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O’Rourke touts Senate run in White House bid — even though he lost

Texan cites battle with Cruz as evidence he can energize Democrats, win over Republicans

Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks during his town hall event in Alexandria, Va. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks during his town hall event in Alexandria, Va. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Ruth traveled to Texas last year to knock on doors when former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke ran for Senate. Now she’s concerned he’s repeating mistakes from that race, and she told him so to his face.  

Ruth, who declined to give her last name, told O’Rourke at a town hall meeting Wednesday she did not think he drew enough of a contrast with GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, who was narrowly re-elected in November.

Now O’Rourke is running against at least 16 other Democrats, and the list still could grow.

“At some point you’re going to have to distinguish yourself from the other candidates who are running,” Ruth said. 

O’Rourke countered that he “will do nothing to diminish or demean or vilify another Democratic candidate,” drawing cheers from the crowd packed into a hotel ballroom.

Watch: Beto O’Rourke is running for president, here are some congressional basics

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Ruth also raised concerns about his lack of television presence, with other candidates grabbing attention at cable news town halls. 

“Meeting you eyeball to eyeball, to me, is so much more satisfying than being on cable TV,” O’Rourke responded. “Right now I want to be with you. We’ll see. Give me some time.”

Earlier, O’Rourke told reporters he would be open to TV town halls, including one on Fox News. Rival Sen. Bernie Sanders’ batting away questions from Fox hosts earlier this week earned accolades from supporters.

For O’Rourke, his unsuccessful Senate race is not a sign of doom for his bid for the White House. In fact, he sees it as proof he can win. 

O’Rourke referenced his Senate campaign in his presidential campaign announcement last month, and also at a meet and greet with Democrats in Alexandria earlier on Wednesday. O’Rourke is the first presidential candidate to travel to the commonwealth, whose primary is March 3.

The former congressman told the group that Democratic victories in Virginia legislative and statewide races in 2017 helped inspire him to run for Senate in Texas in 2018.

O’Rourke then touted his Senate run, noting that he was able to increase turnout, including among young people, and win over thousands of Republicans in the red state.

“We never once trimmed our sails or diminished the courage of our convictions,” O’Rourke said, noting that he won over GOP voters while also discussing issues such as abortion rights, gun control, climate change and criminal justice reform.

O’Rourke lost to Cruz by roughly 3 percentage points in a state that hadn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 1994. Turnout was nearly 20 percentage points higher than the 2014 midterm election. 

O’Rourke’s Senate campaign is how many voters gathered at the town hall first heard of the former congressman from El Paso. His campaign captured national attention, and he shattered Senate fundraising records while rejecting PAC money. 

UNITED STATES - APRIL 17: Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speas during his town hall event in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks during his town hall event in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Nods to his Senate run were on display in the hotel ballroom. Black and white “Beto for Senate” T-shirts peppered the crowd. (His presidential campaign shirts look very similar, but say “Beto for America” instead.)

Alexandria City Council member Canek Aguirre noted while introducing O’Rourke that his Texas Senate campaign signs were spotted in Alexandria last year. And one woman said she knew of O’Rourke because of his response during his Senate run to a question about athletes kneeling during the national anthem, which went viral.

O’Rourke’s loss in 2018 did not dampen the enthusiasm of supporters in Virginia about 2020.

“He really made a solid run in a state that a lot of people in the Democratic Party had written off as lost forever,” said Alexandria resident Lacey Baugher, 41, who was sporting a “Beto for America” T-shirt. “For that reason his Senate run made me hopeful.”

Even Ruth, who was concerned about O’Rourke repeating his Senate campaign mistakes, said his previous loss wouldn’t stop her from backing him in the Democratic primary. She said she’s also considering supporting Stacey Abrams, who lost the Georgia governor’s race and is considering running for president. 

“That doesn’t bother me at all,” Ruth said of O’Rourke’s unsuccessful campaign last year. “I really hate people who say that. He did something that nobody else had done in Texas.”

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