Three years ago, when Florida Sen. Marco Rubio dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Madison McAleese was distraught. A devout Christian, she considered herself a supporter of small-government conservatism. But she felt she could not support Donald Trump and soon left the Republican Party.
On Saturday, the 26-year-old nonprofit consultant drove from her home in Pasadena to Los Angeles Trade-Technical College to rally for Democrat Beto O’Rourke in his first visit to California as a presidential candidate. She wore a black and white baseball hat that said “Beto,” and a shirt to match.
“What we need right now is not a typical politician,” said McAleese, who now considers herself an independent voter. “I see Beto as someone who can talk to the common voter … someone who can bring people together.”
Since announcing his candidacy last month, the former Texas congressman who last year unsuccessfully challenged Ted Cruz for his U.S. Senate seat has campaigned in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. He came to Los Angeles Trade-Tech to kick off a days-long visit to California that will include a stop in San Francisco, multiple appearances in the Central Valley, and a town hall in San Diego on Tuesday morning.
Despite receiving a strong infusion of donations after launching his campaign in mid-March, O’Rourke has struggled to break into the top tier of candidates, and his campaign likely sees California — a state where he drew major financial and organizing support for his Senate bid — as an opportunity to reboot and gain momentum.
But he is up against tough headwinds here, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders having strong support, former Vice President Joe Biden having launched his campaign in recent days with a large base of backers, 37-year-old South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg an even fresher youthful face, and California Sen. Kamala Harris having the loyalty of many Democratic activists.
Speaking to hundreds of supporters hours after a shooter attacked a Jewish synagogue in Poway in suburban San Diego County, O’Rourke began his 20-minute speech by offering prayers for the victims and a vigorous call for gun control.
“I hope that I speak for everyone in saying that we will also back that up with our actions to make sure that in this country that sees more than 30,000 gun deaths every year, a rate not seen anywhere else in the world, that we will insist on universal background checks for everyone, without loopholes or exceptions,” he said. “We will also insist and ensure that weapons that were designed and sold to the United States military, with the express purpose of killing people as efficiently as effectively and in as great a number as possible, are kept on the battlefields and are no longer sold in our communities, because they will end up in our synagogues, in our churches, in our mosques and public places.”
The crowd responded with strong applause.
Speaking from a stage on a lawn in the middle of the trade school’s campus, O’Rourke, 46, also positioned himself as someone who can unite a fractured country. In a speech that went back and forth between Spanish and English, he emphasized immigration, healthcare, the environment, gun control — and his differences with President Trump.
“Right now we are as divided as we have ever been as a country and we have a president who exacerbates those differences,” O’Rourke said. “He wants to make us angry, he wants to make us afraid and he wants to keep us apart.
“When he describes Klansmen, neo-Nazis and white supremacists as ‘very fine people,’ when he conflates the words of a Muslim member of Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar, with the attackers of 9/11, when he describes Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, and asylum seekers as animals and an infestation, he is giving a license not just to offend but to act against one another.”
O’Rourke also drew parallels between El Paso, the border town that he calls home, and Los Angeles.
“We must rewrite our immigration laws in our own image, to reflect communities like this one here in Los Angeles, like El Paso, like this country,” he said. “And that means freeing any ‘Dreamer’ from fear of deportation by making them U.S. citizens in this, their true home country.”
California’s Super Tuesday primary next March 3 offers the largest number of delegates of the Democratic campaign. O’Rourke is facing about 20 rivals for the nomination, including Biden, who joined the race on Thursday.
Many in the crowd Saturday said they want not only to be inspired by a candidate but to know that he or she has the best shot at defeating Trump next year.
“I won’t make a decision until I’ve heard from all the candidates,” said Katherine George Chu, 50, of Cerritos, who attended the rally with her son. “I’d really like to see how he connects to middle America.… I’m looking for a viable candidate who is able to win.”
Mindy Hernandez, 27, of Los Angeles, said she had followed O’Rourke’s Senate campaign with enthusiasm. But she said she’s still exploring her options among the presidential candidates. She wants a candidate who cares about immigration reform, the environment and healthcare, she said. In March, when Sanders rallied supporters in downtown L.A., she was there too.
“It’s just really figuring out who is going to make people come together to vote, because I’m concerned about another four years with the same administration,” she said.
As the crowd walked away one man asked a man wearing a Beto hat, “Were you convinced?”
“I was already convinced,” the man said.