El Paso Inc. El Pasoan of the Year Ceremony 8

From left: Amy, Molly, Beto, Henry and Ulysses O'Rourke at El Paso Inc.'s El Pasoan of the Year luncheon Feb. 19.

Beto O’Rourke, the 46-year-old former Texas congressman whose near-miss Senate run last year propelled him to Democratic stardom, announced Thursday that he was running for president, betting that voters will prize his message of national unity and generational change in a 2020 primary teeming with committed progressives.

His decision jolts an early election season already stuffed with contenders, adding to the mix a relentless campaigner with a small-dollar fundraising army, the performative instincts of a former punk rocker and a pro-immigrant vision to counteract President Donald Trump’s.

Yet O’Rourke also comes to the 2020 race with few notable legislative accomplishments after three terms in the House representing El Paso. And in a primary so far defined by big-ticket policy ideas, like the economic agendas of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, O’Rourke enters without a signature proposal that might serve as the ideological anchor of his bid.

“This moment of peril produces perhaps the greatest moment of promise for this country and for everyone inside it,” O’Rourke said in a video announcing his candidacy, released hours before a planned three-day tour of Iowa was set to begin on Thursday morning.

Unlike many of his 14 Democratic rivals for the nomination, O’Rourke has spent little time until recently even considering a White House run, let alone building an operation that would sustain one. Some voters and activists have also wondered aloud if a white male is the best fit for this Democratic moment, particularly after midterm successes powered often by female and nonwhite candidates.

With O’Rourke’s entry, the primary field appears close to settled more than 10 months before the Iowa caucuses; former Vice President Joe Biden, the only holdout among the expected major candidates, seems poised to join the race next month.

Early polls have shown Biden and Sanders on top. O’Rourke, three decades their junior, hopes to supply an unsubtle contrast, particularly given Sanders’ success with the kinds of young voters who flocked to O’Rourke in Texas.

Advisers to O’Rourke’s competitors have long watched his plans with concern, recognizing that the kind of face-to-face politicking that fueled his campaign to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas should suit him well in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters crave personal interaction with candidates.

O’Rourke made his town hall forums the centerpiece of his Senate candidacy, turning the race into a national cause — the underdog liberal running in a famously red state — trailed by a documentary film crew and endorsed by celebrities from Beyoncé to Willie Nelson. He made a point of visiting each of the 254 counties in Texas, helping him bulldoze fundraising records and come within about 200,000 votes of Cruz on Election Day.

O’Rourke also attracted many fans outside the state, drawing them into a perpetual social media live-stream capturing not only his political events but also unscripted moments on the road: late-night burger stops, skateboarding in a parking lot, reminiscing with a former bandmate behind the wheel. For many politically obsessed liberals, his inevitably upbeat musings offered a welcome online antidote to Trump’s Twitter rampaging.

Admirers believe it is this ability to generate his own narrative orbit that could separate him from his peers.

“In a political environment where it’s so hard to break through, he has an ability to pique people’s interest and to drive a narrative on his own,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and is not advising any candidate in 2020. “He isn’t just shadowboxing with the president’s Twitter handle.”

On one central issue, though, Trump has provided O’Rourke with a useful foil. Earlier this year, when the president traveled to El Paso to press for a wall on the border with Mexico, the two headlined dueling rallies. “We are not safe because of walls but in spite of walls,” O’Rourke thundered, speaking to supporters not far from Trump’s event. “We have so much to give, so much to show the rest of the country.”

Subsequently, he even said he would support tearing down the existing border wall in the El Paso area, a declaration that Republicans have suggested they will use against him should he make the general election.

“All of us, wherever you live, can acknowledge that if immigration is a problem, it’s the best possible problem for this country to have,” O’Rourke said in his video announcement Thursday.

Trump, in turn, has taunted O’Rourke for turning a losing campaign into a launchpad for a presidential bid. “Hey, you’re supposed to win in order to run,” Trump has said.

But the Democratic primary could present unique challenges to O’Rourke.

It is an open question whether he will be able to scale up his skeletal organization and hand over control to the sort of political professionals he largely shunned in his Senate race. The lead-up to O’Rourke’s official announcement Thursday has been highly improvisational, in part because he was personally directing much of the planning.

On Wednesday night, he was texting supporters in early nominating states to share his plans and to tell them he would have advisers get in touch with them about his upcoming schedule. And for weeks, he has been meeting and talking on the telephone with a number of Democratic strategists to gauge their interest in working for him, finding encouragement but also a reluctance to move to El Paso, where he is planning to base his operations.

As late as last weekend, O’Rourke had still not settled on who would guide his campaign. He discussed the campaign manager job for 90 minutes with a Democratic strategist, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, but even on the eve of his announcement, it was uncertain who would be at the helm of his organization.

Yet he enjoys the support of many of former President Barack Obama’s aides, some tacitly and others more full-throated, and he has relied on advice from a number of Obama’s strategists, including the 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe. (Plouffe is not, however, planning to formally participate in the race on behalf of any candidate.)

But unlike Obama, who ran in a year when the Iraq War was the single overriding policy issue in the Democratic race, O’Rourke is seeking the presidency at a moment his party is lurching left across the board. He will be immediately under pressure to expand upon the sometimes-vague liberalism that has colored his public life.

Already, allies of Sanders in particular have questioned O’Rourke’s commitment to progressive priorities. (O’Rourke has declined to call himself a progressive, saying he was “not big on labels.”)

In 2016, he supported a centrist challenger to Nancy Pelosi to lead House Democrats. In 2018, he frustrated Texas activists by refusing to endorse Gina Ortiz Jones, a prized Democratic recruit for a House seat, because she was facing O’Rourke’s Republican friend, Rep. Will Hurd, who eventually won by fewer than 1,000 votes.

And while O’Rourke should have little trouble pulling in enough money to get a presidential campaign off the ground, it is not clear precisely how he will fare in fundraising in such a large field of Democrats, without a binary contest against Cruz, whom liberals love to loathe.

Some in the party have questioned whether a Senate-race-losing candidate like O’Rourke should even be running for president so soon. Several have encouraged him to seek statewide office again; Senate Democrats aggressively lobbed him to take on Texas’ other Republican senator, John Cornyn, who is up for re-election next year, even dispatching senior party officials to El Paso to make the case.

In the months since his defeat, O’Rourke himself seemed to be casting about for answers, discussing a possible run with advisers but appearing genuinely conflicted.

His goal, people close to him say, is to build a presidential campaign consistent with the spirit of his Senate run, when he gleefully swore off consultants and pollsters while leaning on a sprawling voter mobilization network aimed at turning out Texans who rarely make it to the polls.

In recent weeks, O’Rourke has visited several college campuses, a likely nod to an often inconsistent voting segment — younger voters — that he hopes to draw into his coalition.

As part of his decision-making process, he also set off on a solo road trip to meet Americans in unrehearsed settings, describing the effort in a series of confessional online essays.

“Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk,” O’Rourke wrote in one. “Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don’t know and I’m not known, it’ll clear my head.”

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