BURLINGTON, Iowa — Beto O’Rourke, the 46-year-old former Texas congressman whose near-miss Senate run last year propelled him to Democratic stardom, announced on Thursday that he was running for president, betting that a broad message of national unity and generational change will lift him above a slate of committed progressives offering big-ticket policy ideas.
His decision jolts an early election season already stuffed with contenders, adding to the mix a relentless campaigner with a small-dollar fundraising army, the performative instincts of a former punk rocker and a pro-immigrant vision to counteract President Donald Trump’s.
Yet O’Rourke also comes to the 2020 race with few notable legislative accomplishments after three terms in the House representing El Paso, Texas. And in a primary so far defined by bedrock policy positions, like the economic agendas of Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., O’Rourke enters without a signature proposal that might serve as the ideological anchor of his bid.
“This moment of peril produces perhaps the greatest moment of promise for this country and for everyone inside it,” O’Rourke said in a video announcing his candidacy, released hours before a three-day tour of Iowa began Thursday morning.
Shortly after 8 a.m. Thursday, O’Rourke stepped into a coffee shop on Main Street in Keokuk and began introducing himself to a state he had never visited before.
“Hey, nice to meet you. Beto O’Rourke,” he said, squeezing between news cameras and caffeine-seekers. “Good morning, good morning to you,” he said to people in the southeastern Iowa town of Keokuk — a county where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 16 percentage points in 2016 but where former President Barack Obama won four years earlier.
Soon, he was standing on a chair taking questions, perched between paintings of flowers and musical instruments. “This is democracy,” he said.
O’Rourke was planning on spending much of the next three days in similar communities across eastern Iowa, the historically Democratic part of the state where so many voters swung to Trump three years ago. Keeping with the do-it-yourself spirit of his Senate race, the new candidate did not release a full schedule of stops. Details of his appearances spread by social media and word of mouth.
His Democratic rivals quickly sent notice, however, that they were not going to let his long-anticipated launch go unimpeded: Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro released a list of 30 new endorsements from Texas, including one state lawmaker from O’Rourke’s hometown, and Sens. Sanders, Warren and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., emailed a fundraising appeals noting O’Rourke’s entry into the race — with Harris citing the historic diversity in the field, which she represents.
And Trump also swiftly weighed in, using a photo opportunity in the Oval Office to ridicule O’Rourke’s gesticulations.
“I think he’s got a lot of hand movement,” the president said. “I’ve never seen so much hand movement. I said, ‘Is he crazy or is that just the way he acts?''’
Unlike many of his 14 Democratic rivals for the nomination, O’Rourke has spent little time until recently even considering a White House run, let alone building an operation that would sustain one. Some voters and activists have also wondered aloud if a white man is the best fit for this Democratic moment, particularly after midterm successes powered often by female and nonwhite candidates.
With O’Rourke’s entry, the primary field appears close to settled more than 10 months before the Iowa caucuses; former Vice President Joe Biden, the only holdout among the expected major candidates, seems poised to join the race next month.
Early polls have shown Biden and Sanders on top. O’Rourke, three decades their junior, hopes to supply an unsubtle contrast, particularly given Sanders’ success with the kinds of young voters who flocked to O’Rourke in Texas.
Advisers to other Democratic candidates have watched O’Rourke’s plans with concern, recognizing that the kind of face-to-face politicking that fueled his campaign to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, should suit him well in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters crave personal interaction with candidates.
O’Rourke made his town hall forums the centerpiece of his Senate candidacy, turning the race into a national cause — the underdog liberal running in a famously red state — trailed by a documentary film crew and endorsed by celebrities from Beyoncé to Willie Nelson. He made a point of visiting each of the 254 counties in Texas, helping him bulldoze fundraising records and come within about 200,000 votes of Cruz on Election Day.
O’Rourke also attracted many fans outside the state, drawing them into a perpetual social media livestream capturing not only his political events but unscripted moments on the road: late-night burger stops, skateboarding in a parking lot, reminiscing with a former bandmate behind the wheel. For many politically obsessed liberals, his inevitably upbeat musings offered a welcome online antidote to Trump’s Twitter rampaging. On the eve of his announcement, Vanity Fair released a cover story on O’Rourke with photographs by Annie Leibovitz.
Yet his boast in that interview — “I’m just born to do this” — and off-the-cuff comments he made Thursday about only sporadically helping his wife raise their children, quickly drew criticism and illustrated the peril of taking his unplugged style to the crucible of a presidential race.
Admirers, however, believe it is this ability to generate his own narrative orbit that could separate him from his peers.
“In a political environment where it’s so hard to break through, he has an ability to pique people’s interest and to drive a narrative on his own,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and is not advising any candidate in 2020. “He isn’t just shadowboxing with the president’s Twitter handle.”
On one central issue, though, Trump has provided O’Rourke with a useful foil. This year, when the president traveled to El Paso to press for a wall on the border with Mexico, the two headlined dueling rallies.
Subsequently, he even said he would support tearing down the existing border wall in the El Paso area, a declaration Republicans have suggested they will use against him should he make the general election.
But the Democratic primary could present unique challenges to O’Rourke.
It is an open question whether he will be able to scale up his skeletal organization and hand over control to the sort of political professionals he largely shunned in his Senate race. The lead-up to O’Rourke’s official announcement Thursday has been highly improvisational, in part because he was personally directing much of the planning.
On Wednesday night, he was texting supporters in early nominating states to share his plans and to tell them he would have advisers get in touch with them about his schedule. And for weeks, he has been meeting and talking on the telephone with a number of Democratic strategists to gauge their interest in working for him, finding encouragement but also a reluctance to move to El Paso, where he is planning to base his operations.
O’Rourke discussed the campaign manager job for 90 minutes with one strategist, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, but even on the eve of his announcement it was uncertain who would be at the helm of his organization.
Yet he enjoys the support of many of Obama’s aides, some tacitly and others more full-throated, and he has relied on advice from a number of Obama’s strategists, including the 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe. (Plouffe is not, however, planning to formally participate in the race on behalf of any candidate.)
But unlike Obama, who ran in a year when the Iraq War was the single overriding policy issue in the Democratic race, O’Rourke is seeking the presidency at a moment his party is lurching left on issues across the board. He will be immediately under pressure to expand upon the sometimes-vague liberalism that has colored his public life.
Already, allies of Sanders in particular have questioned O’Rourke’s commitment to progressive priorities. (O’Rourke has declined to call himself a progressive, saying he was “not big on labels.”)
In 2016, he supported a centrist challenger to Nancy Pelosi to lead House Democrats. In 2018, he frustrated Texas activists by refusing to endorse Gina Ortiz Jones, a prized Democratic recruit for a House seat, because she was facing O’Rourke’s Republican friend, Rep. Will Hurd, who eventually won by fewer than 1,000 votes.
O’Rourke should have little trouble pulling in enough money to get a presidential campaign off the ground, though it is possible that some of his fundraising success in 2018 owed to his opponent, Cruz, whom liberals love to loathe.
Some in the party have questioned whether a Senate-race-losing candidate should even be running for president so soon. Senate Democrats aggressively lobbied him to take on Texas’ other Republican senator, John Cornyn, who is up for re-election next year, even dispatching senior party officials to El Paso to make the case.
In the months since his defeat, O’Rourke himself seemed to be casting about for answers, discussing a possible run with advisers but appearing genuinely conflicted — seeking clarity at one point by making a solo road trip to meet Americans in unrehearsed settings.
On Thursday, any lingering apprehension was well concealed.
“This is the moment,” he said, standing atop a coffeehouse counter in Burlington, hands flying, “for the leadership of the indispensable country.”
He left little doubt which leader he had in mind for the top job.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.