2020 Presidential Race

Beto O'Rourke's first week marked by furious pace, freewheeling style

The former El Paso congressman hit six states in the first seven days of his nascent White House bid, plowing through the ups and downs of the trail while maintaining a breakneck pace.

Audience members surround Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke at a campaign stop at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
Audience members surround Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke at a campaign stop at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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LACONIA, N.H. — Beto O'Rourke popped out of a coffee shop here Thursday afternoon after the fire marshal cut short his event inside for attracting too many people — an unceremonious but perhaps fitting end to a 48-hour blitz of all 10 counties in New Hampshire.

"You are a whirlwind," one man gushed to O'Rourke as he navigated a gauntlet of selfie-seekers and leftover questioners on the sidewalk, aides hurrying him to his minivan so he could catch a flight to his next state. A handwritten index card propped on the console of the Dodge Grand Caravan reminded him he had an hour to get to the airport.

A week into his long-anticipated presidential bid, hectic scenes like this one have become familiar but telling of O'Rourke's early approach to the campaign trail — constantly in motion, barreling through the good and the bad, chaos and controversy. His first week saw a series of undeniable highs — monster fundraising, overflow crowds — as well as several less flattering chapters that found him expressing contrition for various missteps or confronting skeptics at his no-holds-barred events.

"I know that we have not done an event where folks cannot ask questions or make comments or level criticisms at me," O'Rourke told reporters earlier Thursday in Manchester. "I’m getting better along the way. I have a long way to go, and that’s very clear to me, but I am grateful for the opportunity. I’m going to make the most of it."

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Free of a day job, the former El Paso congressman seems determined to set the pace for the rest of the field with 10 months until voting begins, even if he will not acknowledge it. Asked in Manchester if the breakneck speed of his launch tour — complete with scenes of him leaping atop restaurant counters to speak — was meant to send a message to older opponents about his energy, O'Rourke responded with typical earnestness, saying he and his supporters will "never define ourselves in contrast to others."

Yet O'Rourke's itinerary speaks for itself. By the end of Thursday — one week into his run — he had visited six states, beginning in Iowa and crossing the Midwest to New Hampshire, holding dozens of events across them. After two days in New Hampshire, he was in South Carolina on Friday for a day and a half and then headed to Nevada for another day and a half. On March 30, he will return to Texas to not only kick off his campaign in his hometown but also hold similar rallies in Houston and Austin later that day.

As he has zoomed across the country, O'Rourke has been effectively testing whether the freewheeling style of his Senate campaign can withstand the rigors of a presidential race. The hallmarks of the 2018 bid have been abundant over the past week: the candidate driving himself from town to town, relying largely on the same two travel aides, broadcasting his appearances on Facebook Live, taking audience questions at every stop and entertaining reporters' questions at almost every turn.

There have been initial signs of a more professional effort — he appears to have an advance staff in place, for example — but it is not lost on even O'Rourke supporters that an early challenge of his 2020 campaign is scaling up what he did in 2018. It was the thrust of a question that Peggy Magner posed to O'Rourke on Saturday in Independence, Iowa, and while his answer reverted to familiar themes of showing up everywhere and talking to everyone, the 69-year-old retiree walked away hopeful that O'Rourke is prepared to take his statewide campaign national.

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"I think Texas is a huge state — I mean, you're talking about 200-and-some counties. You're talking 99 in Iowa," Magner said. "And I think the way he did it and the way he organized it from the ground up — I think it could really work. But of course it depends on who he hires to be with him. He is the magic behind it."

When it comes to staffing, it remains to be seen just how much things have changed from O'Rourke's Senate campaign, when he kept a small inner circle and largely served as his own strategist. He told reporters on the first day of his presidential bid that he will "rely on the wisdom, perspective and experience of a lot of people," including those from his Senate campaign as well as some fresh faces. "That's exciting to me — and I need it," he said.

Yet a week into his candidacy, O'Rourke had not named a campaign manager, somewhat unusual for such a high-profile contender. "We're working on it," he told reporters in Independence, hours later maintaining that "there are a number of people working together" to run the campaign. CNN reported Thursday night that O'Rourke was set to hire veteran Democratic strategist Jen O'Malley Dillon to lead his bid, but neither the candidate nor his campaign confirmed the news.

Navigating the issues

O'Rourke's flurry of events — combined with his willingness to take questions from both attendees and reporters at virtually every one of them — has subjected him in a short time to a battery of thorny yet ascendant issues in the Democratic primary, as well as more clear-cut litmus tests. O'Rourke's responses ranged from vague to blunt.

In Durham, New Hampshire, on Wednesday, he said he does not support a universal basic income, which is being pushed by upstart rival Andrew Yang, who wants to give American adults $1,000 a month. And earlier that day in Conway, New Hampshire, O'Rourke expressed skepticism when asked about a proposal by another opponent, Elizabeth Warren, to break up Big Tech companies.

"I think the best way to approach the fact that people become products on these platforms ... is to regulate them more seriously and perhaps to treat them a little bit more like a utility," O'Rourke said. "I'm not sure if having five more Facebooks ... makes as much sense as regulating them, given the power that they have."

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On a host of other issues du jour, O'Rourke expressed an almost instinctive openness.

Abolish the Electoral College? There is "a lot of wisdom" in that. (In his Senate campaign, he called for the "direct election" of the president.)

Lower the voting age? "I'm open to the idea."

End the filibuster? "I think that's something that we should seriously consider."

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Change the Supreme Court? It is worth debating whether to add more justices and give them term limits, but he is "more partial" to the latter.

Republicans were keeping close watch as O'Rourke navigated the knottier issues, particularly when it came to abortion. He sidestepped a number of questions across multiple states involving late-term abortion, including his personal feelings toward it, saying each time he trusts women to make decisions about their bodies.

On some other issues dominating the primary, O'Rourke's positions have become gradually clearer over the week as voters and reporters have pressed him. On reparations, O'Rourke initially gave a fuzzy answer Thursday in Iowa, alluding to talks he had about the issue with civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson, whom O'Rourke said argued there must first be a national conversation confronting America's racist past. But under questioning six days later in New Hampshire, O'Rourke revealed that he had asked Stevenson about reparations and that "he does not believe — and I don't believe — that should be the primary or initial focus of the conversation."

O'Rourke has also offered increasing clarity on health care, speaking more and more favorably about a proposal called Medicare for America that he claims would eventually get the country to universal health care without immediately axing people's employer-sponsored insurance. He gave his most precise pitch for the legislation Thursday in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where an audience member asked him if he would support Medicare for All — a single-payer system — over Medicare for America. Both are good proposals that achieve universal health care, he said, but Medicare for America, "I think, gets us there more quickly than any alternative that I've seen."

O'Rourke's work-in-progress platform has not thrilled everyone.

"When are we going to get an actual policy from you instead of platitudes and nice stories?" a woman bluntly asked him Tuesday in Pennsylvania, to which O'Rourke insisted he is "trying to be a specific as I can." He pointed to a number of issues where he has prescribed specific solutions, such as Medicare for America when it comes to health care.

Other people who heard O'Rourke in his first week were more understanding.

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"I do think there's a bit of a lack of specifics, I think, but I also think, you know, we're two years out," said Sam Sands, a 30-year-old research fellow at the University of New Hampshire who saw O'Rourke there Wednesday. "There's a lot of time to build policy and understand it. And I really like this plan that he has of sort of going around and listening to everybody first."

"The campaign is part of the message"

While O'Rourke stood out for how he conducted his Senate campaign in a red state like Texas, he and other 2020 candidates are facing new, mounting pressures to run their races more consistent with progressive values. He acknowledged as much Thursday in Manchester, telling reporters he thinks "the campaign is part of the message."

Accordingly, O'Rourke said over the last week that he would be "very supportive" of unionizing his campaign if employees wanted to, something rival Bernie Sanders' campaign has already done.

He has also confronted the new standards that Democrats are seeking to create when it comes to campaign finance, an issue where he was already relatively ahead of the curve. Asked in Iowa if he would join rival Elizabeth Warren in swearing off high-dollar fundraisers — events where four-digit checks are typically solicited — he did not rule them out but said he was not planning to hold such events.

He also got a similar taste of scrutiny Monday when he announced that his campaign had raised $6.1 million in its first 24 hours. It was an astonishing number that surpassed Sanders' first-day haul, but it quickly prompted questions — most vocally from Sanders supporters — about the details of how many donors fueled that haul. O'Rourke responded to the questions Wednesday by announcing he had received over 128,000 "unique contributions" for an average donation size of $47, an announcement that did little to quiet skeptics who questioned why he had not released his number of individual donors like Sanders did. O'Rourke promised to release that figure as his New Hampshire trip concluded Thursday but has not done so yet.

When it comes to campaign finance, he has also been getting questions about whether he will take contributions tied to the fossil fuel industry, to which he has responded by reiterating his longtime policy against accepting PAC or lobbyist money. Yet the answer leaves open the possibility that O'Rourke could accept large donations from executives — not uncommon for candidates from both parties in oil-loving Texas — something he took a pledge against in the Senate race and was apparently found to have violated.

"Yes, there are employees of the oil and gas industry, just as there are employees of every single industry under the sun, from you name it — people are contributing to us," O'Rourke said in Manchester.

Aside from campaign finance, questions have continued to follow O'Rourke about his privilege as a white man in the 2020 field — and he has continued to own up to it. After the New York Times published an interview Wednesday in which Florida Democrat Andrew Gillum, who like O'Rourke, gained national attention last year for a spirited yet failed bid for statewide office, said O’Rourke “enjoys a set of privileges in his decision making" that others do not, a reporter asked O’Rourke in Conway, New Hampshire, if Gillum had a point. “Yes,” O’Rourke said with little hesitation.

He was also quick to repent when asked about reports — including one by CNN on Wednesday — that reprised comments he made as a congressional candidate in 2012 saying the country needs to consider means-testing Social Security.

"You asked the question has my mind changed on that — absolutely," O'Rourke said to a reporter in Conway. "I think I've become a lot smarter from listening to the people that I've represented in Congress and others that understand this issue better than I do."

"Is that a negative?"

Perhaps no aspect of O'Rourke's nascent campaign has stood out more than his travel, though. While he made his debuts in the traditional early voting states after skipping them while considering a White House bid, the midwestern locales he visited in between were particularly significant. They were part of the "blue wall" that President Donald Trump toppled in 2016, and O'Rourke brought tough love for his party to the region, saying Democrats get what they deserve when they do not show up.

He had particularly good timing in Ohio, which he visited a day after Trump lashed out on Twitter at local union official David Green over the recent closure of General Motors' Lordstown facility. O'Rourke met Monday with Green, praising him in a conversation broadcast on Facebook Live for taking the high road in response to Trump's attacks.

Green was not the only local leader that O'Rourke consulted as he crossed the Midwest. He spoke by phone Monday with Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who considered his own presidential run earlier this year but decided against it. And as O'Rourke headed to New Hampshire, he dialed up U.S. Rep. Ann Kuster and other elected officials from the Granite State, getting advice on how to talk about the opioid crisis and New Hampshire's efforts to combat it, making note of the conversations at public events afterward.

Some of those calls came as he drove himself Tuesday from State College, Pennsylvania, to Keene, New Hampshire, a seven-hour trek that exemplified the do-it-yourself ethos of O'Rourke's Senate campaign that will be tested on the national stage. He ended up arriving over an hour late at his Keene event, where the crowd thinned out a little as attendees were encouraged to follow his journey on Facebook Live. He nonetheless received an enthusiastic reception when he got there and stuck around afterward for a long photo line.

So far, O'Rourke's unorthodox roadshow appears to have drawn far more fans than detractors. Among the fans: Dubuque County, Iowa, Recorder John Murphy, who hosted O'Rourke for a house party Saturday and offered a full-throated endorsement.

"The one knock I heard of Beto from a friend of mine that's a consultant — he said he doesn't run a typical campaign," Murphy said. "And I scratched my head and thought, 'Is that a negative?'"