Beto O’Rourke said Thursday he will run for president, asking voters to choose a young and charismatic — but largely untested — Democrat as the best option to defeat Donald Trump in 2020.
With his national profile and one of the most potent small-dollar fundraising lists in Democratic politics, O’Rourke enters the race immediately as a top-tier contender. His announcement came months after he captured the party’s imagination with his improbable — and closer than expected — run for Senate in Texas, a heavily Republican state.
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The former congressman’s entry into the presidential race had appeared all but certain. Yet his announcement could reshape the Democratic primary, unfreezing activists and donors who’d been waiting to commit to other candidates until O’Rourke announced his plans.
In a video on social media on Thursday, O’Rourke said, “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.”
Seated beside his wife, Amy, in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, he said he will “travel this country” on a listening tour before returning to El Paso for a campaign kickoff rally on March 30.
O’Rourke will follow his announcement with an immediate push into Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state. He has been personally calling high-profile figures in Iowa in recent days, including former Gov. Tom Vilsack, according to two sources familiar with his calls, and he is expected to appear today in Burlington and Muscatine.
O’Rourke is also expected to travel to Cedar Rapids to record the popular Political Party Live podcast, and to Waterloo for an event on Saturday with Eric Giddens, a Democratic state Senate candidate. He will attend a house party that night with John Murphy, the Dubuque County recorder.
O’Rourke had begun speaking with potential staffers to discuss strategy soon after a massive rally in his home town, El Paso, to protest President Donald Trump’s call for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. In recent days, his advisers reactivated his Senate campaign email list with a flurry of messages to supporters, including a promise to “be in touch soon.” O’Rourke himself teased the upcoming announcement recently, announcing that he had decided whether to run — but declining to reveal his decision.
Little known outside of his El Paso district before his run last year against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), O’Rourke has catapulted to become one of the Democratic Party’s most buzzed-about prospects. He had kept largely out of public view for weeks following his Senate loss, before embarking on a solo road trip through the Southwest, and then confronting Trump on issues of immigration.
In a recent email to supporters, O’Rourke’s campaign reiterated his call for extending citizenship to young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers while giving their parents legal protection and a path to citizenship, among other proposals.
“If we want to make real progress and achieve actual change,” the pre-campaign’s email said, “then we can’t just say what we’re against, we have to say what we’re for.”
O’Rourke will now join a sprawling primary campaign in which top-tier Democrats are already raising millions of dollars and marshaling robust operations in early nominating states. More established Democrats such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), have been courting activists and operatives in early nominating states for months, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), raised nearly $6 million from more than 220,000 donors in the 24 hours after he announced last month.
O’Rourke, meanwhile, had been holding back. The 46-year-old and his wife, Amy, both expressed reservations about the toll a presidential campaign could take on their three children, after a grueling, two-year campaign to unseat Cruz. And O’Rourke has done relatively little to prepare for the organizational rigors of a campaign. In recent weeks, O’Rourke slipped slightly in public opinion measures as he vacillated on a run.
Yet after raising more than $80 million in his Senate campaign — a staggering sum collected mostly from a national network of small donors — O’Rourke is widely considered capable of amassing millions of dollars quickly to fund a presidential run.
To assist O’Rourke, two separate “Draft Beto” campaigns have been raising money, retaining strategists and organizing volunteers in early primary states. Those groups have said they would transfer their email lists and money to O’Rourke’s presidential campaign.
“Now the real work begins,” Nate Lerner, co-founder of one of the groups, Draft Beto, said in a prepared statement. “We’re shifting the grassroots, financial, and political resources we’ve built over to Beto’s campaign and focusing entirely on electing Beto in 2020.”
A strong public speaker with little experience in elected office, O’Rourke has drawn comparisons to Barack Obama when he jumped into the presidential race in 2007. Obama noted as much in an interview last year with his former adviser David Axelrod.
“What I liked most about his race was that it didn’t feel constantly poll-tested,” Obama on Axelrod’s podcast, referring to O’Rourke. “It felt as if he based his statements and his positions on what he believed. And that, you’d like to think, is normally how things work. Sadly, it’s not.”
O’Rourke’s supporters anticipate that the timing of O’Rourke’s announcement, while later than other major Democratic contenders, could be fortuitous for a border-state Democrat, with the recent government shutdown focusing attention of immigration and Trump’s proposed border wall.
After speaking with O’Rourke recently, Danny Anchondo, a former chairman of the local Democratic Party in El Paso, said, “If anybody can give Trump a problem, it’s Beto … One, he’s got the ability to fight back, and secondly, he’s from the border. And he’ll take the border issue away from [Trump].”
O’Rourke has kept his focus on immigration since the November election, walking across the border form El Paso to Juarez to meet with asylum seekers and visiting a detention camp for migrant children at Tornillo. On Christmas Eve, he was photographed passing out pizza slices to immigrant children in El Paso.
In February, O’Rourke drew widespread attention headlining a march and rally in El Paso just steps from a coliseum where Trump had come to redouble his calls for funding for a border wall. While Trump dismissed O’Rourke as “a young man who’s got very little going for himself except he’s got a great first name,” O’Rourke drew an estimated 8,000 cheering supporters to his event.
“With the eyes of the country upon us, all of us together are going to make our stand, here in one of the safest cities in the United States of America,” O’Rourke said. “Safe not because of walls, but in spite of walls. Secure because we treat one another with dignity and respect.”
He said, “We are the example that the United States of America needs right now.”