FREDERICKSBURG, Va. ― Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke became the first declared Democratic presidential candidate to campaign in the Commonwealth of Virginia this week, a state beleaguered by scandal in recent months, and one that has become a top target of President Donald Trump as he seeks reelection in 2020.
At several campaign events across the state Tuesday and Wednesday, O’Rourke made sure to note that the blue wave that carried Democrats to a U.S. House majority in 2018 began in Virginia (and New Jersey) in the 2017 off-year elections. He gave credit to Democratic activists there for showing him what was possible as he decided to run for Senate in Texas last year.
“The fact that you wrote nobody off, that you took no one for granted, provided a blueprint for us in Texas,” O’Rourke said at a campaign event on Wednesday.
Virginia’s presidential primary is scheduled to take place March 3, 2020 — Super Tuesday. But this year’s election in the state could once again prove a key bellwether for enthusiasm among the state’s Democratic electorate heading into 2020.
“You are setting the stage and the standard for 2020 in defeating Donald Trump,” O’Rourke added.
Virginia Democrats are hoping to win back both the state House of Delegates and the state Senate in November ― handing them unified control of the legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time since the mid-1990s. They need to flip just a few seats in each chamber to do so.
The big question this year, however, is whether Democrats can repeat their impressive 2017 performance given that all three of Virginia’s top three Democrats ― Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and state Attorney General Mark Herrin ― are facing their own separate scandals involving racism and sexual misconduct allegations. None have said they intend to step down.
O’Rourke told reporters on Wednesday that he still believes Northam should step down but that it ought to be up to Virginia voters whether to push him out.
Republicans are sure to hammer Democrats over the chaos at the ballot box. Trump predicted earlier this year that the episode will help him recapture the state in 2020.
“Democrats at the top are killing the Great State of Virginia,” Trump wrote on Twitter in February, saying, “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken. Virginia will come back HOME Republican) in 2020!”
Joshua Cole, a Democratic candidate for the Virginia House district encompassing the city of Fredericksburg, said that O’Rourke’s visit there on Wednesday was “really making everybody in the state focus” on flipping the seat and the lower chamber.
O’Rourke held campaign events and took questions this week at a diner in Norfolk, a brewery in Hampton, a Mexican restaurant in Dumfries, and several other events in Fredericksburg, Prince William, Fairfax and Alexandria. He has made no signs of moderating his pace on the campaign trail ― one that helped him come remarkably close to ousting Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2018.
“I do not think there is another candidate for the Democratic nomination who has visited as many cities as we have — red and blue, rural and urban — who has taken as many questions as we have, who has brought as many people into the conversation,” he said Tuesday.
Still, some of his supporters worried that the strategy that worked well in a Senate race wouldn’t prove effective on a national level, especially when compared to other candidates in the race who have rocketed to the top of the polls by flooding the airwaves in part by accepting just about every interview, regardless of platform. (One such Democratic candidate would be South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg.)
“I haven’t seen you on TV. Other candidates have been on the airwaves morning, noon, and night. And that’s of concern to me,” one woman told O’Rourke at a town hall in Alexandria on Wednesday. “The primary is a race. At some point, you’re going to have to distinguish yourself from the other people running.”
O’Rourke told the woman that he preferred interacting with voters “eyeball to eyeball” more than going on TV. But, he added, “at some point, I may have to give in.”
Earlier in the day, O’Rourke told HuffPost he would be willing to appear on Fox News even though he disagreed with the network’s coverage.
The Texas Democrat also faced questions over his tax returns, which he released earlier this week. He and his wife gave $1,166 to charity out of a combined $370,412 income in 2017, putting them at the bottom among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who have released their taxes.
O’Rourke told reporters that he and his wife donated as much as “thousands of dollars” to charities that they did not itemize on their returns “because it wasn’t important for us to take the deduction” and that he is now reaching out to those charities to account for the totals.
O’Rourke raised $9.4 million in the first quarter of 2018, falling behind only Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).