Beto O' Rourke announced his 2020 run for president, saying "we are truly now, more than ever, the last great hope of Earth." USA TODAY
Beto O'Rourke announced his candidacy for president on Thursday morning, ending months of speculation that began after the Democrat narrowly lost a Senate seat in reliably red Texas.
O'Rourke, 46, who was a little known congressman from El Paso when President Donald Trump was elected, joins the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination, which already has more than a dozen other announced candidates.
O'Rourke,in an exclusive interview with the El Paso Times before his official announcement, made the case for his presidential campaign — one born from Trump's intense focus on the border as a dangerous place in urgent need of a wall.
“I want to be president because I feel that we can bring this country together. We can unify around our ambitions, our aspirations, the big things that we know we are capable of when all of us have the opportunity to contribute,” O’Rourke said.
“I just want to serve this country so badly to the highest of my ability, and I believe that is serving as president of the United States,” O’Rourke said as his wife, Amy, sat next to him in their 114-year-old home, where more than a century ago Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa met U.S. Army Gen. Hugh Scott to discuss stopping Mexico's civil war along the border.
O’Rourke said he believes the country is ready for a better, more nuanced view of the border than the picture painted by Trump, whose “Build The Wall” slogan helped propel him to the presidency.
In the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination, O'Rourke points to his upbringing on the border as a key asset in challenging Trump.
“A firsthand perspective and experience from the border is missing from the conversation,” said O'Rourke, who often sits at the table on his front porch that has views of Juárez, Mexico, to write, make phone calls and do other work.
O'Rourke gained national attention challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. He lost by less than 3 percentage points, a margin closer than the state had seen in decades.
The El Paso native had not yet given his concession speech when supporters shifted their focus to a new, more ambitious goal — a presidential run.
But O'Rourke, the father of three children, ages 8 to 12, said he needed time off to spend with his family. During the grueling Senate race, he visited each of Texas' 254 counties and also traveled across the country for interviews.
He and Amy, who have been married nearly 14 years, said that in the months after the election, they focused on spending time together as a family — going to baseball practices and basketball games, preparing for science fairs, getting homework done, hiking in the Franklin Mountains and backpacking in the Gila Wilderness.
By the end of January, the couple said they began to talk about what they would do next.
"Election night, or even before election night, when people were asking about 2020, it just seemed surreal, almost like you're just caught up in the moment," Amy Sanders O'Rourke said.
"After the election, our immediate need was to be together as a family and to really finish out the congressional term, which I know was incredibly important to Beto. But then to just like sleep, eat healthy and really give our family the attention that we had not had together for a long time. And so it was hard to even process, thinking about what the next steps could potentially be, I would say, well into January."
The couple said the decision for O'Rourke to run was jointly made, as they've made all decisions in their marriage.
"We really want to come to conclusions together. And if we can't both get there, then we just won't do it. Whether that's, you know, having Whataburger for dinner, or whatever it is," Beto O'Rourke said.
The couple purposely did not discuss the potential presidential run with their children, he said. Instead, they allowed their children, who heard talk of a potential run on the radio and read about it in the newspaper, to reach their own conclusions. Eventually, each one decided that their father should run.
"They're excited, and I wasn't all the way expecting that to be the case, given how hard the last campaign was for everybody," O'Rourke said.
Ten-year-old Molly was the first to jump on board.
"I was driving her to school in early, mid-February, and she said, 'You know, if Dad's going to run for president, he better get started because he was already running for Senate at this point (in 2017),' " Amy O'Rourke said with a smile.
Former Rep. and Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke spoke Monday at a protest to President Donald Trump's El Paso rally. Chris Kolenc, Special to the El Paso Times
O’Rourke proved to be a prolific fundraiser in his U.S. Senate race despite swearing off contributions from political action committees. He also gained a national following after a video of him discussing his support of NFL players who kneel during the national anthem in protest went viral.
O'Rourke told the Times that he plans to continue with his promise to not accept money from PACs, corporations or special interest groups in his run for president.
But O'Rourke steered away from saying he would not employ consultants and suggested he would use polls in certain cases.
“I am going to do everything it takes to win consistent with my values. I will never employ a pollster or take a poll to find what I believe or what I want to say," O'Rourke said. "I’ll never use a consultant to come up with the words I speak at a town hall or a rally, for better or for worse. And Amy can probably think of some times that it’s been for the worse.
“I say what I think and what I believe. I have the courage of my convictions, and I’m also hopefully smart enough to know there’s so much more for me to learn. And I can only learn by listening to the people of this country. They will be my consultants.”
O'Rourke said his presidential campaign will be headquartered in El Paso and those who want to join his team will have to move to the border city.
But he also said he would no longer swear off hiring consultants, giving an example of a single mother in the Dallas area who was unable to join his Senate campaign because it would have required her to close her business.
"My preference is to find people who can move to El Paso and work on this campaign full time, but in order to get the breadth of experience and wisdom and diversity that we really need in a campaign that will look like everyone, I want to remain open to different employment situations. It doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, but it will ensure that I get the greatest talent possible."
Attack ads begin in Iowa even before campaign launches
O'Rourke has already drawn an attack ad from a conservative political group, Club for Growth, in Iowa, where he is scheduled to go this weekend to begin his presidential campaign and help Iowa Democrat Eric Giddens, who is running in a special election for a state Senate seat.
The ad says O'Rourke's background is as a privileged white man with a rich father-in-law, El Paso businessman Bill Sanders, who helped his political career.
O'Rourke said he hadn't seen the ad but said that's an unfortunate part of politics that he doesn't favor or use.
"To some degree, it's a form of flattery" that the attack ad was airing even before O'Rourke announced his candidacy, he said.
"The only antidote to that (attack ads) is to be there and show up and listen to people and answer questions, and introduce myself in person," he said.
O'Rourke didn't promise to visit every county in the United States as he did in Texas, but he promised to run a national campaign "for everyone."
"I'm going to continue to demonstrate that everyone in every state is important to the future of this country. And no one can be written off or taken for granted based on where they live or how they voted in the past, or whether they voted at all," he said.
"That's why I am so excited to get on the road and demonstrate this is a campaign about everyone and for everyone in this country. It means we have our work cut out for us."
Jennifer Mercieca, a professor at Texas A&M University who specializes in political discourse, said O’Rourke excels at connecting with voters at his events and delivering emotional appeals that win people over.
Mercieca added that people are drawn to O’Rourke because he comes off as authentic and honest — the same reason many Trump supporters got behind the president during his campaign.
Former Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke, a potential Trump rival in 2020, held a rally in El Paso, Texas at the same time as President Trump to argue against building a border wall. (Feb. 12) AP
“Part of the reason Trump was so appealing was that he was perceived as very authentic,” Mercieca said. “O’Rourke also has that authenticity, although it’s very different than what Trump shows us. One way of thinking about Trump is that he trades in irony. He’s always being ironic, always saying two things at once. Beto seems like he is always being earnest, and that kind of comparison would be interesting to see.”
But Shannon Bow O’Brien, a government lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, said despite his charisma and ability to connect with people, O'Rourke still has a strike against him.
“It was close, it was extremely tight for Texas," she said. "But a loss is still a loss at the end of the day, and (the party) has got to back candidates that you’re going to see a success rate on."
O’Rourke has clashed with Trump over his plans to build a wall along the nation’s southern border with Mexico since before the 2016 election, when the Democrat served as El Paso’s congressional representative.
The friction between Trump and O’Rourke only intensified in the weeks leading up to O’Rourke’s announcement, reaching new heights when Trump decided to make El Paso the centerpiece of his argument for the effectiveness of a border wall.
The president pointed to the border city during his State of the Union address in February, falsely stating that El Paso once was among the most dangerous cities in the country and became one of the safest because of the construction of a fence.
Then Trump visited the city for his first campaign rally of the year, where he doubled down on his remarks about the crime rate and pledged to “finish that wall.”
All the while, O’Rourke positioned himself as Trump’s antithesis, rebuking his claims about the border, sharing the reality he sees in his community and speaking at a counter demonstration to Trump’s rally.
Trump has been successful in turning the country's focus to the border, O'Rourke told the Times. "And now that the country's watching us, let's share with them who we are and what we represent, and what the future could look like when we make the most of every single person who wants to contribute."
O'Rourke said he's against "these massive, steel and concrete walls and barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border," especially when they are erected without consultation from people who live on the border.
But no one can be against sensible border security measures, "least of all the parents of three young children who live a quarter of a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border," he said, talking about his family.
If local stakeholders are involved, the result will not be a "2,000-mile wall" but more investment in ports of entry, he said.
"We know that the vast majority of everyone and everything that ever comes into this country crosses through ports of entry," he said. "Increasing staffing, increasing technology, increasing infrastructure investments at our connections with Mexico not only helps grow our economy, but makes us safer as a result."
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said Trump paved the way for O’Rourke’s candidacy with his focus on El Paso and the border.
"Trump elevated O'Rourke to front-runner by specifically naming him during this political battle at the border,” Rottinghaus said.
Trump’s decision to focus on O’Rourke could be because he sees his candidacy as an opportunity to make his re-election bid laser focused on border issues, where Rottinghaus said he might see a chance to rally his base.
“I’d say that he doesn’t think O’Rourke is the kind of candidate who could win in a battle that is over the need to have a border wall,” he said. “In Donald Trump’s mind, O’Rourke already lost that battle to Ted Cruz. We know that’s not totally accurate, but that’s probably how he sees it.”
It also could be driven by Trump's tendency toward combat, Rottinghaus said.
“He wants to go toe-to-toe with the most obvious foe, and in El Paso that’s Beto O’Rourke,” he said.
Before O’Rourke can challenge Trump, he will face an intense primary election fight against a large field of Democrats.
The crowded Democratic primary race already includes Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who narrowly lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton in 2016, California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and a fellow Texan — Julián Castro, who served as housing secretary under President Barack Obama.
"I'm not running against, I'm running for. Running for this country. And I've always been that way. Everything I do in my life," O'Rourke said. "There's no one in this (Democratic) race that I don't think would be a better president than Donald Trump."
Former Vice President Joe Biden still is weighing a presidential run. Published reports have said Biden's camp had contacted O'Rourke about being his running mate. But O'Rourke said those reports are not true. He has not been contacted by Biden, nor anyone tied to Biden, O'Rourke said.
Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said O'Rourke's experience on the border could be key in the crowded field.
The only other current candidate possibly with that kind of border clout is Castro, who was mayor of San Antonio and launched his presidential campaign in January with a pledge to “say 'no' to building a wall and say 'yes’ to building community.”
President Trump and Beto O’ Rourke were both in El Paso, Texas on February 11, 2019. This is a side-by-side look at the two rallies in the city that’s at the center of the fight over a border wall. USA TODAY
Both men represent the state with the largest segment of the U.S.-Mexico border and both have criticized the president’s border security and immigration policies.
Deen said O’Rourke will have to focus on providing a nuanced perspective from an actual border city to differentiate himself from Castro.
“I think the state is big enough for both,” she said. “To the degree to which people not from Texas understand the difference between San Antonio and El Paso, what the candidates would be bringing to the table, is very different.”
But Rottinghaus said O’Rourke had already positioned himself as the border expert by the time he entered the race.
“Every candidate is going to look for a specific edge, those issues that make them unique, and hope it is the guiding question for the politics of 2020,” he said. “For O’Rourke, that’s the border.”
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