EL PASO, Texas — Beto O’Rourke said Friday that it could take him months to decide whether to run for president, adding that he does not want to “raise expectations” about a 2020 bid.
O’Rourke told POLITICO after a speaking engagement here that he has no timetable for making a decision, which he said could “potentially” be months away.
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“There are people who are smarter on this stuff and study this stuff and are following this and say you’ve got to do it this way or get in by this point or get in in this way if you were to get in,” O’Rourke said of his timing. “I think the truth is that nobody knows right now the rules on any of this stuff. I think the rules are being written in the moment.”
Despite vaulting into the top tier of Democratic primary contenders, O’Rourke said family concerns and the “exhaustion” of his Texas Senate run are still weighing on him.
“There’s an exhaustion after an effort like that, that I’m learning is hard to recover from,” the former Texas congressman said at a local speaker series event. “You don’t snap back.”
In response to a question from the audience, he said he has not had any contact with other potential candidates about joining a presidential ticket. If he does not run for president, O’Rourke said he is considering teaching.
O’Rourke’s demurrals come even as his former advisers speak with potential staffers and begin to rough out the shape of an organization for a 2020 campaign. A rush of presidential announcements this month is putting pressure on potential candidates to announce, as the competition for money and staff intensifies.
O’Rourke said any discussions that his former campaign advisers are having with potential operatives are not at his direction.
“No one is doing anything at my direction right now,” he said.
However, O’Rourke said, “I think there are certainly — from the ‘Draft Beto’ folks to people who would likely be part of a campaign who are trying to figure out how it would work if we were to run … But they’re not, again, doing it at my direction or with my input.”
Asked why he has not moved more aggressively to prepare groundwork for a campaign, O’Rourke told POLITICO, “I just am not there to do that. I just don’t want to raise expectations or commit people if I’m not committed and if I haven’t made that decision yet.”
O’Rourke said he is “very happy” in El Paso. If he joins the race, he added, it would be in response to a sense of obligation. “Being an American, living in a democracy, I also have an obligation and responsibility to do everything I can with what I have in the moment that we’re in, and that’s the question I’m trying to think through.”
“Have I satisfied my commitment to this country and our democracy? That’s the question that we’re trying to think through right now,” O’Rourke said at the speaker event. “Is there something that I can contribute beyond what I have already done that the country needs right now. Do I need to be back in the arena?”
O’Rourke’s public remarks were his first since returning home from a road trip through parts of the American Southwest — an experience, he wrote in an online journal late Thursday, that inspired him to apply the “decency and kindness” he encountered on the road to the nation’s polarizing politics.
“How do we stop seeing each other as outsiders?” O’Rourke wrote, flicking at the communitarian strands around which he would likely weave a presidential campaign. “How do we reconcile our differences, account for the injustices visited upon so many, understand the pride that each of us feels for ourselves, our families, our point of view — and respond to the urgent needs of this great democracy at its moment of truth? As the country literally begins to shut down, how can we come together to revive her?”
O’Rourke went on, “I know we can do it. I can’t prove it, but I feel it and hear it and see it in the people I meet and talk with.”
The former Texas congressman became a national sensation during his closer-than-expected loss to Republican Ted Cruz in the Texas Senate race last year, vaulting into the 2020 contest’s top tier on the strength of his inspirational campaign. After raising more than $80 million in his Senate run, O’Rourke is widely considered capable or amassing millions of dollars quickly to fund a 2020 bid.
Still, O’Rourke’s hesitation could put him at an organizational disadvantage in early primary states. Eight major Democrats have entered the 2020 contest — with more expected to follow — and O’Rourke’s potential rivals are already courting activists and enlisting staffers in Iowa and New Hampshire. Earlier this week, Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign told POLITICO it raised $1.5 million in its first 24 hours alone.
O’Rourke, meanwhile, has kept a relatively low profile, spending time primarily in his hometown — where he attended a Women’s March over the weekend — and jabbing at the Trump administration on social media.
“In a Democracy, the people are the government,” O’Rourke wrote on Facebook on Thursday, as the government shutdown wore on. “When the President shuts down the government, he’s shutting down the people who make this democracy possible. There is a breaking point for the federal employees held hostage, and for our democracy.”
On Friday, O’Rourke met a crowd of about 100 people in a modern co-working office space in downtown El Paso. Though thinly advertised, the event sold out, with proceeds from the $50-per-head event benefiting Annunciation House, a local shelter. O’Rourke mingled with the crowd and posed for photographs for about 20 minutes before being interviewed on stage by Richard Pineda, a communications professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
In part, O’Rourke’s lack of movement is a function of time. Unlike many of his potential rivals who have been contemplating running for president for years, O’Rourke appeared only to entertain the possibility after losing to Cruz in November. Before the election, O’Rourke had been little-known outside of his El Paso congressional district, and the 46-year-old, three-term former congressman had said he would not run for president in 2020.
“Running for Senate, I was 100 percent focused on our campaign, winning that race and then serving the next six years in the United States Senate,” O’Rourke told reporters after a town hall forum shortly after the election. “Now that that is no longer possible, you know, we’re thinking through a number of things.”
At the time, O’Rourke and his wife Amy expressed reservations about the toll a presidential campaign could take on their family, after a grueling campaign against Cruz. And O’Rourke himself appeared unsettled. At the outset of his road trip this month, O’Rourke wrote that he had been “in and out of a funk lately” and wanted to “clear my head,” before chronicling his brief — but extensively covered — exploration of small-town America through parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.
For a presidential contender, the dispatches were uncharacteristically personal — and, to some critics, cloying. But in his latest offering, O’Rourke wrote on Medium that after several days on the road, his mindset had changed.
“How inspiring, and funny, and strong people are,” O’Rourke wrote on Medium. “Kids and college students looking forward. Older people reflecting on where they’d been and how they got there. Over the course of the trip I’d gone from thinking about myself and how stuck I was, to being moved by the people I’d met. Forgot myself in being with others.”
On Friday, Pineda offered O’Rourke a sympathetic stage, questioning O’Rourke about his upbringing and what kind of van he found best for trekking across Texas in the Senate campaign.
“We spent the better part of two years in a Dodge Grand Caravan,” O’Rourke replied. “It really is the best way to get around: the horsepower, the passenger capacity, your ability to travel incognito. Nobody expects somebody running for Senate to be driving a Dodge Grand Caravan.”
O’Rourke recalled that he was ticketed for speeding in the vehicle on his way to an event during the Senate campaign. He said the law enforcement officer had voted for him in the primary and, after ticketing him, came to the event O’Rourke was hosting.