O’Rourke is mov­ing to­ward a 2020 race he could up­end

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Matt Flegenheimer and Lisa Lerer

Beto O’Rourke has driven alone across the plains, strain­ing to find his emo­tional bear­ings – or at least a Pan­cake House in Lib­eral, Kan. He has col­lected an “El Pa­soan of the Year” award, be­fore a mod­est au­di­ence, and smiled coyly through an in­ter­view with Oprah Win­frey, be­fore a big­ger one.

He has sur­faced on col­lege cam­puses, to lis­ten to stu­dents; at a Me­tal­lica con­cert, to lis­ten to Me­tal­lica; and at the premiere of a doc­u­men­tary about his star-mak­ing Se­nate run in Texas at the South by South­west fes­ti­val, to lis­ten to him­self on screen. He has jour­naled ex­ten­sively.

“We’re in this to­gether, like it or not,” O’Rourke wrote, sum­ma­riz­ing the lessons of his re­cent solo trav­els in one of sev­eral stream-of-con­scious­ness on­line posts. “The al­ter­na­tive is to be in this apart, and that would be hell.”

As the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial field takes fi­nal shape, O’Rourke seems in­clined to be in this, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with peo­ple who have spo­ken to him and other top Democrats. He says he has made a de­ci­sion about whether to run and could an­nounce it as early as this week, un­set­tling prospec­tive ri­val cam­paigns that con­sider him a cred­i­ble threat.

Yet in the four months since his Se­nate loss, O’Rourke, 46, has done lit­tle to demon­strate the kind of in­ten­sive prepa­ra­tion – build­ing na­tional po­lit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, pro­ject­ing a sig­na­ture pol­icy ra­tio­nale for a can­di­dacy – typ­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with a top-flight pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

There has been no flir­ta­tion tour in Iowa, no trip to New Hamp­shire since his col­lege years as an Ivy League rower. O’Rourke had no tra­di­tional cam­paign-in-wait­ing at the ready after the midterms – the sort of op­er­a­tion avail­able to a more ex­pe­ri­enced hold­out like for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den or care­fully built over months by first-time pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates like Sens. Elizabeth War­ren, D-Mass., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ka­mala Har­ris, D-Calif.

Few doubt O’Rourke’s ca­pac­ity to up­end the race re­gard­less, buoyed by a tal­ent for re­lent­less re­tail pol­i­tics, a formidable low-dol­lar fundrais­ing army and an un­sub­tle con­trast to front-run­ners in their 70s, like Bi­den and Sen. Bernie San­ders, I-Vt.

O’Rourke also can count on help from sev­eral vet­er­ans of for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s cam­paigns. One of them, Paul Tewes, Obama’s 2008 Iowa state di­rec­tor, has been help­ing to plan O’Rourke’s can­di­dacy, ac­cord­ing to three Democrats fa­mil­iar with the ef­fort, and O’Rourke is con­sid­er­ing mak­ing a trip to Iowa as soon as this week.

But per­haps no ma­jor 2020 player in­vites as many ques­tion marks as O’Rourke, and his drawn-out non­can­di­dacy has pro­vided few an­swers:

Is this the mo­ment for a rel­a­tively untested white male in a party ea­ger to el­e­vate fe­male and non­white voices in the quest to de­throne Pres­i­dent Trump?

Can O’Rourke scale up to a na­tional cam­paign with­out los­ing the in­ti­mate, semi-im­pro­vi­sa­tional feel of his per­pet­u­ally livestreamed Se­nate bid?

And in a pri­mary where some top can­di­dates have al­ready sought to es­tab­lish pro­gres­sive lit­mus tests on key is­sues, what does O’Rourke ac­tu­ally be­lieve?

“He’s still an open book,” said Mau­rice Mitchell, na­tional di­rec­tor for the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Party. “He sort of cat­a­pulted him­self into the na­tional spot­light with­out an­swer­ing a lot of ques­tions about where he stands.”

O’Rourke has be­trayed lit­tle con­cern about cater­ing to his left flank. Peo­ple close to him say a cen­tral take­away from speak­ing to dis­parate au­di­ences re­cently is that vot­ers are far less ide­o­log­i­cal than some in the party might be­lieve – sup­ply­ing an open­ing, O’Rourke senses, for a uni­fy­ing fig­ure in a bog of par­ti­san war­riors.

In pub­lic set­tings, he has placed im­mi­gra­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and es­pe­cially cli­mate change at the cen­ter of his re­marks, which tend to fo­cus most on a high-minded-but-vague mes­sage of unit­ing a di­vided nation. Per­haps mind­ful of this rep­u­ta­tion, he has re­cently un­veiled mul­ti­point plans on im­mi­gra­tion and crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form. Both sketch out ideas he has largely out­lined be­fore.

Friends say he has cy­cled through a num­ber of pol­icy pas­sions through the years – mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion, ad­vo­cacy for vet­er­ans, ru­ral hospi­tal ac­cess – of­ten prompted by in­sights from peo­ple he meets.

“It’s the time that calls his is­sues,” said Steve Ortega, a friend who served on the El Paso City Coun­cil with him.

Un­like other can­di­dates who re­cruited staff mem­bers over the past year with a wink and a nod, O’Rourke was still con­vey­ing un­cer­tainty as re­cently as last month. Since then, he has sounded firmer.

“I think he feels his time is now,” said Randi Wein­garten, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, who met with O’Rourke at length.

After pro­lific suc­cess with small-dol­lar donors dur­ing the midterms, O’Rourke is likely to have lit­tle trou­ble rais­ing enough money to get a pres­i­den­tial run off the ground. His pres­ence could en­er­gize some cru­cial vot­ing blocs.

“If he got in, it would be a pretty big game-changer,” said Eliana Locke, who leads the Col­lege Democrats at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son, where O’Rourke met with stu­dents last month.

New York Times

Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand speaks dur­ing a cam­paign stop at Dart­mouth Col­lege in Hanover, N.H. An aide to Gil­li­brand re­signed last year after ac­cus­ing the senator’s top aides of mis­han­dling a sex­ual ha­rass­ment com­plaint she filed.

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