DALLAS — President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke headlined dueling rallies Thursday night in North Texas, their second split-screen face-off this year in the state as it gets increasing attention as a potential battleground in the White House race.
Speaking at a reelection campaign rally, Trump delivered almost two hours of musings that stuck to his main points on the campaign trail: building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the whistleblower who spurred an ongoing impeachment inquiry, a trade war with China and the United States’ economic performance during his term. He gave a number of congressional shoutouts to Texas Republicans in attendance, all of whom are in historically safe seats, before quashing speculation that the state could flip in 2020.
“Texas is not in play,” he said to raucous chants of “four more years” from a packed crowd of supporters at the American Airlines Center. “Donald Trump is not going to lose Texas; I can tell you that.”
Unsurprisingly, O’Rourke had a different assessment on Texas in 2020, telling supporters that the work they did in his near-miss U.S. Senate race last year put the state in play.
“You ensured that the 38 Electoral College votes here in Texas can be won and can put Donald Trump away forever,” O’Rourke said.
Addressing a smaller crowd at an counter-rally in Grand Prairie, O’Rourke called on Texans to reject the “false bullshit fear of Donald Trump,” especially when it comes to immigration and the rhetoric that fueled the deadly August shooting in his hometown of El Paso.
“I am so proud of my community, of this state and this country at this moment, I am so proud of you for standing up and standing together and standing against that fear that Donald Trump … [is] trying to use against us, that fear that he directed and drove down to El Paso, Texas — that fear that claimed the lives of 22 Americans. We, those of us here standing together to counted, we are the answer to that fear,” O’Rourke said.
The last time O’Rourke and Trump held dueling rallies, it was February in El Paso, and O’Rourke was not yet a presidential candidate but was generating considerable buzz. His sizable counter-event caught Trump’s attention then, and the president spent a long time afterward insisting he drew the bigger crowd.
Despite the February debate over crowd size, O’Rourke and Trump staged their rallies Thursday night in venues that ensured significantly different turnouts. The American Airlines Center can seat 20,000 people, while The Theatre at Grand Prairie holds 6,350.
O’Rourke’s campaign said his rally drew 5,532 people. Trump, meanwhile, boasted of a full stadium with thousands more waiting outside.
Trump’s most staunch Texas supporters seemed to relish playing into the rivaling rallies, starting with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is chairing Trump’s campaign in Texas.
“We’ll have more people in our port-a-potties,” Patrick said, comparing O’Rourke’s attendance numbers to Trump’s.
He proceeded to lead the crowd in a round of boos and catcalls.
“When Beto says, ‘I’m coming to get your guns,’” Patrick added, referencing O’Rourke’s gun buyback proposal, “I say, ‘This guy is obviously not a Texan, because that’s never gonna happen.’”
Trump later piled onto the wisecracks.
“Last week, a very dumb Democrat candidate for president — that’s the end of him in this state — pledged to revoke the tax-exempt status of many churches and religious charities,” he said. “That was after, a few weeks ago, he said, ‘Excuse me, we’re going to take your guns away,” Trump continued before mocking O’Rourke’s “flailing” arms.
Trump was referring to two O’Rourke proposals that have drawn the most scrutiny lately from Republicans but also some Democrats. After the El Paso shooting, O’Rourke proposed a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons, and he more recently said yes when asked if religious institutions should lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose gay Americans' right to marriage. His campaign later dialed back the position to say the institutions should only lose the status if they take discriminatory action.
“Beto, in a few short, weeks got rid of guns and got rid of religion,” Trump said. “Those are not two good things in Texas to get rid of. I will never allow the federal government to be used to punish Americans for their religious beliefs.”
The Dallas event was Trump’s second campaign rally this cycle in Texas after the one in February in El Paso, and it is his first visit to the state since the U.S. House launched an impeachment inquiry. That effort, led by congressional Democrats, centers on Trump’s request that the president of Ukraine look into unsubstantiated allegations against the business activities of the son of Joe Biden, a leading candidate to challenge Trump next year.
Trump seemed unfazed by the flurry of national headlines during his speech — despite news that broke just hours before that his acting chief of staff admitted, then tried to walk back, that the president used military aid as leverage to pressure Ukraine into a political investigation and that Energy Secretary Rick Perry was resigning.
“He spent three years with us, and I want to thank you, Rick,” Trump said. “Very successful.”
The Dallas rally wrapped up three days of Trump campaign events in Texas. On Tuesday, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., headlined a public event in San Antonio while there for a fundraiser. On Wednesday, campaign manager Brad Parscale participated in a volunteer and organizer training. And earlier Thursday, Trump starred at a fundraiser in Fort Worth before heading about a half-hour south to take part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Louis Vuitton workshop in Alvarado.
Trump raised $5.5 million for his reelection effort at the Fort Worth fundraiser and a pre-rally reception, a Republican National Committee official told reporters traveling with the president.
The flurry of presidential activity this week in Texas emboldened Democrats, who took it as proof that Trump sees the traditionally red state as competitive in 2020. Trump won the state by 9 percentage points in 2016 — the smallest margin for a Republican presidential nominee in Texas in two decades — and recent polls have suggested his reelection is anything but guaranteed here next year.
“Trump is terrified of losing Texas,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins told reporters earlier Thursday at a Texas Democratic Party news conference near the American Airlines Center. “He’s terrified of losing this election.”
The presidential race was not the only one in the spotlight Thursday in Texas. Trump repeatedly promoted Texas Republicans: U.S. Reps. Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Kay Granger of Fort Worth, Lance Gooden of Terrell, Brian Babin of Woodsville, John Ratcliffe of Heath and Randy Weber of Friendswood. He also gave plaudits to Texas’ two senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, the latter of whom is up for reelection next year and has drawn a crowded Democratic field.
“I have no idea who you’re running against, but no one is going to be able to beat John Cornyn,” Trump said.
Both Parscale and Cornyn spoke earlier in the rally, the latter telling the crowd, “Make no mistake about it: Texas will be the firewall in 2020.”
“If they take Texas, they will take the U.S. Senate,” Cornyn said. “If they take Texas, they will take the White House. But we can't let that happen. Not on our watch.”
At O’Rourke’s invitation, eight of the Democrats running to unseat Cornyn spoke at the Grand Prairie rally, seeking in many instances to tie Cornyn to Trump.
Some of them also appealed to O’Rourke’s supporters. One of the Cornyn opponents, Chris Bell, got cheers for praising O’Rourke’s crusade for a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons, while another primary rival, MJ Hegar, sought to rally those disappointed by the 2018 results.
“We’re gonna win in 2020,” she said, “and if you were sad that we didn’t get to send Ted Cruz home that time, let me tell you something: The next best thing will be to sit my ass next to him for the next four years.”