Two weeks after putting his presidential run on pause, Beto O’Rourke presented himself to supporters Thursday as a changed candidate with a revamped campaign centered on holding President Donald Trump accountable in the aftermath of a mass shooting in his El Paso hometown.
On Thursday morning, the Democratic presidential candidate restarted his White House bid with a speech in the border city, where he drilled down on topics like racism, white supremacy and the strength of those in El Paso after a recent massacre that left 22 dead. The speech served as a reset for O’Rourke, who suspended his campaign after the tragedy and has been offering support to grieving victims and residents ever since.
O’Rourke opened his speech by highlighting some of the “extraordinary El Pasoans” he met immediately after the shooting. Then he told attendees that the massacre showed him a need to abandon the tactful approach he’s taken so far in the crowded presidential primary and instead focus on hitting Trump directly. O’Rourke said the president “speaks so openly in racist terms and so openly favors one race.”
“We have a racism in America that is as old as America itself,” O’Rourke said. “What President Trump says, and what he does, does not just offend our sensibilities or our understanding of the traditions of this great country. It changes who we are as a country.”
“I’m confident that, at this moment, if we don’t wake up to this threat,” O’Rourke said, “we as a country will die in our sleep.”
Trump’s campaign was quick to respond.
“After proclaiming just last week El Paso ‘need[s] to heal,’ Beto O’Rourke is now using the tragedy in his hometown to bolster his struggling presidential bid,” said Trump Victory Committee spokesperson Samantha Cotten. “O’Rourke’s second campaign reboot is likely to end up failing just like his first. Texans know O’Rourke is more interested in his own personal political gain than he is in helping his hometown heal.”
Still, Thursday’s speech showed a new, more raw side of O’Rourke. He spoke without a teleprompter or prepared remarks and told supporters that, moving forward, he’ll be on the offensive — with an eye toward directly confronting Trump, whom O’Rourke blamed for using incendiary language when talking about Mexicans and people of color that, O’Rourke said, inspired the shooter in El Paso to act.
“I see more clearly now than I ever have before that immigrants in this community, in this state, in this country will continue to be attacked,” he said, mentioning a Trump event in May where a rally attendee suggested shooting immigrants. “Not just killed as they were at the Walmart, but terrorized.”
The scathing rebuke of the president was, of course, not the first time O’Rourke has used his platform to challenge Trump for his racist remarks. O’Rourke previously said the president had “a lot to do” with the shooting and later received national attention for delivering an emotional critique of the media after a reporter asked O’Rourke if “there [is] anything in your mind that the president can do now to make this any better?”
O’Rourke's relaunch comes during a precarious time. Since he launched his campaign in March, the press corps that followed him has thinned out, and his poll numbers have remained in the single digits. A Morning Consult poll released Monday put O’Rourke at 3% nationally — roughly the same standing he had before he paused his campaign. Meanwhile, a recent Economist/YouGov poll had O’Rourke at 5%.
Immediately after the massacre, O’Rourke canceled a number of planned campaign events, including ones in Nevada and California. And although he said he plans to return to the trail in the coming days, the Democrat said he doesn’t plan to return to the early states, or the “corn dogs and Ferris wheels” of the Iowa State Fair at first. Rather, he said he preferred to visit the places where “President Trump has been terrorizing and terrifying and demeaning our fellow Americans.”
“That’s where you will find me in this campaign,” he said to a round of applause.
From El Paso, O’Rourke said he’s headed to Mississippi and Arkansas — the former of which was the site of a massive ICE raid days after the El Paso shooting.
O’Rourke also used his time onstage to push for gun reform laws. He promoted universal background checks; so-called “red flag laws,” which in most cases allow judges to temporarily seize an individual’s firearms if that person is considered an imminent threat; and ending the sale of assault weapons.
“Though El Paso bore the brunt of this hatred, this violence and this inaction, I also know this community holds the answers — not only for our future in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, but for our country,” O’Rourke said. “Though we have not realized the idea of an America for everyone, it is still within our grasp.”
He also made one thing clear: He has no plans to drop his White House bid and run for U.S. Senate against Republican John Cornyn, despite the occasional calls for him to do so.
“There’s some part of me that wants to stay here and be with my family and be with my community. I love my community. I love El Paso,” he said. “There have even been some that suggest I stay in Texas and run for Senate, but that would not be good enough for this community. That would not be good enough for this country.
“We must take the fight directly to the source of this problem.”