Beto O’Rourke launched his long-anticipated campaign for president on Thursday, a bid that will test his ability to replicate the energy from his high-profile Senate race in a crowded field where he is sure to face more Democratic scrutiny.
O’Rourke came close to toppling Sen. Ted Cruz in reliably Republican Texas in 2018 with an unconventional campaign that demonstrated the former congressman’s fundraising and social media prowess. But in the 2020 contest, O’Rourke — while widely considered a top-tier candidate — faces a pack of progressive rivals, many of whom have more liberal credentials, stronger ties to the early-voting states and more robust political organizations than he does.
O’Rourke is seeking to make up some ground with a trip to Iowa starting Thursday afternoon, though some Democrats in the state that kicks off the nominating process say he has some catching up to do.
“He hasn’t been in Iowa, he hasn’t made calls into Iowa, he hasn’t hired, until now, any staff in Iowa,” said veteran Iowa Democrat Jerry Crawford. “I’m sure his calculation … is, he has sufficient public interest in him that he can afford to be a little later to the party, but a lot of people in Iowa have chosen sides, particularly at the staff level.”
“So the question is, Beto showed enormous charisma in his Texas race,” Crawford added. “Can he come and create that instantly in Iowa? I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges said that may be more challenging to do now that O’Rourke faces a large group of opponents who also connect with the Democratic base.
“Last year, it was Beto versus Ted Cruz, who was a very disliked figure not only among Democrats, but among a lot of Republicans,” Hodges said. “In a Democratic primary, you have a whole different set of dynamics. There’s a number of other charismatic candidates in the race.”
Many of those candidates have embraced increasingly liberal policies, from endorsing the idea of exploring some form of reparations for African-Americans affected by slavery, to applauding potential campaign unionization efforts.
O’Rourke, however, has shied away from identifying as a progressive, saying that he doesn’t like labels, and has at times been reluctant to offer detailed positions even on issues that are relevant to his home state, including elements of immigration policy. That approach may not be sustainable in a presidential contest where candidates who largely agree on core issues search for ways to stand out.
In a video announcing his campaign, O’Rourke struck a unifying message, speaking directly to the camera while sitting beside his wife Amy.
“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 said. “We saw the power of this in Texas, where people allowed no difference however great or however small to stand between them and divide us.”
Over the past several months, O’Rourke has not taken the traditional steps of a presidential hopeful. He took a solo road trip, documenting his travels on his blog and on Instagram, openly acknowledging at one point that he felt adrift. He was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in Times Square in New York. And he attended a screening of a documentary about his Senate campaign at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
Still, O’Rourke enters the race as a serious contender with a formidable national fundraising network and a proven ability to electrify large crowds. He also receives an organizational boost from multiple “Draft Beto” grassroots groups that have been working to maintain enthusiasm for O’Rourke in the early states.Their efforts have recently included house parties, fundraising and list-building.
O’Rourke’s allies argue that with his ability to make a splashy, optimistic speech and connect with supporters online, he has plenty of time to catch up to his opponents.
“I look at, how do you beat Donald Trump?” said Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina state legislator and senior national adviser to a Draft Beto effort. “It’s truly getting back to normalcy, decency in this country. I think Beto is the type of person who brings that. People are tired of status quo Washington. He brings a very different outlook than someone who’s been a creature of Washington for the last 10, 15, 30 years.”
O’Rourke will hold a kickoff event for his campaign in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, on March 30.
“We are truly now, more than ever, the last great hope of Earth,” O’Rourke said in his announcement video. “At this moment of maximum peril and maximum potential, let’s show ourselves, and those who will succeed us in this great country, just who we are and what we can do.”