempting to straddle party factions with their campaigns.
Democrats also are awaiting a decision by former Vice President Joe Biden, who remains popular in the party and would enter the race as the frontrunner. Biden gave a strong hint of his intentions at speech to the International Association of Fire Fighters Tuesday in Washington. Greeted by chants of “run Joe, run,” Biden told them to save their energy because, “I may need it in a few weeks.”
Heading to Iowa
O’Rourke’s trip to Iowa will take him to more than a dozen of the state’s 99 counties, including eight that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. His first stop is midday Thursday at a coffee shop in Burlington. He’ll end his trip on Saturday by participating in a St. Patrick’s Day 5K race and campaigning for state Senate candidate Eric Giddens. He also plans a March 30 kickoff in his home town of El Paso.
O’Rourke emerged from last year’s Senate bid viewed as someone who could appeal to a diverse constituency with support for legalizing marijuana, revamping the criminal justice system, and allowing college students studying in-demand fields and in under-served communities a chance to graduate debt-free.
The Republican Party is already giving an indication of how they will fight O’Rourke, pointing out his lack of success in the Senate race as well as his “extreme policies.”
“It’s telling that the Democrats’ biggest star is someone whose biggest accomplishment is losing,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Ahrens said Thursday in an emailed statement. “Beto O’Rourke failed to get anything done in Congress, and with extreme policies like government-run health care and tearing down border barriers, his 2020 bid won’t be successful either.”
Backing Trump impeachment
O’Rourke also gained attention with a widely shared video expressing support for black football players kneeling during the national anthem at games to protest police brutality, saying there was “nothing more American” than such demonstrations.
He unequivocally called for President Donald Trump’s impeachment early in his Senate campaign. “I would liken impeachment to an indictment. There is enough there to proceed with a trial,” said O’Rourke in a CNN town hall in October.
With the party’s activist progressive wing and centrists struggling for dominance in the nominating contest, O’Rourke’s positions will be generating greater scrutiny.
O’Rourke has avoided using the term “Medicare for all,” a touchstone issue for progressive Democrats. Instead, his website offers aims such as “achieving universal health care coverage — whether it be through a single-payer system, a dual system, or otherwise.”
He’s also been hit for not taking tougher positions regarding oil and gas versus renewable energies, perhaps mindful of home-state Texas business constituencies. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, his 2018 Senate campaign was the second-highest recipient of money from the oil and gas sector — US$476,325 — behind only Cruz’s total, even if that money came from individuals and not industry-related political action committees.
Harris has already hit him for telling MSNBC in February that he would “absolutely” tear down the border wall in El Paso, Texas, if he could. She responded by saying on “The Daily Show” that “we need smart border security. We can’t have open borders, we need to have border security, all nations do.”
The former El Paso city councilman has largely shrugged off claims he is not a solid enough progressive, however, saying he is unconcerned about political labels.
O’Rourke, 46, had already started to float his familiar-sounding campaign themes, including at a Dec. 14 town hall when he predicted the 2020 elections would be “the mother of all tests for this democracy.”
Candidates would be tested, he said, on whether they can “focus on issues, on our potential, on our promise, on the future instead of our fears, instead of attacking one another personally, instead of going for the most base impulse and instincts among us.”
Then Trump himself returned focus on him as a 2020 challenger, holding a border-wall rally in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso and singling him out as “a young man who’s got very little going for himself, except he’s got a great first name.”
A seemingly re-energized O’Rourke led a simultaneous counter-march.
Boosting other democrats
O’Rourke follows another Texas Democrat, Julián Castro, 44, the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, into the race.
O’Rourke’s loss to Cruz in November was by 3 percentage points, in a ruby-red state that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 1994. But O’Rourke has been credited with drawing more Texans to the polls, boosting other Democrats on their way to winning congressional seats and other down-ballot races.
Almost immediately after his defeat, speculation began on whether the one-time punk rocker with a distinct speaking cadence and youthful vibe (promoted by viral videos of him skateboarding or playing air drums to rock songs) might join the 2020 Democratic presidential field.
It’s telling that the Democrats’ biggest star is someone whose biggest accomplishment is losing
He met in November with former President Barack Obama, who called O’Rourke an “impressive young man who ran a terrific race in Texas.”
A fourth-generation Irish-American who lives in El Paso, O’Rourke is married and the father of three children. His pre-Congress background is as a small business owner, having started and run an Internet services and software company in El Paso.
His populist, progressive appeal and ability to raise money in 2018 are his big selling points to many Democrats.
Much of his $80 million-plus for the Senate race came from small donors outside of Texas. In the third quarter of 2018, he took in $38.1 million, the most ever raised by a U.S. Senate campaign in a quarter.
But it will be a challenge for O’Rourke, and other Democrats, to generate that level of small-donor enthusiasm in a long campaign with a large field of candidates.O’Rourke turned down overtures from party leaders to challenge Republican Senator John Cornyn in 2020 instead of making a bid for president.
“While I understand the interest in O’Rourke as a national candidate given the fit of his image with the mood among Democratic elites, I think his assets are still most valuable as a Senate candidate in Texas – which he could be again in 2020,” said James Henson, who teaches in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin and is director of the Texas Politics Project.
“From the perspective of the Democrats nationally, O’Rourke as an asset deployed in the national presidential primary is playing checkers. Running for the Texas Senate seat against Cornyn (or another Republican) is chess,” he said.