Presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke, restarting his campaign nearly two weeks after a mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, offered a darkly dire warning Thursday about a nation filled with “too many guns,” a situation he blamed on President Trump and “a Congress too craven to act.”
O’Rourke described a commander in chief who encourages violence and “so openly speaks in racist terms, so openly favors one race, one religion, one kind of people in this country over every other kind of people in this country.”
“If at this moment we do not wake up to this threat, then we, as a country, will die in our sleep,” O’Rourke said in a speech Thursday morning in El Paso. “The response to this has to be that each of us make a commitment — to see clearly, to speak honestly and to act decisively in this moment of truth. I, for one, see more clearly than ever.”
The Democrat and former congressman said that means continuing to run for president and brushing aside pleas that he drop out and again run for Senate in Texas.
But he said he cannot go back to running for president in the way he did before — an approach that included traditional rites such as visiting the Iowa State Fair, eating corn dogs and riding Ferris wheels, as his fellow candidates did in his absence — because “the kind of challenges that we face in this country at this moment of crisis require an urgency.”
He said he would instead go to “places where Donald Trump has been terrorizing and terrifying and demeaning our fellow Americans.” His first stop: Mississippi, where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents recently raided several food-processing plants in search of undocumented immigrants.
The emotional 30-minute speech marked another major shift in approach for O’Rourke, who has struggled to find his role and voice in the crowded Democratic field.
When he entered the race five months ago — without a campaign manager or a vision of what his presidency would look like — O’Rourke was an enthusiastic, energetic candidate with an optimistic message who would jump onto coffee shop countertops and promise to quickly heal the divided nation. Those close to him had hoped that the grass-roots political movement he sparked during an unsuccessful Senate campaign in Texas last year would quickly spread across the country — but that has not happened. And O’Rourke has struggled to clearly explain to voters why he would be a better president than other major Democrats in the race, several of whom are polling far ahead of him and have drawn bigger crowds while raising much more money.
Pushed for specifics months ago, O’Rourke told voters that climate change was his “North Star” issue — only to pivot a few weeks later and instead hyper-focus on immigration and border issues. Now O’Rourke has outlined his chief mission as warning his fellow Americans about the dire state of the country — a truth that he said crystallized for him as Latinos in his own binational community were targeted by a gunman on Aug. 3.
“It’s almost as if the bigger the lie, the more obvious the injustice, the more furious the pace of this bizarre behavior, the more incapable we are of seeing it and clearly naming it and acting against it,” O’Rourke said Thursday morning. “This attack on El Paso is an attack on America. It is an attack on our ideal of what America can be.”
O’Rourke briefly mentioned changes that he would like to see enacted — universal background checks for those purchasing firearms, “red flag” laws that would stop the sale of guns to those who pose a danger to themselves or others, and a buyback of military-style weapons to “take them off the streets altogether.”
O’Rourke’s plans have been the topic of lobbying from many in his state. On Saturday, the Houston Chronicle editorial board urged O’Rourke to run for Senate instead of the White House, writing: “Beto, if you’re listening: Come home. Drop out of the race for president and come back to Texas to run for senator. The chances of winning the race you’re in now are vanishingly small. And Texas needs you.”
Last week, as O’Rourke arrived at a rally protesting Trump’s visit to El Paso, a woman followed him and yelled: “Beto, run for Senate! We need you. Please run for Senate. Beto, let another Democrat beat Trump.” He eventually turned to her and said: “Heard you. Heard you.”
In his speech Thursday, O’Rourke said that there is “a big part of me that wants to stay here and be with my family and be with my community” in El Paso.
“There have even been some who suggested that I stay in Texas and run for Senate — but that would not be good enough for this community, that would not be good enough for El Paso, that would not be good enough for this country,” O’Rourke said. “We must take the fight directly to the source of this problem, that person who has caused this pain and placed this country in this moment of peril, and that is Donald Trump. I want to be the leader for this country that we need right now and that we do not have.”