EL PASO, Texas ― Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke formally launched his campaign Saturday with a three-city swing across Texas aimed at capitalizing on the support he built over the last two years during his unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid.
O’Rourke’s romp across the length of a state nearly twice the size of Germany drove home the themes that have animated his run to challenge Donald Trump for the presidency: praising the virtues of a border vilified by Trump, contesting conservative control of the country’s largest red state and campaigning at a breakneck pace that other candidates, most of whom have full-time jobs, haven’t attempted to match.
By early morning, a crowd of cheering supporters had gathered at a downtown intersection in El Paso to hear O’Rourke, who was representing the city as a congressman when he challenged Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
Young, wealthy and unemployed, O’Rourke has been free to exploit his main strength as a candidate: an eagerness to show up. After the rally at El Paso, O’Rourke planned to continue on to Houston, the state’s largest city, before holding a final event at night blocks from the Republican-controlled state Legislature in Austin. About 1,000 volunteers signed up to host watch parties, according to the campaign.
Next week he’s headed back to the early caucus state of Iowa, where he’ll host two dozen events over four days.
“It’s a microcosm of what he is,” said Steve Ortega, who had served with O’Rourke on El Paso’s City Council. “He’s not going to do a launch in El Paso and call it a day.”
Saturday’s events amount to a launch in name only. O’Rourke joined the race for the Democratic presidential nomination on March 14, then took off on a cross-country tour, pounding all four of the first primary voting states, along with stops in the Upper Midwest and Pennsylvania.
Picking up where his campaign against Cruz left off, O’Rourke paraded across the country in a rented minivan, often hitting multiple cities in a single day to rattle off speeches, chat with potential voters and field questions from reporters.
The approach plays to the strengths of a candidate who shines on the trail but at times struggled under attack from Cruz on the debate stage. After two years of crisscrossing Texas, O’Rourke has honed a stump style marked by largely improvised speeches, odes to bipartisanship and unrelenting positivity. He often insists he’s not running against anyone and urges conservatives and independents to join him.
O’Rourke’s hyperactive style and willingness to subject himself daily ― sometimes hourly ― to media scrutiny has opened him up to recurrent criticism. He waves his arms too much. He’s changed positions on controversial issues, like his vote for the Thin Blue Line Act, mandating the death penalty for those who target police officers. He’s a white man of means, with all the privilege that entails, who stands on tables and can make insensitive jokes (swiftly recanted) about his absence as a father during his Senate race.
But his campaign’s logic is clear: Politics is a popularity contest. And O’Rourke aims to win by getting his face in front of every voter possible.
“I follow the schedules and I think it sounds awful,” University of Texas at El Paso professor Richard Pineda told HuffPost. “But if you’ve got nothing else to do and nothing to lose, why not do it?”
The (re)launch also highlights the degree to which Democrats in general, and O’Rourke in particular, hope to open up Texas as a new political battleground.
With a statewide office losing streak that stretches back to the 1990s, Democrats have less influence over Texas politics than in any state of the South. In a state where edible marijuana remains a felony and a debate over restricting transgender bathroom rights forced a special legislative session in 2017, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates have become accustomed to using Texas to fundraise for more competitive races in far-flung purple states.
But O’Rourke played a key role in changing that, largely by adopting the aggressive campaign strategy that characterizes his bid for the Democratic nomination. He lost the Senate race by just 2.7 percentage points, narrowing the Republican margin of victory from the more usual double digits.
Other Democratic presidential hopefuls are also getting into the action.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro joined the race for the nomination in January. And U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pitched her plan to make a historic federal investment in closing the teacher pay gap during a visit to Texas last week ― speaking at Texas Southern University, the same venue where O’Rourke will speak in Houston on Saturday.
Long ignored by national political figures, the Texas Democratic Party is reveling in the attention. When the primaries are over, party leaders view the red state and its 38 Electoral College votes as eminently flippable ― not just because of O’Rourke’s unexpectedly strong performance in the midterm, but because both the party and nonpartisan groups have ramped up investment in turnout and the majority-minority state’s demographics are trending in the Democrats’ favor.
More Latinos are turning 18. Traditionally conservative rural Texas is shedding population. The cities, by contrast, are swelling with transplants from both coasts. And gentrification is pushing left-leaning voters into the suburbs, shifting the electoral map.
“Texas for a long time was the national ATM and the butt of a joke,” Manny Garcia, the communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, told HuffPost. “Now it’s the largest battleground state in the country, and it’s incredibly exciting.”