Ignore Beto O’Rourke’s misbegotten presidential campaign for a moment, and give the El Paso Democrat his due: He is the reason Texas Democrats are hopeful and Texas Republicans are worried.
Don’t take this as any kind of endorsement, either — it’s just recognition of the jolt his surprising finish in the 2018 U.S. Senate election had on the Texas GOP’s hold on state politics.
You know the drill: No Democratic statewide wins since 1994, Republican control of both houses of the Legislature since 2003, increasing wins in many county offices and so on. In 2018, the Democrats won a couple of seats in Congress that the Republicans never expected to lose. One was John Culberson’s Houston loss to Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. The other, where the winner was Colin Allred, offered up a sign of the kind of election it was. Allred flushed Pete Sessions, who held the district for 22 years, right out of Dallas. This year, he has declared his candidacy for a district that runs from Waco to Bryan — well south of his old stomping grounds.
The Democrats wrested a dozen seats from the Republicans in the Texas House in 2018, too, when most of the smart kids were saying they might win 5 or 6. You can credit that to hard work, good candidates, enthusiastic like and dislike for President Donald Trump, high voter turnout or whatever else you can think of. You’ll be right, in part.
But you won’t be right if you leave out the race at the top of the 2018 ballot, and what it meant in the statewide races below it.
Texans started their 2018 general election voting with that top race, where U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was trying to win his first reelection, just two years after flaming out at the end of the 2016 Republican primary against Trump. Cruz ran a good presidential race. He made it to the last lap. But he irritated Republicans with his initial “principled” refusal to support the nominee, and then with his decision to turn around and support him. Republicans who like him and Republicans who don’t found that irksome at the time.
In 2018, Cruz also had all those Democrats to contend with — voters who knew less about him in his first 2012 race for U.S. Senate against former state Rep. Paul Sadler than they knew about the national and divisive conservative who was seeking a second term in 2016.
In O’Rourke, he drew another unknown opponent from a field of unknown Democrats. The challenger served on the El Paso City Council and for three terms in Congress, but was a new name in most of Texas. That’s a familiar characteristic for Democrats challenging the Republican juggernaut in Texas: Candidates with bigger names have often been too scared to run, and the political small fries who do run can’t pull together enough money or attention to do real damage to incumbents with big campaign accounts.
But 2018 was different. A large number of Texas voters were looking for alternatives to Cruz. O’Rourke had a plan to get around the Democratic notoriety problem: He made a show of visiting each of the state’s 254 counties, exploited social media for attention and fundraising and went from small fry to an $80 million campaign that finished 2.6 percentage points behind Cruz.
So why does a loser in a high-profile and expensive race get all the hype O’Rourke attracted?
Because he turned Democrats on and made Republicans nervous.
After Cruz and O’Rourke on the ballot came the congressional races, with those two surprising Republican losses. The governor won his race by more than 13 percentage points. Solid. But incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller each won with margins under five percentage points.
And after finishing with those statewide races, voters moved on to those legislative races and sliced away at the Republican majority. The first result of that election was a legislative session led by Republicans touting bread-and-butter issues instead of another helping of red meat.
The second? A Democratic effort, with rare national money attached, to win more congressional and legislative seats in 2020 — in the hopes of having more influence on new political maps that will be drawn in 2021 and used in the next decade’s elections.
They used to dream about stuff like that. Now they’ve got battle plans. And O’Rourke’s failed run for U.S. Senate is a big reason.
DES MOINES — Hours before Beto O’Rourke quit the presidential race Friday evening, his supporters were taking part in the boisterous “sign wars” here outside the Wells Fargo Arena ahead of the season’s biggest Democratic gathering.
In New Hampshire, his campaign was building out an upcoming trip, announcing he would participate in the famed “Politics and Eggs” speaking series on Nov. 8.
And in El Paso, staffers were readying a policy on disability issues to coincide with a forum on the topic Saturday in Cedar Rapids.
In many ways, it was business as usual for the campaign — until it wasn’t. His exit Friday evening was a relatively abrupt conclusion to a campaign that began with much promise and fell from grace but found new purpose after the El Paso shooting in August and appeared — at least from the outside — to be pressing forward amid mounting challenges.
Breaking the news to supporters on the Des Moines waterfront,O’Rourke hinted at just how swift the decision had been. Lamenting his wife’s absence, he called it “a decision we made so recently and so reluctantly she can’t be here in person.”
O’Rourke decided to drop out just in the last couple days, according to campaign sources, and senior staff did not begin learning about the decision until Thursday. More senior staff learned Friday, and late in the afternoon, just a few hours before his first event of the weekend in Iowa, he held an all-staff call to share his decision.
On the call, O’Rourke discussed the tough financial choices he was facing if he were to continue running, the sources said. He also told staff he would not run for U.S. Senate next year in Texas — something he has previously denied interest in but a possibility that was bound to generate more speculation with him no longer running for president.
O’Rourke’s campaign was facing a number of pressures, perhaps none more serious than money. While he raised more in the third quarter than he did in the second, both saw the campaign spending at an alarming rate, burning through significantly more money than it took in. In the third quarter, the campaign spent $1.43 for every $1 it raised, with payroll and related costs taking up the bulk of expenses.
Any course correction at this point would have likely meant cuts to that category, resulting in layoffs.
Unlike rivals Cory Booker and Julián Castro, O’Rourke did not resort to threats to drop out if he did not raise a certain amount of money in a short period of time. But about three weeks ago, his campaign announced it wanted to raise $2 million over the next six weeks to boost its overall standing in the race, and its progress toward that goal was unclear as of Friday evening.
In one potential sign of the campaign’s financial woes, its digital ad spending hit its lowest point last week since he entered the race, according to one tracker.
Looming over the cash crunch was the November debate, for which O’Rourke was straining to qualify. While he had the 165,000 donors required for the debate, he had only accumulated two out of four qualifying polls over the past several weeks. The deadline is in 12 days.
In recent days, O’Rourke had become increasingly frank about his frustrations with the polls.
“Look, I would love to be doing a lot better, that’s for sure,” O’Rourke said Monday night on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” He added that he wished his supporters’ “enthusiasm and dedication was reflected in the polls.”
Appearing Thursday morning on the New York radio show “The Breakfast Club,” O’Rourke fielded several blunt questions about his standing, including this one: “How often do you yell ‘fuck’ at the polls?”
“Um,” O’Rourke replied with a knowing grin, “that comes up a lot right now.”
It would end up being one of his final media appearances as a presidential candidate. The night before, he held his last campaign event before heading to Iowa — and it was a fitting twilight for a candidate who had become doggedly focused on gun violence: a town hall in Newtown, Connecticut, not far from the site of the tragic 2012 school shooting.
The event appeared to weigh on O’Rourke as he sought to rally supporters Friday evening who had just learned his White House bid was over.
“The very last place that I got to visit before being here in Des Moines as a candidate — just as an American, as a human being — was Newtown, Connecticut,” O’Rourke said, “and I listened to a community and to families who had been through so much and today, almost seven years later, show us so much courage and give us an example for the way forward.”
In the lead-up to Friday evening, O’Rourke’s campaign had shown no signs of slowing down, especially in the early voting states. His campaign announced Wednesday that he would visit New Hampshire on Nov. 8 to file for the state’s primary, and on Friday afternoon, the campaign announced his plans to participate in Politics and Eggs.
Then there was his Iowa trip, which was set to be his biggest swing through the state in recent memory, with four days of events planned for after the state party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration on Friday night. Notably, O’Rourke was set to return to the counties in southeast Iowa that flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump — the “pivot” counties that O’Rourke prioritized with his first Iowa swing right after launching his campaign in March.
His Iowa endorsers, unaware of his decision, were looking forward to joining him when he swung through their parts of the state.
“I’m shocked that he hasn’t caught on as much — in the polling at least,” said Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson, who endorsed O’Rourke in June. “On the ground, I see a lot of activity.”
In the hours before O’Rourke’s dropout announcement, there was no indication in downtown Des Moines that his campaign was on its deathbed ahead of the state party dinner, the biggest event on the political calendar this fall in the Hawkeye State. In addition to the traditional sign wars, which began before sunrise, his staffers had adorned a waterfront park with elaborate decorations for a pre-dinner rally.
Supporters were already gathering for the rally when The New York Times broke the news around 4:30 p.m. that he was dropping out, and moments later he made the announcement himself on social media. The mood quickly turned gloomy at the rally as supporters waited in drizzly weather for O’Rourke — and other campaign’s backers happily paraded by on their way to the dinner. Finally, O’Rourke arrived in a minivan, his vehicle of choice as he had crisscrossed the country for months.
After his remarks, O’Rourke spent a long time receiving supporters, some fighting back tears, hugging them and reassuring them he will continue to fight for the issues that animated his campaign. When he finally headed out of the park under nightfall, O’Rourke was uncharacteristically muted as reporters peppered him with questions. He allowed just a few answers, urging supporters to work as hard as possible for the eventual nominee, saying he is focused for now on spending more time with family and friends, and thanking journalists for their work covering the race.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke released 10 years’ worth of tax returns Monday night, becoming the latest 2020 presidential contender to reveal information about his personal finances.
The Democratic candidate’s disclosure came shortly after Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is also running for president, released his tax returns dating back to 2009.
The returns show that O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, made more than $370,000 in 2017, the most recent year for which they released returns. That amount includes O’Rourke’s $162,211 salary as a member of Congress representing Texas and more than $11,000 from Stanton Street Technology, an El Paso-based Internet company O’Rourke co-founded in 1999.
It also includes about $53,000 in income from the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED. Amy O’Rourke has worked as a consultant for the philanthropic organization, which aims to improve the academic performance of students in the El Paso area.
Earlier in the day, O’Rourke told reporters that he would release his tax returns in an effort to be transparent with voters — and he criticized President Trump for not doing the same.
“If he must be compelled through a subpoena to do so, so be it,” O’Rourke said, following a town hall in Charlotte on Monday morning. “But everyone who runs to seek that office should release their taxes.”
Beto O’Rourke formally launched his campaign for the 2020 Presidential race today. The corner of Overland and El Paso Street was packed with thousands attendees, all wanting to be part of what some are calling a historic moment.
“I drove down from Colorado Springs,” said Wendy Reynolds. “I knew I had to be here. Something like this doesn’t happen often, a man like Beto doing the most selfless thing anyone could do, run for President of the United States.”
Then there is Joe Alvarez who drove in to see Beto O’Rourke. He arrived last night from San Antonio.
“What I like most about Beto is that he authentic, inspiring and he genuinely cares for people. He has demonstrated this by standing by and for the people who need their voices heard. I come from a migrant farm working family so when he stands up to the hateful rhetoric that our president so many times expresses almost every single day; he brings me pride and hope for a better tomorrow,” says Joe.
“And I believe that people with pride and hope cannot be oppressed, diminished or humiliated. I have been following him for the past two years, and I know that he listens to people’s concerns and issues and he wants to bring people (Republicans, Democrats, and Independents) together, and America needs that. So, what brought me here today in one word: inspiration. He needs our support, and as a Latino, we often get dismissed or taken for granted, I need to do my part to get him elected to be our next President.”
Being authentic, Beto’s authenticity is something I heard throughout the morning.
“I love Beto’s inclusiveness and authenticity. He is a servant leader and listens to people. He admits when he is and apologizes. He is real,” said Kim Ortiz who drove in from Dallas, Texas.
“My husband and I drove 678 miles from Greenville, Texas,” says Shauna Red Holloway. “We supported Beto through the Senate race. We love the way Beto is very inclusive and wants to work with anyone to come up with a better way to help people, instead of bashing everyone and getting nowhere.”
Sheryl Curtin traveled to El Paso from Houston with Sarah Kerrigan and Jane McEldowney.
“We supported Beto in his Senate race, and every time we heard him speak, we came away inspired by his message of unity and decency. We think his positions on immigration, security and healthcare are spot on! We wanted to be an enthusiastic part of his Presidential kickoff.”
I did speak with Jamie De La Cruz before the rally, but he asked if I could speak with him after the rally. He wanted to hear what he had to say before he commented. He did catch up with me, and as we walked to our cars, we had a conversation.
“I voted for Trump last election,” said Jamie. “I wish I hadn’t. I believed the bill of goods he sold us about draining the swamp and getting billionaires out of cabinet position. All he did was drain it and fill it with his handpicked billionaires. I’m not yet sold on Mr. Beto.”
De La Cruz labels himself as a Republo-Crat. He’s not fully Republican, nor fully Democrat. He’s trying to find a happy medium.
“He’s up there; he’s talking, he’s himself. He’s real,” shared De La Cruz. “Hearing him talk, seeing him with his family and some of the people out there that he talked to, he was talking talk that promises change. I’ve not seen or heard such talk since Jimmy Carter ran. Will I vote for Mr. Beto now? Without a doubt.”
Others were not so optimistic about Beto O’Rourke, or able to assign importance to today’s event.
He’s here to tell us he wants more money and a chance to destroy other historic neighborhoods,” said Juan, who said that Beto O’Rourke not only sold out the Durangito in order to enrich himself but will do the same on a larger scale. “It’s all money for him and his cartel family.”
“I can’t see what he’s done that whole time he was up there in Congress,” said Ruben. “I can’t think of anyone bill of his that became a law at all. I’m a Democrat, but I think we can do better than him.”
I asked both Juan and Ruben why they were at today’s event.
“To show that not all of us are backing a fellow Democrat just because he’s from El Paso.”
“No. Just no!” is how Rosa Garcia responded when I asked her opinion. At first, I thought she was telling me no, so I began to apologize and walk away.
“I don’t know why we should put him there. He doesn’t care. His speeches are…” I waited as she searched for the word. “His speeches are platitudes. It is full of sugary words to make you feel nice and warm but no substance.”
Rosa has seen a lot in her eighty-four years of life. She shared with me what she believes to be the truth of his campaign. “He’s only out to make this name for himself. He likes this spotlight,” said Rosa. “He likes being the center of people’s attention.”
In the end, both rallies were peaceful and without any incidents. El Paso showed once again, no matter what, we can come together and share our opinions without fear or worry.
Beto O’Rourke raised $6.1 million for his presidential campaign in his first 24 hours as a candidate, beating every other 2020 Democrat who has disclosed first-day figures, according to his campaign.
The haul surpasses that of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who raised $5.9 million in the 24 hours after his campaign launch.
O’Rourke’s campaign said the $6.1 million came from online contributions. He also said that he didn’t take any political action committee money, and that he received contributions from every state and territory in the nation.
“In just 24 hours, Americans across this country came together to prove that it is possible to run a true grassroots campaign for president — a campaign by all of us for all of us that answers not to the PACs, corporations and special interests but to the people,” O’Rourke said in a statement.
O’Rourke, an El Paso Democrat, is the second Texan in the crowded Democratic primary to take on President Donald Trump. He joins Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and U.S. housing secretary.
Candidates are not required to disclose their one-day hauls. Still, O’Rourke’s $6.1 million is an eye-popping number — especially when compared to the other Democrats who have already announced their first-day figures. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California raised $1.5 million in the first 24 hours as a candidate. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, meanwhile, raised $1 million within the first 48 hours of her campaign.
Expectations for O’Rourke’s one-day figures were high, especially after he shattered Senate campaign fundraising records and raised a total of $80 million last year in his race to unseat Ted Cruz. O’Rourke’s decision to not immediately release the 24-hour fundraising number last week had raised questions about whether he had had a successful haul. During a three-day Iowa trip, he repeatedly declined to share the figure with reporters, at one point acknowledging he was choosing not to.
We’re tracking the Texas stories in the presidential contest, from the Texans in the race to all candidates’ efforts to reach voters and raise money in the state. We’ve also compiled stories from our archives related to Texans running for president.
After months of intense speculation, Beto O’Rourke is entering the presidential race Thursday, marking an extraordinary rise from little-known El Paso congressman a few years ago to potentially formidable White House contender.
“Amy and I are happy to share with you that I’m running to serve you as the next president of the United States of America,” O’Rourke says in a video with his wife released Thursday morning. “This is a defining moment of truth for this country and for every single one of us.”
O’Rourke is making the announcement ahead of a three-day trip to Iowa that begins Thursday afternoon. In the video, O’Rourke says he will travel the country before returning to El Paso on March 30 for a kickoff rally.
“This is going to be a positive campaign that seeks to bring out the very best from every single one of us, that seeks to unite a very divided country,” O’Rourke says in the announcement. “We saw the power of this in Texas.”
O’Rourke became a national star last year as he challenged U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ultimately losing by a closer-than-expected margin. He campaigned relentlessly, visiting all of the state’s 254 counties, and shattered Senate campaignfundraising records while building an army of small-dollar donors and eschewing money from political action committees.
In recent weeks, it looked more and more clear that O’Rourke would ride the momentum from his blockbuster Senate run into his party’s crowded primary to take on President Donald Trump. It is a primary that already includes another Texan, Julián Castro.
Castro had his own announcement shortly after O’Rourke’s on Thursday morning, unveiling endorsements from 30 Texas Democrats. The list included two state senators and 17 state representatives.
O’Rourke finally confirmed his intentions Wednesday evening, telling the El Paso TV station KTSM in a text that he had decided to make a White House bid and would announce it Thursday morning.
O’Rourke is among the last high-profile Democrats to reveal their 2020 intentions. With his announcement, the spotlight intensifies on former Vice President Joe Biden, who has yet to say whether he is running.
O’Rourke begins his White House bid with a number of open questions looming over him. Among them: Can he scale up the do-it-yourself style of his Senate campaign, in which he swore off pollsters and political consultants? And how will his record hold up in a massive Democratic primary versus a statewide general election against someone like Cruz?
In November, O’Rourke did not beat Cruz but beat expectations, losing by less than 3 percentage points. And with O’Rourke at the top of the ticketin Texas, Democrats made significant gains down ballot in 2018, picking up two seats in Congress, two in the state Senate and a dozen in the Texas House.
Even before the Senate election, O’Rourke was discussed as a potential presidential candidate. During the race, he had promised not to run in 2020 but reversed himselfshortly after the election, touching off months of fervent speculation about his plans.
As he mulled a White House bid, two “Draft Beto” groups popped up and got to work laying a foundation for him in the early voting states. Looking to shake a post-election funk, O’Rourke took a solo road trip outside Texas, stopping in small towns across the Southwest and blogging at length about his experiences. He re-emerged in early February, when he went to New York City for an interview with media mogul Oprah Winfrey — and revealed that he expected to decide on his plans for 2020 by the end of the month.
After the Oprah interview, O’Rourke continued to stoke 2020 speculation, leading a counter-rally when President Donald Trump visited El Paso in early February to make the case for his long-sought border wall. Speaking to a cheering crowd of thousands, O’Rourke argued that barriers force immigrants to cross into the U.S. in more remote, dangerous stretches of the border.
“We know that walls do not save lives,” O’Rourke said. “Walls end lives.”
Around the same time, O’Rourke made another trip outside Texas, visiting Wisconsin and Illinois.
“I came here with not much of an agenda other than to listen to you,” O’Rourke told college students in Madison, according to media reports.
With his end-of-month deadline looming, O’Rourke continued to keep his options open. At an event in mid-February where he was named El Pasoan of the Year, he did not rule out taking a different path in 2020, such as running against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
“I’m not going to give a date certain but hope to be able to say something pretty soon,” he told The Texas Tribune. “I want to announce to everyone at the same time.”
It has been a remarkable rise for O’Rourke, who was little-known statewide — let alone nationally — prior to his Senate run. Even his 2018 campaign largely flew under the radar for over a year until late summer 2018, when a video went viral of him defending NFL players who kneel during the national anthem.
O’Rourke first won election to Congress in 2012, when he unseated U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, in a primary upset. Before that, O’Rourke served for six years on the El Paso City Council.
O’Rourke has come to overshadow other Texas Democrats long regarded as rising stars — including Castro. The former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor launched his campaign in mid-January and has since been making trips to the early voting states as well as those deeper into the nominating calendar.
O’Rourke’s Iowa trip — his first since he emerged as a potential candidate — will take him to over a dozen counties across the state, according to his campaign. He is so far scheduled to make stops Thursday in Burlington and Muscatine; Friday in Mount Pleasant and Cedar Rapids; and Saturday in North Liberty, Waterloo and Dubuque. Among the more notable events are a 5K run in North Liberty — reminiscent of the jogging he did with supporters in the Senate race — and a previously announced canvass kickoff in Waterloo for Eric Giddens, the Democratic candidate in a special election Tuesday for Iowa Senate.
O’Rourke’s campaign noted that of the counties he is visiting, eight voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 before flipping to Trump in 2016.
While O’Rourke is among the last prominent Democrats to announce their 2020 plans, he has not lost out on top talent in the Hawkeye State. Iowa Democrats say O’Rourke is working with a veteran operative named Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the state party.
The Republican National Committee released a statement Thursday morning criticizing O’Rourke.
“It’s telling that the Democrats’ biggest star is someone whose biggest accomplishment is losing,” RNC Communications Director Michael Ahrens said. “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.”
O’Rourke may not have been reaching out to early voting states until recently, but the draft groups have been building a foundation for him over the past few months throughout the country. One of them, Draft Beto, said it had built a volunteer staff of 24 people, put on 30 house parties in nine states, raised $40,000 and recruited students to lead chapters at over 100 colleges.
“This is the moment that thousands of volunteers across the country have been waiting for,” said Will Herberich, co-chair of the other group, Draft Beto 2020. “We’re ready to get to work.”
Beto O’Rourke, on the verge of a presidential campaign, is heading to Iowa.
The former El Paso congressman is set to visit the crucial early voting state this weekend to campaign for Eric Giddens, the Democratic candidate in a special election for an Iowa Senate seat. O’Rourke will visit Waterloo on Saturday to kick off an “afternoon of canvassing, GOTV, and grassroots organizing” for Giddens, according to O’Rourke’s team.
On Monday evening, Giddens tweeted a video from O’Rourke aimed at University of Northern Iowa students, reminding them that Wednesday is the last day to vote early on campus in the special election.
“Supporting [Giddens] for state Senate is the way that we get Iowa — and by extension, this country — back on the right track,” O’Rourke says in the video as he walks through an El Paso neighborhood wearing a “Northern Iowa” hat. “UNI, we’re counting on you and we’re looking forward to seeing you soon.”
The trip will mark O’Rourke’s first to the Hawkeye State as a potential White House contender. He has traveled the country since his closer-than-expected loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in November but has not gone to any of the traditional early voting states.
O’Rourke said two weeks ago that he had made a decision about a 2020 run and would share it with supporters soon. The build-up continued over the weekend in Austin, where O’Rourke stayed mum about the timing of the announcement while appearing at the South by Southwest festival.
But all signs point to O’Rourke entering the 2020 race soon, including his decision to get involved in Giddens’ race.
Giddens is on the ballot next Tuesday to replace a Democratic senator who resigned last month in Iowa’s Senate District 30, which covers the northeastern part of the state. O’Rourke is not the only name in the 2020 mix coming to Giddens’ aid — U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a declared candidate, is also visiting SD-30 this weekend.
Over the last year, Beto O’Rourke gained a national following for his unorthodox campaign against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. From his ubiquitous livestreams of jampacked campaign events to that viral video of him defending NFL players’ right to protest, the campaign was the latest expression of a political brand he had built up in El Paso, eschewing political labels and partisan attachments while opting for broad, values-based appeals over granular policy pronouncements.
Now, as O’Rourke prepares to join the crowded race of Democrats auditioning to take on President Donald Trump, even those who supported O’Rourke in the Senate race acknowledge a presidential bid would cast a much brighter light on an overarching question: Just who is Beto O’Rourke politically? At the heart of it, according to both supporters and critics, is a simple reality: Running against Cruz in Texas is a lot different from running against a bunch of other Democrats nationally.
“In the Democratic primary for Senate, it was such a no-brainer that for any Democrat or progressive who wanted to beat Ted Cruz, if someone as inspiring as Beto was running, there were very few questions asked about the minutiae of his policy positions,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which endorsed O’Rourke against Cruz. “But in a presidential primary, when there are so many good choices on the table, ideology matters and a candidate’s worldview matters. … And I think Beto will have a lot of worldview questions to fill in for voters, and hopefully it’s good.”
Of course, O’Rourke’s elusive political identity is what got him here in the first place — within 3 percentage points of beating Cruz and on the precipice of a White House bid. And that’s just fine to fans who see him as a transcendent figure in a divided political era — much like Barack Obama, the former president who has said he sees himself in O’Rourke.
“He might have that Obama ability to be what the voter who receives him wants to see — and I say that admiringly, not critically,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder and senior vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington. “Obama was able to make you believe that his ideology was such that it could reflect your hopes — not necessarily that he agreed with you on every single issue, but he could be your standard-bearer regardless of who you were in the progressive family of ideas.”
As he has navigated intraparty currents in recent months, O’Rourke has seemed well aware of the tension over his somewhat fuzzy political persona — and does not appear to have any plans to change.
“In Texas, Ted Cruz called me a socialist. I’m too liberal for Texas,” O’Rourke said during a recent visit to Wisconsin. “Outside of Texas, people say, ‘Is he really a Democrat? I think he’s a closet Republican.’ I don’t know where I am on a spectrum, and I almost could care less. I just want to get to better things for this country.”
“A younger, ragtag crowd”
Whatever it has come to mean, “progressive” is a term that has never been too far from O’Rourke’s political career. It was affixed to him and a few other young up-and-comers who fought their way on to the El Paso City Council in the 2000s, eager to push the border community toward its full potential as a world-class city.
O’Rourke’s time on the council was highlighted by policy positions that were undoubtedly liberal, particularly at the time: ending the drug war by legalizing marijuana, providing health benefits to same-sex couples. Yet there were also episodes that found O’Rourke in less politically clear territory — like when he was caught between powerful business interests and a historic Mexican-American neighborhood that stood in the way of a redevelopment plan.
In any case, few remember O’Rourke as a rigid ideologue or partisan warrior, even as he confronted the internecine strife that regularly takes hold in a Democratic stronghold like El Paso. In some ways, it was in his DNA: His late father, Pat O’Rourke, had served in countywide office as a Democrat before switching parties in the 1990s to run for other positions — and lose.
“That has to have some impact on the way that you think about party,” said Richard Pineda, a University of Texas at El Paso communications professor who has long known O’Rourke. “You can’t just say party only, party forever. … That burns you sometimes, and that’s enough to derail progress or derail action.”
When O’Rourke launched his successful bid for the U.S. House in 2012, he did not make an ideological case against the incumbent, El Paso’s longtime Democratic congressman, Silvestre Reyes, as much as one about his ethics and entrenchment. Along the way, O’Rourke built a coalition that provided an unorthodox contrast to Reyes’ support from the Democratic old guard.
“O’Rourke’s supporters are harder to classify but seem to be a younger, ragtag crowd of unaffiliated liberals, crossover Republicans, independents and moderates looking for a change,” El Paso journalist David Crowder wrote at the time in a local publication.
Exit polling conducted by a student group at Coronado High School and well-regarded locally suggested Crowder was onto something. The group, We(fillintheblank), found Reyes won Democrats but that O’Rourke beat him roughly 2 to 1 among independents and more than 7 to 1 among self-identified Republicans who chose to vote in the Democratic primary.
“A work in progress”
Years later, as O’Rourke again began thinking about running for higher office, he visited with Jim Hightower, the former Texas agriculture commissioner and rabble-rousing populist who was a Bernie Sanders surrogate in 2016. O’Rourke, in Hightower’s telling, expressed his desire to be the “candidate of progressives” in Texas but also did not want to be another statewide candidate who taps out at 40 percent of the vote.
Hightower’s first real encounter with O’Rourke’s politics was in 2015, when he participated in a protest in El Paso against two high-profile trade issues before Congress: Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The debate put O’Rourke in a tough spot, pinched between his representation of a hub of international trade and labor unions who vocally opposed bothTPA andTPP. O’Rourke ended up voting for TPA but withholding support for TPP, which never came up for a vote.
The developments left Hightower convinced O’Rourke is at least willing to listen.
The issue emerged again in the Senate race, when the Texas AFL-CIO initially declined to endorse O’Rourke. There were other factors at play in the decision beyond his support for TPA, but it was an issue the group had nonetheless been talking to O’Rourke about, according to its president, Rick Levy. He said members eventually got to a point where they were “comfortable with him being our Senate candidate when it comes to the issue of trade.”
“What I like about Beto is he is a work in progress,” Hightower said. “He is trying to learn what America, what government, should be and do, not just in terms of particular policies but in terms of values and how he can express his personal values and fairness and opportunity for all in a political agenda.”
That dynamic was evident in O’Rourke’s Senate race. Through countless town halls, O’Rourke expressed a set of clearly fixed beliefs — there should not be a border wall, for example — but also demonstrated an almost instinctive receptiveness when confronted with new ideas, often thinking through them out loud, regardless of how politically fraught they were.
One prominent example was the “Abolish ICE” movement, which caught fire last summer. Pressed about it by an activist, O’Rourke gave a confusing answer in which he both said he would be “open to” eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the main federal agency in charge of immigration law enforcement, and then argued against the idea because he did not know what the immediate consequences would be for immigration law enforcement. For the rest of the race, Cruz hammered O’Rourke for the former part of the answer, while Abolish ICE activists balked at the latter part. In the weeks that followed, O’Rourke never again went as far as expressing openness to abolishing ICE but emphasized the need to reform the agency’s practices.
Even when O’Rourke could be hard to pin down at times, he made people confident that he cared about what they cared about — and “that is a gift,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of the progressive group Progress Texas. On O’Rourke’s Senate bid, Espinoza added, “I don’t think it was as issues-driven as values-driven.”
That campaign style would likely come under stronger scrutiny in the presidential race, where some Democratic candidates are already taking firm stances on hot-button issues and rolling out detailed proposals.
“You have to differentiate yourself in this field — you can’t just be like the cool skateboarding guy you dated in college,” said Laura Moser, a former Democratic congressional candidate from Houston who hails from the progressive wing of the party. “You have to have something really strong to differentiate yourself policy-wise.”
O’Rourke has appeared conscious of the need for a more detailed platform, especially after a Washington Post interview published in mid-January that called into question his policy know-how on a key issue: the border. Since then, O’Rourke has unveiled a 10-point immigration plan, as well as a five-point outline on criminal justice reform. Each plan contains ideas he has largely expressed before.
“I’m not big on labels”
It was not long after O’Rourke emerged as a potential presidential candidate late last year that questions about his political identity came into sharp relief. They were mostly confined to social media and a few opinion pieces, but there were several common threads: his less-than-ironclad support for things like Medicare for All and tuition-free college – two of the most prominent issues advocated by an increasingly vocal left wing of the party, his membership in Congress in the centrist New Democratic Coalition and not the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the amount of campaign contributions he got from oil and gas executives in a state dominated by the industry. Analyses of his voting record in the House highlighted how at times he voted with Republicans despite representing one of the bluest districts in the country.
They were the kinds of issues that may have come up had O’Rourke faced a competitive Senate primary last March. Yet there were signs even then of weak spots in his Democratic base. Two challengers with far fewer resources managed to draw more than a third of the primary vote, capping O’Rourke’s support at an embarrassing 62 percent. Still, the second-place finisher, a self-described “Berniecrat” named Sema Hernandez, met with O’Rourke after the primary and eventually endorsed him.
After the November election, as interest in O’Rourke’s 2020 plans intensified along with heightened scrutiny from his left, he did not do much to appease the newfound skeptics. Asked at a December town hall if he considered himself a progressive, he said he did not know and that he was “not big on labels” — a familiar refrain for anyone who has followed his campaigns but a splash of cold water to those just beginning to size up the relatively new national figure.
Since then, O’Rourke has only had to navigate more fault lines within his party. He has spoken positively about the concept behind the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to fight climate change spearheaded by freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. But he has also said he disagrees with some of the specifics in the proposal and that he prefers it more narrowly focus on climate than it currently does.
Of Ocasio-Cortez herself, O’Rourke is a fan. During a visit last month to his alma mater, Columbia University, O’Rourke praised her for breathing new life into the national political discourse, even jokingly lamenting that she is too young to run for president.
Still, O’Rourke has decisively steered clear of the ideology that has fueled Ocasio-Cortez’s recent rise: democratic socialism. Asked twice in recent weeks about socialism, O’Rourke has responded by pointedly declaring himself a capitalist, saying most recently that he does not “see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges that we have as a country without, in part, harnessing the power of the market.”
O’Rourke also has a unique footing in the party’s biggest, most recent divide: the 2016 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. O’Rourke largely stayed out of the contest, waiting to endorse Clinton until she had all but wrapped up the nomination, a move he said was deliberate because he did not want to tip the scales as a superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention. Even as he backed Clinton, O’Rourke praised Sanders’ contributions to the primary.
In the Senate race, O’Rourke was uninterested in relitigating his party’s 2016 presidential primary — at times emphatically so. During an event in San Marcos early in the race, O’Rourke became frustrated as an audience member prodded him to take sides in the lingering tensions from the primary.
“I frankly could care less,” O’Rourke said. “I don’t care about Bernie. I don’t care about Hillary. I don’t care about Tom Perez or the DNC. I care about Texas. I care about you …. So don’t ask me about Bernie. I don’t care about Bernie.”
The 2016 primary was not the last time in recent history that O’Rourke grappled with the question of who was best to represent his party. Weeks after Clinton lost to Trump, O’Rourke joined with 62 other House Democrats to vote against Nancy Pelosi for minority leader, backing Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio instead. At the time, O’Rourke said he was grateful for Pelosi’s long tenure but believed that “for any organization to succeed, there must be a change in leadership to ensure that it continues to meet new and evolving opportunities and challenges.”
If Pelosi, now the speaker, harbored any ill will, it has not been apparent as O’Rourke’s star has risen. She lauded O’Rourke in a video that was played before he received the El Pasoan of the Year award last month in his hometown. Upon taking the stage, O’Rourke jokingly said he had not been sure Pelosi knew who he was until he saw the video.
Another part of O’Rourke’s political brand that will likely receive fresh scrutiny in a presidential campaign is his occasionally go-it-alone approach to party politics. That was on display from the start of the cycle, when he went on a profile-raising road trip with Texas’ most vulnerable Republican congressman, Will Hurd, and then took a vow of neutrality in the race to unseat the Helotes lawmaker.
The eventual Democratic nominee against Hurd, Gina Ortiz Jones, ended up losing to him by less than a half of a percentage point while O’Rourke carried the district by 5 points.
It was not the only episode that left some fellow Democrats questioning whether O’Rourke was a team player. While he appeared at a handful of events with fellow statewide candidates when they were in the same parts of the state, he did not go out of his way to campaign with — or for — the attention-starved bunch, absent at the overwhelming majority of joint appearances they organized in the months before the election.
Of course, Texas Democrats ended up almost universally grateful for the impact O’Rourke had down ballot by running such a strong race at the top of the ticket. But that does not mean some do not wonder what could have been.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that everybody down ballot would’ve appreciated a more concerted effort from the top down, and in the long run, I don’t see how that could’ve hurt Beto’s candidacy,” said a former top staffer to another Democratic statewide candidate, granted anonymity to speak candidly about the party’s biggest star right now. “If anything, it would’ve helped it.”
Then again, it is unsurprising to many that O’Rourke would chart his own course in any political aspect. Hightower said he’s offered O’Rourke a number of progressive ideas — and “he’s even accepted a few of them, but he puts them in his own terms, and I have huge respect for that.”
“It doesn’t always fit into a liberal-progressive-conservative-moderate package,” Espinoza said of O’Rourke’s appeal. “He is very clearly a progressive voice, but the way he packages it may not always sound the way other people say it.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso and Progress Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Beto O’Rourke is days away from making a big decision about his political future.
If he wants to capitalize on the political superstardom he accumulated after barely losing to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s midterms, two obvious paths lie before him: He could run for president or pursue another Senate bid, this time against John Cornyn.
The former congressman has kept up the suspense in recent days, keeping his options open amid intense speculation as to what his final decision may be. O’Rourke, an El Paso Democrat, said he’ll decide before the end of February whether he’ll throw his hat in the ring to challenge Republican Donald Trump for the presidency.
Here are six questions that loom over O’Rourke as he makes up his mind.
Could he replicate his blockbuster Senate fundraising numbers?
O’Rourke rose to national prominence in part because of his eye-popping fundraising against Cruz. Gathered largely through small-dollar donations, the money he easily raked in totaled over $80 million — without a dime of PAC money — compared to the Republican incumbent’s $39 million.
Putting together money for a presidential campaign — especially in an already crowded primary — is a different story.
Then there’s the question of whether O’Rourke will again crusade against taking money from wealthy donors and PACs — a move that would mirror what other Democratic candidates have done. Castro disavowed PAC money before he even entered the race. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also said she won’t take PAC money of any kind.
Should he skip the White House and run another statewide campaign?
While occupying the Oval Office obviously comes with its own set of perks, some top Democrats are encouraging the El Pasoan to take a more measured approach: skip the White House and challenge Cornyn.
Politico reported last week that O’Rourke met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to talk about another Senate campaign. And a new poll conducted by the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling shows O’Rourke could pose a threat to Cornyn if he goes that route. The former Democratic congressman trails Cornyn by 2 percentage points, 45 percent to 47 percent, in a hypothetical matchup, according to the survey. Eight percent of respondents were unsure.
Some political pundits predict that having O’Rourke’s name at the top of the ticket could elevate down-ballot candidates in the state and make Texas a competitive grab for whichever Democrat faces Trump — a move that could put the state in play for the first time in decades.
“One would be hard-pressed to look at the crowded field of reasonably formidable contenders that are looking to get the Democratic nomination, and then look at what the field will look like from Cornyn’s position and not think that the odds are much higher of winning the Senate seat than winning the Democratic primary nomination and then the presidency,” said Jim Henson, one of the pollsters behind the University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls.
To be sure, Cornyn is aware that O’Rourke may be a competitor in 2020. In a fundraising email where he announced a “STOP BETO FUND,” the senator told supporters Wednesday, “We need to be ready for anything.”
“I don’t know if you’ve heard the news, but 2018 Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke is talking about another run in 2020 — and this time he’s collaborating with Chuck Schumer to paint a target on my back,” the email reads. “It’s still early, but we CAN NOT afford to let Beto carry this momentum into 2020.”
Can he take the style of his Senate campaign national?
O’Rourke’s Senate bid was unconventional. He did not rely on pollsters or consultants to shape his message, he eschewed all PAC money, he livestreamed constantly and he traveled everywhere, going to all 254 Texas counties. Some of those strategies may be easier than others to replicate in a far more demanding national campaign.
Asked Tuesday if he’d do anything different as a White House hopeful — such as hire a pollster — O’Rourke said he didn’t know.
“I haven’t really gotten to thinking through those kinds of issues,” O’Rourke told reporters after an event in El Paso. “I think any campaign I run … I would want to run in the same way that I run every race — just as grassroots as possible, powered by people, directly connected to the people I want to serve and represent.
“You would see much the same style of campaign, whatever we do next,” O’Rourke said, quickly adding, “if we do anything next.”
Does his resume measure up to the contenders already in the race?
O’Rourke stood out in Texas last year, but standing out nationally could prove to be a challenge for him. He hasn’t held many elected offices and doesn’t have many major legislative or policy accomplishments to point to. Aside from that, he lost the race he’s most well known for.
The Democrats who have committed to running in 2020, meanwhile, may look a bit more impressive on paper. Among them are current U.S. senators and the runner-up for the 2016 Democratic nomination. Other well-known Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, are still deliberating runs.
What might work in O’Rourke’s favor is not running on his resume but highlighting his rock-star status that allowed him to energize voters and grassroots in what turned out to be a nail-biter election against Cruz.
How will a White House run affect his family?
During his Senate campaign, O’Rourke often mentioned his wife, Amy, and three young children, Ulysses, Molly and Henry. When the race concluded and the former congressman first announced he wasn’t ruling out a presidential run, he made clear his family would factor into his decision.
“Now that that is no longer possible, we’re thinking through a number of things, and Amy and I made a decision not to rule anything out,” O’Rourke said at the time. “The best advice I received from people who’ve run for and won — and run for and lost — elections like this is: Don’t make any decisions about anything until you’ve had some time to hang with your family and just be human. And so I am following that advice.”
During a February interview with media mogul Oprah Winfrey, the El Pasoan said that he and former President Barack Obama discussed the toll a White House bid can put on a family — something O’Rourke is seemingly still coming to terms with as he mulls a 2020 presidential run.
“For me, it will really be family” that makes the final decision, O’Rourke told Winfrey.
O’Rourke’s family has appeared with him at events within the the state as he ponders entering the crowded Democratic presidential primary. Arecent example was during a march and rally in El Paso that was steps away from a campaign rally Trump held in the border city at around the same time.
Is he the best representative for a changing Democratic Party?
With multiple unconventional candidates in the ring, traditional campaign tactics might get thrown out the window, meaning the Democrats will have to look for unique ways to capture the attention of a growing voter base that’s seeing more black Americans and Hispanics enter the fray.
The changing demographics of the Democratic party also have some wondering if O’Rourke — a white male — will be the best representative for the party in 2020.
Aside from the changing racial demographics of the party, Democrats across the nation are grappling with a potentially burgeoning leftist shift in the party, especially as prominent figures like U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Sanders accumulate national acclaim for energizing grassroots and pushing policies that align with Democratic socialism.
As the Ocasio-Cortezes of the party and ideas like #AbolishICE excite the left, there’s a question of who will motivate more voters in 2020, a progressive candidate or a centrist one.
O’Rourke told reporters in El Paso this week that he doesn’t “see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges we have as a country without in part harnessing the power of the market.”
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
In a digital ad that recently went viral, Beto O’Rourke tore into President Trump’s desired border wall with soaring footage of the Rio Grande Valley and an explanation of what the wall would do: cut off access to the river, shrink the size of the United States and force the seizure of privately-held land.
It noted that most undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States in the past decade came not over the border but on visas that then expired.
So what should be done to address visa overstays?
“I don’t know,” O’Rourke said, pausing in a lengthy interview.
O’Rourke, who represented a border district in the House for six years, talked through the issue and came up with a possible solution: The United States could harmonize its visa system with Mexico’s to keep better track of who is coming into the country and leaving it.
“That’s an answer,” he said, “but that’s something that we should be debating.”
When it comes to many of the biggest policy issues facing the country today, O’Rourke’s default stance is to call for a debate — even on issues related to the border and immigration, which he has heavily emphasized in videos posted to Facebook and Instagram over the past month.
O’Rourke’s approach reflects how he is likely to handle issues should he launch a presidential campaign. Beyond a few mainstream Democratic stances — including closing private immigration prisons, allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens and modernizing the work visa system — O’Rourke insists the thorny immigration answers will come from everyday Americans. It’s an approach that puts off specifics that might define him or narrow his appeal in a presidential race — but O’Rourke says he is being open-minded, as he wishes more politicians would be.
“That’s a problem when you’re like, ‘It will be a wall,’ or ‘It will be this,’ or ‘We can only do it with this,’” O’Rourke said when asked why he doesn’t have firm stances. “The genius is we can nonviolently resolve our differences, though I won’t get to my version of perfect or I, working with you, will get to something better than what we have today . . . It’s rare that someone’s ever been able to impose their will unilaterally in this country. We don’t want that.”
He insists that once Americans are informed about “the facts and the story and the information and the opportunity,” they will come to the right conclusions about what to do about an issue that has divided the country for decades.
“I trust the wisdom of people. And I’m confident — especially after having traveled Texas for two years — people are good, fundamentally, and if given the choice to do the right thing, they will. To do the good thing, they will,” he said, referring to his unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign while giving a walking tour of El Paso and its Mexican sister city, Juarez.
On other issues, his approach was similar.
When asked whether he agrees with Trump’s plan to quickly withdraw troops from Syria, O’Rourke said he would like to see “a debate, a discussion, a national conversation about why we’re there, why we fight, why we sacrifice the lives of American service members, why we’re willing to take the lives of others” in all the countries where the U.S. is involved.
“There may be a very good reason to do it. I don’t necessarily understand — and I’ve been a member of Congress for six years,” O’Rourke said. “We haven’t had a meaningful discussion about these wars since 2003.”
Asked about the “Green New Deal” being crafted by Democrats to dramatically curb climate change emissions and heavily invest in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, he praised it as a “bold” start that avoided “wishy-washy change.”
The details are apt to change, he said, adding, “But, thank God the work has been done to articulate the goal, the vision, the means to achieve it, and that’s a perfect point from which to start a conversation.”
As O’Rourke’s decision on a presidential campaign nears, immigration is the issue in which he has chosen to invest his time — putting him directly at odds with President Trump, against whom the next Democratic nominee will compete.
For all his current focus on the border, O’Rourke played a negligible role in shaping immigration policy during his six years in Congress, which ended this month. Even now, he rarely uses his expanding national platform to call for specific legislation or transformative changes in the immigration system.
He said he believes that the border is already fully secured and that further investment would take it even further “past the point of diminishing returns,” pushing migrants seeking to cross the border illegally into more dangerous and desolate territory.
“You will ensure death,” he said of Trump’s proposed wall. “You and I, as Americans, have caused the deaths of others through these walls.”
Just as Trump has used the heart-wrenching stories of Americans murdered by undocumented immigrants to build support for his wall, O’Rourke leans on a narrative of migrants and those living along the border. In his unsuccessful race for the Senate last year, O’Rourke frequently compared Central American migrants fleeing violence and poverty to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis and being refused entry into many countries, including the United States.
Luis Gutierrez, the former Democratic congressman from Illinois who spearheaded immigration measures in the House for many years, said he was “very pleasantly surprised” to see O’Rourke suddenly interested in immigration last year. Even though O’Rourke represented a majority Hispanic district along the border, he was not deeply involved with immigration reform, Gutierrez said. But he praised O’Rourke for his recent efforts to demystify the border and bring attention to immigration issues.
“A lot of people want to talk about where people start,” he said, “and I like to talk about where people are at.”
The last major attempt at a sweeping immigration package came just after O’Rourke took office. In June 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill that would have allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to legally stay in the United States and eventually become citizens. It also would have doubled the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents along the southern border and authorized 700 miles of fencing.
O’Rourke said at the time that he supported “a pathway to citizenship for immigrants that pay their taxes, obey our laws and learn English,” but he opposed efforts to “militarize our border against a threat that does not exist.”
Then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to take up the Senate’s immigration bill, at which point, O’Rourke said, the issue died.
“We could have these discussions in caucus meetings, but it’s like spitting in the wind if [Republican lawmakers] are not going to actually engage in the conversation,” O’Rourke said. “There was a huge missed opportunity, which created the opportunity — in some ways — for Trump.”
O’Rourke is trying to undo Trump’s image of the border by showing Americans what he sees.
In the past month, he has introduced his followers to migrant families just released from detention centers, broadcast a rally held outside a tent camp that once housed thousands of detained migrant children and showed the numbers written on the wrists of Guatemalan migrants waiting their turn to claim asylum in the United States. He has taken his followers along on a late-night walk through his historic El Paso neighborhood and a Saturday night trip to Juarez for dinner with his family.
He has interviewed his neighbors — and, rather famously, his dental hygienist during a cleaning — about life on the border, reinforcing their feeling of safety in a zone the president has condemned as crime-ridden.
After Trump spoke to the nation about his demand for border wall funding in exchange for reopening the government, O’Rourke aired, to thousands, a conversation with two close friends discussing the president’s messaging.
“He has seized this emotional language very effectively — completely irresponsibly, not tethered to the truth,” O’Rourke said. “But if I don’t live in El Paso, if I haven’t had the experience that we have, if I live in Michigan, Iowa, Oregon, the northern border, I may not know any better . . . The president of the United States just said that there are rapists and criminals and murderers who will chop your head off coming to get us . . . And so I can see responding that way.”
Throughout the two-hour interview — which was often interrupted by bystanders urging him to run for president — O’Rourke boomeranged between a bright-eyed hope that the United States will soon dramatically change its approach to a whole host of issues and a dismal suspicion that the country is now incapable of implementing sweeping change.
When asked which it is, O’Rourke paused.
“I’m hesitant to answer it because I really feel like it deserves its due, and I don’t want to give you a — actually, just selfishly, I don’t want a sound bite of it reported, but, yeah, I think that’s the question of the moment: Does this still work?” O’Rourke said. “Can an empire like ours with military presence in over 170 countries around the globe, with trading relationships . . . and security agreements in every continent, can it still be managed by the same principles that were set down 230-plus years ago?”
O’Rourke doesn’t yet know the answer, but he’s ready to discuss it.