Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke entered the 2020 presidential race two weeks ago with more media attention and hoopla than any of the 14 other Democratic candidates.
But as he formally launched his campaign Saturday, he faces the challenge of turning his splashy entrance into a durable top-tier candidacy.
Many voters have been uncertain about what O’Rourke stands for, and a series of launch rallies across Texas on Saturday — in El Paso, Houston and Austin — gave him a high-profile opportunity to distill a campaign message.
He outlined an agenda of issues that were not very different from his Democratic rivals — universal healthcare, criminal justice reform, combating climate change and more — but cast himself as a kind of transcendent leader who could unify the country to get those things done.
“What this country needs is for us to come together,” he said at the Houston rally, where thousands of supporters spread across a plaza on the campus of Texas Southern University. “Whatever our differences, wherever you live, whoever you love, to whomever you pray, whoever you voted for in the last election, that cannot define us. Before we are anything, we are Americans first.”
It is the kind of above-it-all approach that has led some to compare him to former President Obama.
“He has the stamina of JFK and Obama rolled into one,” said Phillip Grant, a 47-year-old chef who arrived some two hours early to O’Rourke’s Houston rally site, where the crowd gathered initially under umbrellas because of a passing drizzle.
But his bipartisan call may grate on the nerves of more combative Democratic partisans who are fueled by anger at President Trump.
The thousands who turned out to rally for O’Rourke testified to his signature ability to galvanize followers with an upbeat message, even if he is hard to pin down ideologically.
One looming question is how O’Rourke, who famously rose to prominence running a Senate race without pollsters and conventional campaign trappings, will adapt his improvisational style to the far more complex demands of a presidential bid.
He recently took a big step toward professionalizing his campaign when he hired a seasoned operative, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon — a respected veteran of Obama’s political team and former executive director of the Democratic National Committee — to be his campaign manager.
O’Rourke has acknowledged the challenge he faces as a white male candidate in a diverse party, with several black and female rivals for the nomination, and he has pledged to build a staff that “looks like America.” On Saturday, he tipped his hat to the importance of black voters by holding his Houston rally at Texas Southern University, one of the country’s largest historically black colleges.
An important report card for O’Rourke will surface mid-April, when the Federal Election Commission will disclose how much money each of the declared candidates raised in the first quarter of 2019. The O’Rourke campaign is warning supporters that he is at a disadvantage because he started fundraising late in the quarter and long after many of his rivals.
“Beto is playing catch up to other candidates,” the O’Rourke campaign said in a fundraising email. “Some of our opponents started with millions of dollars from past campaigns. Plus Beto has had a lot less time to fundraise since we launched so recently.”
He set high expectations when he raised $6.1 million within 24 hours of announcing his candidacy, toppling Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as the top first-day fundraiser.
“When he first announced, people were trying to figure out if he was a flash in the pan or is he the one,” said Brian Fallon, former advisor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “The fact he raised $6 million in the first day said he wasn’t a flash in the pan. Hiring Jennifer O’Malley Dillon is another touchstone that this is a real candidate.”
Shomik Dutta, a former Obama advisor, believes O’Rourke is capable of running a “highly strategic” campaign behind the scenes while campaigning with his do-it-yourself vibe.
“You can expect him to be a little more cutting edge, but definitely not fly by the seat of his pants,” said Dutta, who said he admires O’Rourke but is not formally backing him.
O’Rourke catapulted to prominence during his 2018 Senate race against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. He lost, but by an unusually close margin — just 3 percentage points — in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since Lloyd Bentsen in 1988. The race helped bolster Democratic turnout in Texas — especially among young and Latino voters.
But O’Rourke also became a national political phenom with his viral social media videos of such things as his skateboarding and his defense of black NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.
Saturday’s rallies were the culmination of a multipart campaign rollout that began with a video announcing his candidacy in mid-April. That was followed by an 11-day road trip that took him to Iowa and other early-voting states, where he was swamped with attention by voters and the news media. An analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight found that O’Rourke received far more post-announcement attention from major cable television outlets than any of his rivals except for Sanders.
He returned to Texas for a home-state show of force in his formal launch, a strategy like California Sen. Kamala Harris’ hometown rally in Oakland at the beginning of her campaign, when she drew a crowd of over 20,000.
In addition to the Texas rallies, the campaign estimates that supporters are organizing and attending livestream watch parties in at least 1,000 locations across the country. One was organized by a supporter who was going to be on an all-day Amtrak train out of Boston on Saturday.
“We don’t have to miss out!” the organizer said in an online invitation to other travelers. “We can gather together as we board the train at 11:40 a.m. and watch the livestream together.”
O’Rourke began the day in El Paso, his hometown and the city he represented in Congress as a three-term House member.
His Houston rally came just one week after Harris appeared at Texas Southern University for a rally where she announced her proposal to commit federal spending to increase teachers’ salaries. The Harris rally was seen as a signal that she did not intend to cede Texas to O’Rourke in the fight for the state’s large trove of delegates needed to secure the party’s nomination.
O’Rourke, who has displayed some sensitivity on the campaign trail about being a beneficiary of “white male privilege,” staged a program that was dominated by the African American community, including a performance by a black marching band, the anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and an introduction by a law student at Texas Southern.
Many in the audience wore Beto for Senate T-shirts and carried campaign signs repurposed for the presidential race.
Some who supported him in the Senate race were not yet ready to commit to supporting him for president.
Mitchell Katine, a lawyer who was inclined to support former Vice President Joe Biden if he runs in 2020, said he was a concerned that O’Rourke did not have enough experience to be at the top of the ticket.
“Biden-Beto would be my dream ticket,” Katine said.
For those looking for the rallies to clarify O’Rourke’s place on the ideological spectrum, he reinforced the view of him as more centrist. He steered away from embracing “Medicare for all,” the healthcare plan some progressives consider a litmus test, in favor of a more general promise of “universal health insurance.”
He did not dwell on attacking Trump by name, but had a riff in the populist spirit of fellow presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
“The powerful have maintained their privilege at the expense of the powerless,” O’Rourke said in El Paso. “They have used fear and division in the same way our current president has used fear and division.”
Grant, the African American chef, said he was all-in for O’Rourke because he liked his message of unity. He was undistracted by the two black candidates in the race — Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — in part because he was not confident the U.S. was ready for another black president after Obama.
Grant said he believed O’Rourke speaks to the African American community because “he speaks to everyone.”