Beto O'Rourke unveils PAC with focus on boosting Texas Democrats in 2020

The group, Powered by People, comes less than two months after O'Rourke ended his presidential campaign.

Garrett Haake interviews presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke at The Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019.

Weeks after dropping out of the presidential race, Beto O'Rourke has launched a new political group to boost Texas Democrats in the 2020 election.

In an email to supporters Friday morning, O'Rourke said the group, Powered by People, will bring "together volunteers from around the state to work on the most important races in Texas." He named a few battles in particular: the fight for the state House majority, national Democrats' drive to flip six Texas congressional seats, the race to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and the presidential general election in Texas.

"Powered by People will organize grassroots volunteers to do the tough, necessary work that wins elections: registering Texans to vote (especially those that have just moved to Texas and those who are just turning 18), knocking on their doors, making phone calls, and connecting the dots so that we all understand that in order to make progress on the issues we care most about — like gun violence, healthcare and climate — we will have to register, volunteer and vote," O'Rourke said.

Powered by People is set up as a political action committee — notable given O'Rourke's long aversion to PACs in his campaigns. As a congressman, 2018 U.S. Senate candidate and 2020 presidential candidate, O'Rourke refused to accept PAC donations, denouncing the influence of big money in politics.

"I think it's a really good question — 'Why would you then start a PAC?'" O'Rourke said in a Texas Tribune interview later Friday. "There literally was no other legal organization that would allow us to raise money and spend money to help organize people in Texas."

O'Rourke said he looked at starting a 501(c)(4) nonprofit but was not comfortable with the lack of transparency — such groups do not have to disclose their donors. Those organizations also require that politics can't become their primary focus.

Powered by People is specifically structured as what is known as a "hybrid PAC," meaning it contains two accounts, one that functions like a traditional PAC that limits individual donations to $5,000 a year and another that operates as a super PAC that can raise unlimited amounts of money. However, in its filing with the Federal Election Commission, Powered by People appears to impose some restrictions on itself, saying it will not take money from corporations or labor organizations and will not accept unlimited individual contributions — all benefits enjoyed by super PACs.

O'Rourke elaborated further in the interview, saying the group will cap donations at $5,000 per individual per year across both accounts. He also said the PAC will not make direct contributions to candidates, instead focusing on funding activities to reach voters like block walking and phone banking. He said the organization will have "really low overhead" and initially employ just one person, likely an organizer.

O'Rourke told the Tribune that he wants to run the PAC "in the most honest, ethical transparent, way possible," maintaining that he will not be able to personally profit from it. Depending on how the 2020 elections go, he added, ideally he and his wife would be able to step away from the group afterward and allow it to grow on its own.

Republicans responded to the group's launch by flagging O'Rourke's about-face on PACs — and vowing to make its support a liability for Democrats.

"For a candidate who blasted PACs ad nauseum, it is astoundingly hypocritical for him to now create one," Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said in a statement. "While the name of the PAC may be innocuous enough, its purpose is devastating to Texans and our values. ... Support from this hypocritical PAC will be toxic."

O'Rourke announced the group following a visit to Fort Bend County, where he returned to the campaign trail for Eliz Markowitz, the Democratic candidate in a special election runoff next month for House District 28, which the party is working to flip. Speaking with reporters Tuesday in Katy, O'Rourke said flipping the state House will be his top focus this cycle in Texas.

O'Rourke plans to return to Fort Bend County before the Jan. 28 runoff to campaign for Markwotiz again. On Dec. 29, he said, he will hold a phone bank in El Paso for anyone who wants to make calls into HD-28 for Markowitz.

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