Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman from El Paso who in less than two years went from near obscurity to national celebrity with his unexpected campaign for a U.S. Senate seat, announced Thursday that he will seek the presidency in 2020.
O’Rourke’s announcement came after months of public reflection that included a solo road trip through rural America, a heart-to-heart talk with Oprah Winfrey and rallying with supporters near the southern border.
In a video made public early Thursday, O’Rourke struck the same upbeat tone that he did in his contest against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) last year, a campaign that despite its ending — he lost narrowly — built him a national following powered by prodigious fundraising.
“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 other words, this moment of peril produces perhaps the greatest moment of promise for this country and for everyone inside of it.”
O’Rourke’s decision, long awaited by other Democratic hopefuls, adds another unpredictable element to an already sprawling primary contest. The Texan has shown he can generate attention, attract donations and create considerable excitement, and his candidacy may appeal to centrists in a primary whose prominent figures so far have leaned left. Still, O’Rourke is untested on the national stage.
O’Rourke won national attention for the first time in March 2017, when he and Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican who represents the 23rd Congressional District in Texas, east of El Paso, drove 1,600 miles together from San Antonio to Washington after a winter storm grounded flights. Hundreds of thousands of people watched a Facebook video live-stream of the duo’s “bipartisan road trip,” a quaint reminder of the days when politics wasn’t quite so bitter. Thursday marked the second anniversary of the start of that trip.
Two weeks later, O’Rourke announced in Texas that he was running for the U.S. Senate, challenging Cruz and promising to bring compassion and humanity to Washington. He tried to appeal not just to liberals living in Texas’s biggest cities but also to independents and conservatives who were dismayed by Republican policies, especially when it came to the treatment of undocumented immigrants and refugees. When asked about policy on the campaign trail, O’Rourke often answered not with a specific remedy, but with a call for Texans to solve the problem together, allowing him to remain vague in many of his positions.
O’Rourke, 46, was been a politician for much of his adult life. He grew up in El Paso, where his mother ran a furniture store and his father was a politician. O’Rourke attended an elite all-boys boarding school in Virginia during his high school years, then graduated from Columbia University. He eventually returned home to El Paso, where he started an Internet services and software company.
O’Rourke was elected to the El Paso City Council in 2005, focusing on redeveloping downtown and improving public transportation. He co-authored a book about drug trafficking and called for legalizing marijuana as a way to lessen the power of the Mexican drug cartels.
In 2012, O’Rourke challenged El Paso’s longtime Democratic congressman, Silvestre Reyes, in the primary and narrowly won, despite Reyes’s endorsements from President Barack Obama and other prominent party leaders. To win, O’Rourke has said, he knocked on as many doors as he could and listened to people — a strategy he tried to replicate in running for the Senate.
Cruz and his allies tried to paint O’Rourke as a young, inexperienced punk-rock skateboarder and questioned why O’Rourke has used a Latino nickname when he is not Hispanic. O’Rourke, whose given name is Robert, has said the nickname Beto was given to him as a young child, and provided a picture of himself as a young boy, the name “Beto” stitched across his shirt. Cruz’s allies also called attention to O’Rourke’s 1998 arrest for driving while intoxicated.
Some of those attacks are already being repeated. Ahead of O’Rourke’s announcement, the conservative Club for Growth released an attack ad this week that focused on O’Rourke’s family wealth and accused him of being “entitled” and fully taking advantage of his “white male privilege.”
In Texas, O’Rourke ran a stripped-down campaign with a small staff and no pollster. He visited all 254 counties at least once, often driving himself from event to event. He was sometimes joined by his wife, Amy, and their three young children.
Along the way, O’Rourke posted hours of video on Facebook, allowing followers to listen to his rally speeches, ask him questions and watch him order Whataburgers. Hundreds of Texans often showed up to O’Rourke’s campaign events, and he recruited thousands of volunteers. Many parts of the traditionally conservative state became plastered with black-and-white “Beto” signs.
O’Rourke called for a ban on the sale of assault rifles, creating a public option for health insurance on the government exchanges and providing a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants, along with promising to vote to impeach President Trump.
At a town hall in Houston in August, O’Rourke explained why he supports football players who kneel during the national anthem in protest of racial inequality and police brutality, noting that “reasonable people can disagree on this issue, and it makes them no less American to come down on a different conclusion.” Cruz declared that sentiment out of touch with the views of most Texans.
O’Rourke routinely criticized leaders of the Democratic Party and distanced himself from political labels. He discouraged political action committees from getting involved with the race and raised more than $80 million, much of it in small donations — a record for a Senate candidate. About a month before the election, O’Rourke held a free concert in Austin with country music legend Willie Nelson that attracted 55,000 people — dwarfing the number of people Trump has attracted to his campaign rallies.
O’Rourke presented himself as someone who would “work with anyone, any time, anywhere, including President Trump.” But at an October debate, he repeated an attack on Cruz that Trump had once used: “He’s dishonest. It’s why the president called him Lyin’ Ted, and it’s why the nickname stuck, because it’s true.”
Two days later, O’Rourke said that “perhaps, in the heat of the moment, I took it a step too far.”
On Election Day, O’Rourke lost to Cruz by fewer than three percentage points, a striking showing in the conservative state. Cruz won by a nearly 220,000-vote margin, while the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, won by 1.1 million votes.
The loss was devastating for O’Rourke, who thought he would win, according to those close to him. O’Rourke described himself as “in and out of a funk.” In an interview with The Washington Post in January, O’Rourke spoke glumly about the direction the country is headed. As he walked through his hometown, he was repeatedly stopped by people urging him to run for president.
In early February, Winfrey invited O’Rourke to New York for an interview, and he told her that he was thinking about running for president but worried about the impact on his young children.
A week later, O’Rourke received an organizing opportunity when Trump held a campaign rally in El Paso. In a speech to thousands at a counter-rally, O’Rourke cast the immigration debate as a test of the nation’s core values. The crowd chanted his name, reporters clamored for his thoughts, and O’Rourke bounced with excitement. The funk was gone.
As he briefly talked with a swarm of admiring supporters after the rally, he declared with a grin: “I’ve never been more optimistic.”
Yet, O’Rourke dragged out his deliberations for another month, dropping vague hints here and there about his thought process. While other presidential candidates hit the campaign trail, O’Rourke rocked out at a Metallica concert in El Paso, attended the premiere of a documentary about his 2018 campaign and rode his bicycle around town.
Finally, on Thursday morning, he shared his decision.