Beto O’Rourke barreled into the 2020 presidential race with breakneck energy and a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants campaign style that saw him leap atop tables to address overflow crowds with the organic, off-the-cuff candor that had made him a Texas sensation.
But since his mid-March campaign launch, the buzz surrounding the former congressman has evaporated. Competing in a massive field of Democratic White House hopefuls, O’Rourke has sagged in the polls. He’s made few promises that resonated or produced headline-grabbing moments, instead driving around the country meeting with voters at mostly small events.
In a tacit recognition that this approach isn’t working, O’Rourke is planning to try again, taking a hands-on role in staging a “reintroduction” ahead of next month’s premier Democratic presidential debate. As he finalizes his plans, O’Rourke has entered an intentional “quiet period” to build out campaign infrastructure, according to an adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the campaign’s strategy.
That will end soon.
O’Rourke plans to step up his national media appearances after skipping most of that kind of exposure in recent months. He is scheduled to appear on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” on Monday night and ABC’s “The View” the next day.
He’s also set to offer more concrete policy plans on top issues. So far, he’s issued just one, on climate change.
O’Rourke acknowledges he’s struggled to find his presidential campaign footing.
“I think, in part, I was just trying to keep up when I first started out,” he said after addressing about 40 people at a recent house party in Newton, Iowa. “I really feel like I’ve found my rhythm and my pace, and I just feel comfortable, and I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
His top aides deny that a full reinvention or “Beto 2.0” is in the works. They note that O’Rourke plans to keep packing days with as many as half a dozen campaign events. He’ll still venture into off-the-beaten path locales that include rural, heavily Republican areas. Those were the trademarks of his Senate campaign last fall, when he nearly toppled Republican Sen. Ted Cruz by visiting all of deep-red Texas’ 254 counties.
But his team also acknowledges that for all its excitement, O’Rourke’s initial campaign launch exposed some disorganization. Assembling a campaign staff while the 2020 roadshow was already rollicking along simply wasn’t sustainable.
It took O’Rourke nearly two weeks after announcing his campaign to formally hire Jen O’Malley Dillon to run his team. She was the deputy campaign manager of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election bid and is only now moving to O’Rourke’s headquarters in El Paso, Texas, after doing the job from Washington.
O’Rourke added 16 staffers recently in Iowa, which holds the first presidential caucuses, but that’s fewer than some other candidates have. In New Hampshire, which votes next, O’Rourke has yet to formally announce a state director or campaign staff, though he has informal organizers there.
“It was a ready, fire, aim sort of trajectory,” said Chris Lippincott, a Texas consultant who ran an outside political group opposing Cruz in 2018.
Kathy Sullivan, a Democratic National Committee member from New Hampshire, noted that, after events, “If you don’t have somebody with a clipboard taking names and addresses and phone numbers, you can lose contact with folks.”
Sullivan recently had lunch with O’Rourke in New Hampshire’s capital, Concord, as part of a small women’s group and “found him to be very sincere, very thoughtful.” But she also said that his falling out of the 2020 spotlight helped boost another young, unorthodox candidate: Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
The work to bolster the campaign has begun to stabilize things. Earlier this week, O’Rourke announced hiring Jeff Berman, a top delegate guru who helped Obama navigate the complicated process of locking up enough support to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.
“It has been building up over time,” O’Rourke said of his campaign apparatus. “I think we’re getting better organized all the time.”
He maintains that it’s still early. During his first trip to Iowa in March, O’Rourke focused on eastern counties that had supported Obama but went for Donald Trump in 2016. More recently, he sought out the relatively few Democrats in the state’s rural southwest, trying to do the spade work — as the country folk he’s trying to woo might say — to slowly grow lasting support.
“With 21, maybe more, candidates on the horizon, this is going to be decided by a matter of a few hundred votes, maybe a few dozen votes,” O’Rourke said after speaking at a former livestock auction space in Shenandoah, Iowa, that’s been converted into a spiffy hall for weddings and parties. “So, every one of these conversations matters.”
One holdover from O’Rourke’s do-it-yourself style in Texas is his insistence on driving himself between events, repeatedly climbing behind the wheel of rented Dodge Grand Caravans. Some campaign staffers see it as time that could be spent doing more productive — or at least less potentially dangerous — things, but O’Rourke’s unfazed.
“I can’t just sit and ride,” he’s said by way of explanation. “I’ve got to be doing something.”
In the meantime, his staff has built schedules ensuring that O’Rourke gets to his multiple daily scheduled events on time — capitalizing on his energy while being mindful not to keep demanding early state voters waiting, like he did when barnstorming across all 10 New Hampshire counties in 48 hours shortly after kicking off his campaign.
O’Rourke takes questions from attendees at every stop and is quick enough on his feet to usually provide detailed answers before pivoting to his talking points.
Marcia Fulton, a 78-year-old retired teacher and school administrator who saw O’Rourke at a restored train depot in Creston, Iowa, said she’s not decided who she’ll vote for yet, but he “was really impressive, more so than I expected.”
“He was prepared and that was a real question, given his youth,” Fulton added.
But O’Rourke also begins every stop with a rapid-fire, 20-minute stump speech decrying climate change, skyrocketing student loans and the Trump administration’s immigration policies while promising to drastically expand health insurance coverage and insisting he can achieve bipartisan cooperation in Washington. It’s too much for some.
“He’s going to have to slow down a bit,” said Sandy Sothman, the co-vice chairwoman of the Cass County Democrats who watched O’Rourke speak at a sunny hillside park in Atlantic, Iowa. “When he gets going and talks about so many things at once, it becomes a little like, ‘Is he riffing or what?’”