Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who lost a close Senate race last year to Ted Cruz, announced Thursday morning that he was running for president, launching a campaign that is expected to focus heavily on themes of unity, positivity, and generational change.
O’Rourke has gone from a little-known congressman to a national political figure. Few expected him, or any Democrat, to do well in Texas against Cruz. But O’Rourke generated widespread enthusiasm in his Senate campaign and raised tens of millions of dollars in small donations as he traveled to every part of Texas — reigniting, in many places, a dormant Democratic Party.
Along the way, he campaigned on issues like universal health care and correcting racial disparities in criminal justice — basically as a liberal, something initially considered a death move for a Democrat in a red state.
“This is a defining moment of truth for this country, and for every single one of us,” O’Rourke said in a video posted Thursday morning, sitting next to his wife, Amy. “The challenges that we face right now — the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy, and our climate — have never been greater. They will either consume us or they will afford us the greatest opportunity to unleash the genius of the United States of America.”
“This moment of peril produces, perhaps, the greatest moment of promise for this country and for everyone inside of it.”
O’Rourke will start his campaign Thursday in Iowa.
O’Rourke’s narrow loss in 2018 launched him into conversation about the Democratic nomination, winning him praise from Barack Obama and a slew of Democratic figures who spoke favorably about his generally positive campaign, as well as his abilities as a speaker and organizer.
In his Senate campaign, he mobilized large numbers of young voters and people in often-ignored parts of Texas. Democrats hope that he could also help the party motivate Latino voters. Fluent in Spanish, he speaks eloquently of the positive aspects of the US–Mexico border area that he represented in Congress, a place that President Donald Trump has painted as dangerous and lawless.
In his announcement video, O’Rourke encouraged people to “bring friends, family and neighbors to the greatest grassroots campaign this country has ever seen.” He told the El Paso Times in an interview that the campaign will be headquartered in El Paso, Texas, and that unlike during his Senate campaign, he would be open to bringing on consultants.
“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,” he said. “It doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, but it will ensure that I get the greatest talent possible.”
He also said in the interview that he’d consider hiring pollsters for his campaign, after avoiding them for his Senate race. “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,” he said.
In the months since the 2018 election, O’Rourke has seen some of his high national poll numbers slip — in what some have speculated might be evidence of waning enthusiasm among Democratic voters, but could also be a sign of his relative absence from national media as he has worked through his decision.
He has notched few legislative achievements in his time as a congressman, and is sometimes light on policy specifics. In a Washington Post interview in January, he struggled to answer questions on how he would fix US immigration policy, a key topic he campaigned on in 2018.
No one has moved directly from the House of Representatives to the White House since James A. Garfield. (O’Rourke wouldn’t even be moving from there, since he left office in January.) Elected in 2012, O’Rourke served three terms in the House, representing the El Paso.
But after Trump went from being a reality TV star to the White House, it’s hard to argue the traditional constraints for a presidential candidate need apply.
In the video, O’Rourke said: “This is going to be a positive campaign that seeks to bring out the very best from every single one of us — that seeks to unite a very divided country.”