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Beto O'Rourke

On Thursday, Beto O’Rourke urged supporters to join him in the “greatest campaign this country has ever seen.” | Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW

2020 elections

A hometown showdown with Donald Trump over immigration was the confirmation O’Rourke needed.

Beto O’Rourke was fading. Weary from a bruising Senate campaign and unsure about his future, the former Texas congressman left his home in January for a road trip through the American Southwest, brooding about falling into and out of a “funk” while irritated donors’ and activists’ calls went unreturned.

By early February, he had begun to slip in presidential polls.

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But O’Rourke, who announced his candidacy for president on Thursday, would soon regain his footing, seizing a stroke of uncommonly good timing to reintroduce himself to Americans as a serious contender. First a government shutdown re-focused public attention on President Donald Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall — a major issue to Democratic voters and a signature concern of O’Rourke’s. Then Trump flew to El Paso to rally support for the wall, all but daring O’Rourke to confront him in his home town.

The result — a protest rally that drew thousands of supporters — confirmed to O’Rourke the durability of his appeal to Democrats beyond the 2018 Senate campaign. It offered the border-state politician a rationale for a campaign focused heavily on immigration. And it marked a turning point in O’Rourke’s deliberations about a run for president.

Privately, O’Rourke’s advisers were struck by the tenor of the crowd at his rally. The chants and placards were less about opposing Trump than encouraging to O’Rourke to run for president. And the candidate himself began to overcome concerns about the demands a campaign would place on his family. He had begun to gain back weight he had lost during the Senate campaign, and according to several people close to O’Rourke, he received encouragement from family members who had previously expressed reservations.

In the weeks following the February rally, O’Rourke spoke personally with prospective staffers about the shape of a 2020 run in early primary states, and he dusted off his massive email list, sending out updates on his events and surveys typical of a presidential campaign.

Then, in recent days, O’Rourke began plotting a trip to Iowa to coincide with his announcement. While O’Rourke began calling high-profile figures in the first-in-the-nation caucus state ahead of his visit today, he dispatched intermediaries to seek meetings with labor and Latino leaders, two sources familiar with O’Rourke’s conversations told POLITICO. By late Wednesday, the campaign had alerted top O’Rourke supporters to prepare to text or email their own donor networks links to contribute to the campaign once he announced.

On Thursday, O’Rourke urged supporters to join him in the “greatest campaign this country has ever seen.”

“We are truly now more than ever the last great hope of earth,” he said in a video posted on social media. “At this moment of maximum peril, and maximum potential, let’s show ourselves and those who will succeed us in this great country just who we are and what we can do.”

O’Rourke, a former El Paso councilman and three-term congressman is, at 46, less experienced than many of his Democratic competitors. And there is little historical precedent for him to draw on. While Abraham Lincoln ran for president successfully after two failed Senate campaigns, the last person to go from the House to the presidency was James Garfield in 1880.

During O’Rourke’s Senate race last year, Trump called him a “total lightweight,” and a former campaign assistant, Joey Torres, said O’Rourke himself once questioned the potential of a failed Senate candidate in a presidential campaign. While O’Rourke was running for his House seat in 2012 – and following the Republican presidential primary in the media that year – Torres recalled to POLITICO O’Rourke telling him of then-Sen. Rick Santorum, “You know, you can never become president coming off of a loss.”

Still, O’Rourke’s fundraising capacity and public polling suggests he will enter the 2020 primary in the top tier of contenders. Some Democratic donors, staffers and activists had refused to commit to other candidates while they awaited word of O’Rourke’s plans. “Draft Beto” campaigns sprang up in early nominating states, and advisers to rival Democrats privately fretted about the potent list of small-dollar donors that O’Rourke used to raise $80 million in his Senate campaign.

“This is why I think Beto is a major player, because of his fundraising ability, because of his message, and he is immediately a top-tier candidate in my view,” former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who ran for president in 2008, said recently. “The stars really are aligned for him.”

Yet O’Rourke will enter the race at an organizational disadvantage to his more established rivals. His candidacy will immediately test the limits of a relatively inexperienced politician who has only run for office as an insurgent, not as a favorite, and who, despite his broad appeal, has at times befuddled the Democratic Party establishment and angered the most progressive edge of the Democratic Party’s base.

In his Senate run against Ted Cruz, a Republican universally reviled by Democrats, O’Rourke enjoyed near-unfaltering support from within his own party. But as he began mulling a presidential run, O’Rourke came in for intensifying criticism from within his party’s ranks – with progressives vilifying him for his membership in the centrist New Democrat Coalition and for his acceptance of campaign money from oil industry employees, among other issues.

O’Rourke’s advisers have dismissed such lines of criticism, after a Senate campaign in which O’Rourke was chiefly faulted for being too progressive in a heavily Republican state. Nevertheless, as other Democratic presidential contenders court the party’s leftward-tilting base, O’Rourke has suggested that he will likely attempt to position himself as a less ideological – and more unifying – figure.

Asked in December if he is a progressive Democrat, O’Rourke told reporters, “I don’t know. I’m just, as you may have seen and heard over the course of the campaign, I’m not big on labels. I don’t get all fired up about party or classifying or defining people based on a label or a group. I’m for everyone.”

O’Rourke said during the Senate race last year that he would not run for president in 2020. But he changed his mind soon after the election. Even though O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, said they worried about the toll a presidential campaign would take on their three young children, few people close to O’Rourke believed he would not run.

Now O’Rourke will be tested in his appeal to progressive voters who did not have other high-profile Democrats to choose from in his run against Cruz. And he will have to persuade many skeptical, older Democrats that he has the necessary experience to be president.

“I’m a little frightened by all these new, young Congress people and their audacity,” said George Appleby, a Des Moines-based attorney who has long been active in presidential campaigns in Iowa. “It seems to me we live in a really dangerous world.”

In the run-up to his announcement, O’Rourke has at times struck a lofty, traditionally presidential tone. In January, he said his decision would hinge on whether he felt he had “satisfied my commitment to this country and our democracy,” and in February, he cast himself as a healing figure in a divided time.

“This is our moment of truth, the most divided point that this country has reached since 1860, a time so highly polarized and partisan that we have a hard time listening to, talking to one another if we are of a different political persuasion,” O’Rourke said at an event in El Paso. On issues ranging from climate change to immigration and foreign wars, he said, “Think about any challenge, even the most existential ones. The only way we will be able to meet them is if this divided country comes together, if our democracy once again works.”

Yet O’Rourke has not always projected such confidence in himself. When he left Texas in January for an unusual, unaccompanied road trip through the Southwest, O’Rourke wrote that he had been “stuck lately … in and out of a funk.”

He wrote, “Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don’t know and I’m not known, it’ll clear my head, reset, I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.”

The trip – and O’Rourke’s writing – drew some mocking online. But it was praised by former operatives for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. On Twitter, Axelrod wrote that O’Rourke’s “missive from the road may not be the conventional route to a presidential candidacy but, in its humility and connection, it also reflects why so many want him to run.”

Tactically, O’Rourke is expected to embark on a campaign reminiscent, in some ways, of Sanders’ run in 2016. In private conversations with Democratic strategists in recent weeks, O’Rourke’s advisers had begun outlining an operation that would expand on the “distributed organizing” model used by Sanders and replicated by O’Rourke in his Senate campaign, with the campaign training low-level staffers and volunteers to run their own door-knocking, text and email operations.

In Iowa, O’Rourke is being assisted by Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. Paul Tewes, who ran Obama’s 2008 operation in the state, is also helping O’Rourke. Yet it is unclear if he will hire a pollster, a traditional campaign practice that O’Rourke – to the chagrin of some fellow Democrats – eschewed in 2018.

“I haven’t really gotten to thinking through those kinds of issues,” he told reporters in El Paso following an event in February. “I think any campaign I run … I would want to run in the same way that I’ve run every race – just as grassroots as possible, powered by people, directly connected to the people that I want to serve and represent.”

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