Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke announced Thursday that he’ll seek the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, ending months of intense speculation over whether he’d try to turn his newfound political celebrity into a White House bid.
Until he challenged Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year, O’Rourke was little known outside his hometown of El Paso.
He made headlines across the country despite losing.
But the Spanish-speaking 46-year-old former punk rocker was a sensation in the liberal media during his failed campaign.
Now, O’Rourke must prove whether the energy he brought to the Texas campaign will resonate on a much larger stage — and try to match President Donald Trump’s vigor.
For all the buzz associated with his candidacy, critics say the former three-term congressman hasn’t demonstrated much skill in domestic or foreign policy.
Trump has repeatedly blasted the idea of an O’Rourke presidential try, calling him a “flake” and a “total lightweight” and joking, “I thought you were supposed to win before you run for president.”
Other 2020 Democratic hopefuls have promoted their extensive legislative records. O’Rourke passed just three bills during his six years in Congress: two related to temporary health benefits and college tuition assistance to veterans and one renaming El Paso’s federal courthouse.
While running for Senate, he offered an unapologetic liberal vision. He demanded Trump’s impeachment, universal health care, gun control, marijuana decriminalization, steep federal subsidies for prekindergarten education and relaxed immigration policies for illegals. But he’s drawn criticism from supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Democratic presidential campaign who worry O’Rourke is too moderate to excite Democrats’ liberal base.
O’Rourke has shrugged off such complaints, saying he doesn’t know if he’s liberal enough to be called a “progressive” and doesn’t much care for party labels.
He joins a large and chaotic 2020 field, which could swing in any candidates direction at any moment. His lack of governing experience could hurt, but Trump’s rise suggests that the U.S. electorate might welcome a charismatic outsider.
The sports and entertainment world already had its eye on O’Rourke during the Senate campaign: NBA star LeBron James wore an O’Rourke hat after video of NFL national anthem protests went viral. Pop star Beyonce, a Houston native, also endorsed O’Rourke.
And he was the only presidential prospect interviewed in February by Oprah Winfrey, who appeared genuinely excited about the prospect of an O’Rourke White House run.
Should he parlay a 2018 Senate defeat into a successful 2020 White House campaign, O’Rourke would be the first U.S. politician to do so since Abraham Lincoln lost his Senate bid to Stephen Douglas in Illinois in 1858, then was elected president two years later.
O’Rourke visited all 254 of Texas’ counties while running for Senate and often drew larger-than-expected crowds, including in conservative areas that Democrats gave up on decades ago. It’s a strategy that could serve him well in Iowa, which kicks off presidential voting and where Cruz campaigned in all 99 counties before winning its caucus during the 2016 GOP presidential primary.
O’Rourke is scheduled to visit Iowa later Thursday and has three full days of political events planned there.
The Texan’s advisers have reached out to early-state Democratic officials seeking advice for potential hires and strategy. And, in New Hampshire, home to the nation’s first primary, an O’Rourke adviser asked for guidance on how they might schedule a driving tour through the state should he arrive coming from the West — indicating that a cross-country trip of sorts might be part of a campaign rollout plan.
Although he isn’t among the first wave of Democrats to jump into the race, O’Rourke enters with strong national name recognition. Democratic operatives in states with early presidential primaries, including South Carolina and Nevada, have formed Draft Beto groups that spent months fundraising, lining up potential O’Rourke endorsements and building campaign infrastructure until their candidate was ready.
A onetime guitarist for an El Paso punk band called Foss, O’Rourke boosted his already considerable nonpolitical street cred in the Senate race with a viral video showing him skateboarding across a Whataburger restaurant parking lot. And that’s all well and great if the 2020 general election becomes a popularity bid: for now it’s not.
O’Rourke refused donations from outside political groups and shunned pollsters during his Senate campaign though he’s not completely sworn off polling for a presidential run. He nonetheless harnessed growing nationwide popularity to rake in $80-plus million during the Senate bid, including a staggering $38 million from July to September 2018 alone.
While challenging Cruz, O’Rourke insisted that he had no interest in running for president, vowing to quietly return to El Paso should he lose. But during his election night concession speech, he let rip the kind of casual swearing that freckled an unorthodox campaign, declaring to supporters on national television: “All of you, showing the country how you do this, I’m so f—ing proud of you guys,” before promising, “We’ll see you down the road.”
Watch the announcement video below:
The Associated Press contributed to this article.