President Donald Trump ventures into Beto O’Rourke country Monday night, returning to the campaign trail in El Paso, the Texas border city home to the former Democratic congressman and potential 2020 Trump foe.
The president has held fire on a number of Democrats already running. But he has taken several shots at O’Rourke, the kind of youthful candidate who might be able to connect with both progressives and blue-collar voters who broke for Trump in 2016 in key states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
The last time the president was on Texas soil, he couldn’t help taking a dig at O’Rourke.
“He lost and he wants to run for president,” Trump said in January of the former congressman, who came up short in his midterm Senate challenge to GOP incumbent Ted Cruz. “I thought you had to win to run for president,” Trump said with a smirk.
Flashback: Trump — ‘I think Beto O’Rourke is highly overrated’
A senior White House official recently said the president is making his own decisions on which of the possible 20 — or more — Democratic 2020 candidates he will engage via tweets and public remarks.
The official acknowledged O’Rourke caught the president’s attention during his race against Cruz, but downplayed the El Paso rally as mostly aimed at the potential 2020 candidate, saying Trump is expected to mostly focus on “framing the crisis at the border and explaining to the American people what good things happen when you have walls or barriers at a border.”
But several polls suggest Trump, whose political instincts even some Democratic strategists caution should not be underestimated, is wise to launch an early campaign-trail salvo against O’Rourke.
One, by Public Policy Polling, shows O’Rourke with a 6-point lead over Trump in a hypothetical one-on-one race. An Emerson College survey of registered Iowa voters gave Trump a 6-point edge over the former congressman.
What’s more, several polls conducted in the last few months put O’Rourke third or fourth among the potential 2020 Democratic field, trailing only former Vice President Joe Biden and a handful of senators — Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Those surveys suggest O’Rourke is very much in the 2020 fight despite not yet being a household name. He tried changing that with a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey.
During the 50-minute exchange, O’Rourke described a methodical process of deciding whether he would run. And he told her he learned “a hell of a lot” during his loss to Cruz.
“I think at a time that our politics is so heavily scripted and tested and safe, there was something that was new and maybe even dangerous or different about the way that we ran this campaign,” he said, indicating that he feels an off-the-cuff and authentic 2020 approach would be most effective and plans to make a final call by the end of the month.
Winfrey told him she agreed to do the interview to determine if he is the “real deal.” Trump has been doing his best to cast doubts.
“Beto O’Rourke is a total lightweight compared to Ted Cruz, and he comes nowhere near representing the values and desires of the people of the Great State of Texas. He will never be allowed to turn Texas into Venezuela!” the president tweeted on Oct. 19, the latter a reference to his frequent — though baseless — claim that Democrats want to install a rigid socialist government and economy.
Two days before that, Trump fired off another post comparing the Democrat to former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, whom the president often said lacked intestinal fortitude. “Watched the debate last night & Beto O’Rourke, who wants higher taxes and far more regulations, is not in the same league with Ted Cruz & what the great people of Texas stand for & want,” he wrote. “Ted is strong on Crime, Border & 2nd A, loves our Military, Vets, Low Taxes. Beto is a Flake!”
One Republican pollster noted O’Rourke has yet to lead a single poll, but said he could be on the president’s mind because “could he get some kind of organic movement going like in the Senate race? Sure.”
On Wednesday, Trump gruffly answered a question about House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, who announced a sweeping investigation of his 2016 campaign and possible ties to Russians. Reporters attempted to ask other questions, including a Roll Call reporter shouting a question about whether the El Paso trip was planned because he views O’Rourke as a threat.
But the president was in no mood. He took one last glance at the journalists in the Roosevelt Room following his announcement of David Malpass as his nominee to be World Bank president, and left without answering another query.
Trump’s Texas trip will also serve another purpose, allowing him to pressure congressional Democrats on a prime-time stage just days before the Feb. 15 deadline to finalize a border security deal.
During Tuesday’s State of the Union address, the president made a pitch for what he called “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier — not just a simple concrete wall,” shifting the kind of barrier vocabulary he talked about as a candidate and during the first two years of his presidency.
“The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities. Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities,” Trump said.
That claim is not supported by facts, and led to a torrent of calls for the president to correct the record.
The border structure there was erected in 2008. FBI crime data suggest violent crimes began declining there in 2006. And data compiled by SAGE Publishing put the Texas city 254th in a national ranking of most violent U.S. cities.
The murder rate in the city in 2005 was 2.5 for every 100,000 residents, compared with a national rate of 5.6. By 2010, the murder rate had dropped to 0.9 for every 100,000 residents, compared with a national average of 4.8, according to the Associated Press.
“El Paso has never been one of the most ‘dangerous cities’ in the country, and our safety and security has long been a point of pride. These distortions about our vibrant community are harmful to our reputation and degrade our spirit,” Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, O’Rourke’s successor, wrote to the president on Friday.
O’Rourke and Escobar will headline some Trump counter-programming on Monday before the president’s rally, hosting a press call-in with Linda Rivas of Women’s March El Paso and Fernando Garcia, executive director at the Border Network for Human Rights and participating in a march and rally with those groups and other community leaders.
El Paso Sheriff Richard Wiles, a former El Paso chief of police, issued a statement calling bull on the president’s claim. “It is sad to hear President Trump state falsehoods about El Paso, Texas, in an attempt to justify the building of a 2,000-mile wall. The facts are clear. While it is true that El Paso is one of the safest cities in the nation, it has never been ‘considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities.’ And El Paso was a safe city long before any wall was built. President Trump continues to give a false narrative about a great city that truly represents what this great nation is all about,” Wiles said Wednesday.
Eugene Kiely, director of the non-partisan FactCheck.org, tweeted this after Trump’s El Paso SOTU claims: “Trump repeatedly claims, as he did in the #SOTU, that a border fence immediately transformed El Paso from one of the most dangerous cities in the nation to one of the safest.” The tweet included a video that had a large graphic at the top declaring the claim “FALSE.”
Trump repeatedly claims, as he did in the #SOTU, that a border fence immediately transformed El Paso from one of the most dangerous cities in the nation to one of the safest. Here’s our video to set the record straight: pic.twitter.com/BXgh6DfMil— Eugene Kiely (@ekiely) February 6, 2019
But Trump is not likely to walk back such statements, having done very little of that throughout his tenure. The backdrop is one he will likely use to amplify his message.
“Going to El Paso will allow him to kick off next week. The border talks are the main event, with another shutdown possible,” the GOP pollster said. “El Paso has long been a concern point along the border. I would expect him to really focus on that, and try to continue making his case about walls working.”