Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke joined the race for the Democratic presidential nomination on Thursday, seeking to capitalize on an underdog U.S. Senate race that ended in defeat but catapulted him to the national stage.
“The challenges that we face right now, the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy, and our climate have never been greater. And they will either consume us or they will afford us the greatest opportunity to unleash the genius of the United States of America,” he said in a campaign video.
O’Rourke’s candidacy adds a new dimension to a race among a growing list of Democrats vying for the opportunity to dislodge President Donald Trump from the White House. The 46-year-old El Pasoan is benefiting from the buzz he generated through his hyperactive campaigning across all 254 Texas counties last year, delivering a relentlessly upbeat message and singing the praises of bipartisanship.
He also brings a demonstrated ability to raise money independently and drive voter turnout. Without accepting PAC money, O’Rourke out-fundraised U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) by more than 2 to 1, hauling in a whopping $80 million. And the maverick candidate, who speaks Spanish fluently, played the lead role in nearly doubling voter turnout in several heavily Hispanic border counties.
Those achievements helped O’Rourke come within 2.7 percentage points of toppling Cruz in a state where Democrats typically lose bids for statewide office by 20 percentage points or more.
O’Rourke appeared to struggle for months over the decision of whether to run, even as a supporters created an organization to “draft Beto” into the race. Instead, he largely stayed out of the public eye, reviewing his options, including a possible challenge to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in 2020.
But Trump himself foisted the Texas Democrat back to the national stage last month, by holding a campaign rally in El Paso to drum up support for his border wall ahead of declaring a national emergency to secure partial funding for it.
The president has remained in campaign mode since winning the White House, but rarely holds such events in solidly Democratic territory like El Paso. A coalition of more than 50 community and immigrant rights organizations put together a counter-march that featured O’Rourke as the closing speaker, where he directly challenged Trump’s dystopic image of the border as a region besieged by drugs and violence.
“In El Paso, we are secure because we treat one another with dignity and respect. That is the way that we make our communities and our country safe,” O’Rourke said at the Feb. 11 event. “We know that walls do not save lives. Walls end lives.”
That conflict offered a likely preview of how O’Rourke will position himself as a champion of the border. A week later, he released a 10-point immigration reform plan that called for legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants, liberalizing the asylum system to guarantee protections for women fleeing abusive relationships and ending the global war on drugs.
O’Rourke faces stiff competition for the chance to challenge Trump. And the field promises to keep growing.
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), two of the country’s leading economic populists, have already announced they will seek the nomination. Fellow Texan Julián Castro also launched his campaign striking a progressive tone and criticizing racial injustice. Multiple other Democrats have already jumped into the race as well.
As an avowed free trader with a long history of criticizing the drug war and championing the virtues of the U.S.-Mexico border, O’Rourke doesn’t fit neatly in the party’s economic populist wing or its establishment. He’s also one of the few potential contenders to have run a competitive statewide campaign in a solidly red state.
That unique positioning could give him an advantage, allowing him to bridge the chasm that divides the party.
But it could also turn out to be a liability. Immediately after Election Day last year, O’Rourke began to face criticism from both left-wing and moderate Democrats, in stark contrast to the liberal love fest that fueled his Senate candidacy.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel scoffed at the possibility of an O’Rourke presidential run on the back of a losing campaign. And progressives saw little to love in his moderate voting record in Congress and his lack of fury against Wall Street.
Some Texans criticized only O’Rourke’s outsized ambitions, urging him to challenge someone closer to home in 2020, like Cornyn.