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O’Rourke plots return from 2020 sidelines

POLITICO logo POLITICO 8/14/2019 By David Siders
Beto O'Rourke standing in a room: Democratic candidate Beto O'Rourke started strong when he announced his presidential bid, but he soon flatlined in public opinion polls and saw his fundraising fall off. © Chris Covatta/Getty Images Democratic candidate Beto O'Rourke started strong when he announced his presidential bid, but he soon flatlined in public opinion polls and saw his fundraising fall off.

Ever since the mass shooting in his home town, the media has become intrigued — once again — by Beto O’Rourke.

The question now is whether voters will give him a second look.

Initial signs for O’Rourke aren’t especially promising, as the former congressman prepares to resume his presidential campaign on Thursday.

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The latest Morning Consult poll, released Tuesday, put O’Rourke at 3 percent nationally, about the same position he held before pausing his campaign and returning to El Paso, Texas, following the shooting that left 22 people dead at a Walmart there. An Economist/YouGov poll released Wednesday had him ticking up to 5 percent.

Still, the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle — one of the largest newspapers in Texas — called over the weekend for O’Rourke to drop his national ambitions and run for Senate again instead.

“Beto, come home,” the headline read. “Texas needs you.”

For more than a week since the shooting, O’Rourke served as a passionate voice for his border city and for immigrants more generally, with his wrenching criticism of President Donald Trump. And if O’Rourke had wanted to run for Senate, this would have been the time to make the jump — summoned home by tragedy, not limping back amid a sputtering campaign.

But O’Rourke has never expressed interest in running for Senate this year, after his near-miss loss to Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. The El Paso massacre only redoubled his resolve to campaign against Trump, according to sources close to his campaign, while persistent calls for him to run for Senate exasperated his supporters.

In an op-ed for CNN on Tuesday, O’Rourke said the country is facing a “defining moment of truth.” A politician who has long tethered his political core less closely to ideology than to the culture and geography of his border city, O’Rourke wrote, “I believe El Paso can light our path forward, even as America now stands in sympathy and solidarity in its hour of heartbreak and anger.”

Or, as a more guttural O’Rourke put it to a television reporter recently, “He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals … Members of the press, what the f---?”

O’Rourke plans to deliver what his campaign called a “major address” on Thursday morning in El Paso, then resume campaign travel. His re-start comes at a precarious time for his campaign. A Democratic sensation when he announced his presidential bid in March, O’Rourke soon flatlined in public opinion polls and saw his fundraising fall off.

O’Rourke raised only about $3.6 million from April through June, the latest fundraising period, less than half the $9.4 million he raised in the first quarter of the year.

Reporters surround Beto O'Rourke as he walks on an international bridge to cross into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Aug. 8, 2019. O’Rourke crossed the border to attend the funeral of one of the 22 people killed in the El Paso mass shooting. © Christian Chavez Reporters surround Beto O'Rourke as he walks on an international bridge to cross into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Aug. 8, 2019. O’Rourke crossed the border to attend the funeral of one of the 22 people killed in the El Paso mass shooting. “The tragedy gave him a bump in the minds of the media,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist based in New York. “Is it likely that he will be the president of the United States? It is more likely that Texas will secede from the union again. Is it likely that he will raise the money needed to run a presidential campaign in the 21st century? … The answer is also, ‘Unlikely.’ But does he have one moment to make his case because of something extraordinarily awful that occurred? The answer is, ‘Yes.’”

O’Rourke has taken pains not to capitalize on the shooting. The only fundraising emails he has sent since the massacre directed donors not to his campaign, but to charities to help with the response to the shooting and, separately, to assist immigrants following the Trump administration’s immigration raids in Mississippi last week. He refused to call donors and, until recently, to discuss campaign plans, according to two people close to his campaign.

While nearly every other Democratic presidential contender traveled to Iowa over the weekend for the Iowa State Fair, O’Rourke remained home. And while the staffs of other campaigns lined a street in Clear Lake, Iowa, cheering raucously while they waited for candidates to arrive for a party fundraising dinner, O’Rourke’s staff set up a small tent in a plaza about a block away, inviting candidates and their staffs to attend a moment of silence for the victims of gun violence.

Colin Strother, a veteran Democratic strategist in Texas, said front-runners in the Democratic primary were fortunate that O’Rourke did not publicly fault them for not pausing their own campaigns following the shootings in Texas and Ohio. O’Rourke could have put them in a “really difficult spot,” he said.

Instead, O’Rourke drew acknowledgment — even praise — from his competitors. At the Wing Ding dinner in Clear Lake, Sen. Cory Booker began his remarks by reminding the audience that O’Rourke “didn’t miss this because of a family obligation or because of a conflict in schedule.”

Beto O'Rourke et al. sitting in chairs: Beto O’Rourke, with his wife Amy Sanders, attends a vigil for victims of a mass shooting at a shopping complex on Aug. 4, 2019, in El Paso. © John Locher/AP Photo Beto O’Rourke, with his wife Amy Sanders, attends a vigil for victims of a mass shooting at a shopping complex on Aug. 4, 2019, in El Paso.

“He missed this because Americans were slaughtered,” Booker said.

And at the Iowa State Fair, O’Rourke’s fellow Texan and presidential rival Julián Castro said, “Congressman O’Rourke, I think, has done a wonderful job of expressing all of the emotion that all of us have about what happened in El Paso.”

For O’Rourke’s campaign staff, the former congressman’s response to the shooting has served as a galvanizing force in an operation that had been battered by weak fundraising and polling. In addition, O’Rourke has already qualified for the fall debates. Since many of his competitors will not qualify, his supporters view that stage as an opportunity for him to break out.

“I think in this age of Trump, when we’re all looking for moral leadership and presidential values and, really, American values, Beto O’Rourke has been a light in the woods here for us in the past couple weeks,” said Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina lawmaker and former Democratic National Committee member who has helped O’Rourke in the state. “If he can bottle that up and take it with him, I think he’s got a message that people want to hear.”

Of O’Rourke’s weak polling, Brown said, “The only thing polling matters for at this point is getting to the debates, and he’s already there. So, the best thing you can do with polling right now is set it on f---ing fire.”

Chris Lippincott, an Austin-based consultant who ran a super PAC opposing Cruz in the Senate campaign, said he does not know if O’Rourke’s response to the El Paso shooting will affect his standing in the race — but it doesn’t matter.

“He was an honest and compassionate voice for his community when that was exactly what was needed,” Lippincott said. “This was a moment for both exasperation and resolve, and he showed both.”

Once O’Rourke returns to the campaign, Lippincott said, “I suspect it will be an adjustment for him, frankly, to talk about anything else.”

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