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