It’s official: O’Rourke’s running
Former El Paso rep announces White House effort on social media
WASHINGTON — Beto O’Rourke, the upstart Texas Democrat who seized the nation’s attention in an audaciously close Senate run against conservative icon Ted Cruz, announced Thursday that he’ll jump into the 2020 presidential race.
Reigniting the social media swirl of his 2018 Senate campaign, the former congressman from El Paso launched his run in a video on Facebook, Twitter and other digital platforms, setting up a series of weekend events in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa.
“This is a defining moment of truth for this country and for every single one of us,” O’Rourke said in the early morning video, sitting beside his wife, Amy, in a
living room in El Paso. “The challenges that we face right now, the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy and our climate have never been greater. … They will either consume us, or they will afford us the greatest opportunity to unleash the genius of the United States of America.”
The long-anticipated announcement
adds O’Rourke to a crowded field of Democrats vying to take on President Donald Trump.
O’Rourke repeatedly has clashed with the administration’s policies on border security, asylum and immigration.
Running on his identity as a lifelong resident of Texas’ heavily Hispanic border region, O’Rourke could be a leading Democratic voice on immigration, an issue Trump made the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign with his promise to build a wall spanning the U.S. border with Mexico.
No issue defines O’Rourke more than his passionate opposition to Trump’s pursuit of wall funding, which continues to be the central divide between the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress.
O’Rourke’s decision to run for president — one the 46-year-old father of three agonized over for months — could reshape the Democratic primary contest as well as the 2020 Senate race in Texas.
He had been viewed as the most potent threat to three-term Republican incumbent John Cornyn.
Cornyn, portraying O’Rourke as an acolyte of Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, had begun fundraising on the specter of an O’Rourke challenge, launching a “Stop Beto fund.”
O’Rourke’s more immediate challenge will be setting himself apart from a left-leaning field of Democrats — including Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders — who’ve been raising money and campaigning for weeks in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
In contrast, O’Rourke has drawn widespread attention for a solo road trip out West, which was variously praised as an authentic quest for personal discovery and ridiculed as an exercise in privilege and self-indulgence.
As he did in his surprisingly close loss to Cruz, O’Rourke signaled that the fuel for his presidential campaign will be grassroots organizing, small-dollar donations, social media savvy, and a personal charisma that supporters liken to that of the late Bobby Kennedy or former President Barack Obama.
“This is going to be a positive campaign,” O’Rourke said, promising to revive a campaign spirit “that seeks to unite a very divided country.”
In a nod to his Senate campaign, he added: “We saw the power of this in Texas.”
He will start with a vast online following of supporters who contributed a record $80 million to his effort to topple Cruz.
But unlike in his Senate campaign — highlighted by appearances with Texas music legend Willie Nelson — O’Rourke will face a Democratic primary electorate divided between more than a dozen contenders, many with their own claims on activists’ affections.
Many still are awaiting the decision of former Vice President Joe Biden, who instantly could be considered the Democratic frontrunner.
While the list of contenders grows, some analysts see O’Rourke as a unique political figure from the American West who could broaden the traditional Democratic coalition.
“The number of people interested and prepared to be active in the Democratic primary expands,” said Democratic strategist Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project, a Texas political action committee. “He’s one of those people who creates interest in politics and public policy in people who otherwise are just watching.”
O’Rourke also would be one of the youngest hopefuls in the Democratic primaries, part of a “Generation X” cohort that came of age after President Ronald Reagan and entered adulthood under President Bill Clinton, the first Baby Boomer president.
O’Rourke’s backers are focusing on millennials and other young voters.
“We’re investing heavily in students because they make up such a significant portion of Beto’s base, and turning them out in 2020 will be essential in both the primary and general elections,” said Nate Lerner, co-founder of DraftBeto.org, one of two national groups that had been encouraging O’Rourke to run.
A former punk band guitarist and tech company founder, O’Rourke has blended youthful idealism with an entrepreneurial streak and an ardent commitment to the bi-cultural heritage of his home town, which is 80 percent Latino.
A fluent Spanish speaker, O’Rourke made El Paso’s close relationship with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a major theme of his Senate campaign, which celebrated immigration as cultural and economic asset for Texas and the nation.
“If immigration is a problem,” O’Rourke said in his announcement, “it is the best possible problem for this nation to have.”
Cruz and other GOP critics dismissed his sunny vision as vague and “too liberal for Texas.” Cruz attacked O’Rourke for defending NFL players who knelt during the national anthem and for saying he was open to abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a statement from which O’Rourke ultimately retreated.
But amid the attacks, “Betomania” spread on social media from Texas to both coasts, along with the accompanying campaign cash and email lists, the lifeblood of 21st century political campaigns.
“The precursor of getting an online donation is having email addresses and having a previous online relationship with those people,” said Texas Democratic strategist Colin Strother. “Beto has that to the tune of close to $100 million.”
Although Trump branded him a loser for his defeat at Cruz’s hands, O’Rourke energized Democrats nationwide with a campaign that brought them closer to a statewide victory in the Lone Star State than any Democrat had in a generation.
“How many candidates running are truly inspiring?” asked Ed Espinoza, who runs the leftleaning group Progress Texas. “Where is the Obama, the Howard Dean, the Bill Clinton of this race? There’s room for somebody who really inspires people. He really brings that to this race.”
The Democratic base will have to take the measure of O’Rourke against Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, two leading contenders who, along with Sanders, have shown energy, drive and passion.
O’Rourke’s entry in the race also could elevate the stakes in the Texas Democratic primaries, where he and former San Antonio Mayor and HUD Secretary Julian Castro could vie for native son status.
O’Rourke’s campaign style is
unconventional: Repudiating consultants, pollsters and PAC money, he relies on “showing up,” spreading his message via social media, word-of-mouth and grassroots energy.
“He’s a real person,” Strother said. “He’s not a cookie-cutter candidate. He speaks off-the-cuff and from the heart. Therefore, he doesn’t always say everything perfectly.”
But even some sympathetic strategists have questioned whether he can succeed with that approach on a national scale.
In some respects, O’Rourke’s signature opposition to a border wall — he even has talked about taking down some barriers around El Paso — could position him as the Democrat who presents the starkest contrast to Trump.
Wherever the fight is joined, O’Rourke will be expected to be Trump’s antithesis in style and substance.
“This moment of peril,” O’Rourke said in his video Thursday, “produces perhaps the greatest moment of promise for this country and for everyone inside it.’’
Asked his reaction to O’Rourke’s announcement, Trump said: “I think he’s got a lot of hand movement. I’ve never seen so much hand movement. I said, ‘Is he crazy or is that just the way he acts?’”
Trump said he’s ready to take on any Democratic candidate: “Whoever it is, it makes no difference to me whatsoever.”
Texan Beto O’Rourke campaigns at the Bean Counter in Burlington, Iowa. His decision to run for president could reshape the Democratic primary contest.