Beto O’Rourke’s White House run tests limits of early strategy

Early races focused on personal connections, but tactics may be hard to transfer nationwide

Beto O’Rourke rallies a crowd in Austin, Texas, last September during his unsuccessful bid for Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Beto O’Rourke rallies a crowd in Austin, Texas, last September during his unsuccessful bid for Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 24, 2019 at 5:00am

This is the seventh installment in “Battle Tested,” a series analyzing early campaigns of some Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination. Earlier pieces focused on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden.

After several months of struggling to break through in the crowded Democratic presidential field, Beto O’Rourke is back in the headlines and criss-crossing the country.

The former congressman is crusading for tougher gun control laws not only in states with early primaries but in places like Aurora, Colorado, that, like his native El Paso, Texas, have been shaken by mass shootings. He’s also challenging other Democrats, including party leaders, on whether they’re doing enough to make a difference.

For some, O’Rourke’s approach is similar to one he took in 2012, when he wore out two pairs of shoes knocking on doors on his way to an upset win in a Democratic House primary against Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who had the backing of both President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

“This is the same thing that he did seven years ago,” said Steve Ortega, O’Rourke’s friend who served with him on the El Paso City Council. Ortega said the same elements of that 2012 race — taking on a seemingly impossible task, “not relying on the old typical political playbook,” personally connecting with voters — persist in his friend’s campaign today.

O’Rourke also used the strategy in his Senate race last year. He raised a record-breaking $80 million for that contest and came closer than any Democrat has in decades in a statewide race in Texas. But he still lost to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz by 3 points, and replicating that door-to-door strategy in a nationwide campaign will be even more difficult. 

O’Rourke, who rails against the influence of money in politics, also had some help in 2012 from a deep-pocketed super PAC, and a lucky break that gave him more time to campaign.

“For him, it all just came together,” said Moses Mercado, a Democratic lobbyist from Texas.

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Taking on Washington

O’Rourke had decided to challenge Reyes two years before he announced he was running for the El Paso-dominated 16th District at Texas’ western tip.

A member of the El Paso City Council in 2009, O’Rourke thought marijuana legalization would undercut the drug cartels, which were responsible for a scourge of violence across the border in Juárez, Mexico. Reyes, a former Border Patrol chief, disagreed, and opposed O’Rourke’s resolution calling on Congress to debate legalization.

O’Rourke, who was not available for an interview, told The Texas Tribune in 2011 that the clash spurred him to challenge Reyes, the first Hispanic congressman to represent the overwhelmingly Hispanic district.

“There was a disconnect between the reality we were living in El Paso and what Reyes and the leadership in Washington were saying,” O’Rourke said at the time. “It was profound and it was disturbing.”

That willingness to clash with members of his own party in Washington is still present in his campaign today. Last week, O’Rourke blamed Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer for inaction on gun violence, for example, saying, “The game that [Schumer has] played, the politics that he’s pursued have given us absolutely nothing.”

O’Rourke came from a political family — his father was a Democrat-turned-Republican who served as El Paso county judge. O’Rourke began his political career as part of a group known locally as “the progressives,” who took on sitting lawmakers they viewed as out of touch and corrupt.

Then-state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and former Mayor Ray Caballero recruited the group of newcomers who wanted to revitalize downtown El Paso to run for office. It included O’Rourke, Ortega and Veronica Escobar, who succeeded O’Rourke in Congress last year, and they were active in the 2012 race against Reyes.

O’Rourke’s campaign team was almost entirely made up of volunteers. David Wysong, a friend, was tapped to be the volunteer campaign manager. He later served as O’Rourke’s House chief of staff and is now a top adviser on the presidential campaign.

“It was just a very, very scrappy campaign,” Wysong recalled.

There was at least one early sign that O’Rourke could win. In an El Paso Times poll released a few days after he launched his campaign, 39 percent of respondents backed Reyes, 32 percent backed O’Rourke and 29 percent were undecided.

“We felt like Beto had already won the race when we saw the results of that poll,” said Russell Autry, who conducted the El Paso Times poll. Autry had worked for O’Rourke’s city council campaigns but was not involved in the 2012 race.

Personal connections

But while Reyes looked vulnerable, O’Rourke’s campaign knew that they would likely be outspent and that the incumbent would have the party’s support. Obama, at the top of the ticket seeking a second term, endorsed Reyes, and Clinton came to to the district to support him.

O’Rourke’s campaign bet he could win if he focused on meeting as many voters as possible, not unlike his presidential campaign today.

“He sees the same value that he did back then in those personal connections and real conversations,” Wysong said. “And that’s where he gets his inspiration or guidance.”

O’Rourke also caught a break. Texas primaries are typically in March, but in 2012, the primary was in late May due to ongoing court challenges to the state’s redistricting process.

That meant O’Rourke had more time to make his case against Reyes. He would hit the streets each day and eventually knocked on roughly 16,000 doors. On Election Day, the campaign left handwritten notes from O’Rourke on thousands of doors reminding people to vote.

“This guy was relentless,” said Jose Borjon, who worked on Reyes’ campaign.

O’Rourke’s charisma and youthful energy drove the campaign. His first television ad highlighted El Paso’s distinction as a “can-do” city, with him saying, “It’s time we take this can-do attitude to Congress.”

When it came time to debate Reyes, O’Rourke prepared by watching former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Clinton debate their opponents, according to Joey Torres, who dropped out of college to work on the campaign and traveled constantly with O’Rourke.

Torres said voters consistently brought up issues facing veterans, which spurred O’Rourke to argue that Reyes, an Army helicopter gunner in Vietnam, had not done enough to improve conditions at the local veterans’ hospital. An O’Rourke ad featured an ex-Marine saying veterans deserved better representation.

Reyes tried to make the race about O’Rourke’s drug policy, and one TV ad highlighted the challenger’s past arrests for a DWI and trespassing.

Beto O’Rourke cannot be trusted,” the narrator warned.

Outside help

O’Rourke, who today touts his refusal to accept support from political action committees, also had some help in 2012 from a super PAC called the Campaign for Primary Accountability. The PAC targeted Reyes as part of its effort to take out incumbents of both parties viewed as complacent. Of the 12 incumbents the group targeted in 2012, it spent the most against Reyes, dropping $240,000 on the race.

Those attacks tipped the race to O’Rourke, said Jeff Hewitt, the chief Democratic strategist for the super PAC.

“If you take out what we spent, there’s just no logical argument there that O’Rourke wins that race,” Hewitt said. “He didn’t have to spend any money on negatives against Reyes, because we were already doing it for him.”

Wysong pushed back on that analysis, saying O’Rourke’s personal outreach to voters was likely more effective in turning voters out.

The super PAC received nearly $38,000 from a company tied to O’Rourke’s wealthy father-in-law, William Sanders. Hewitt said there was no coordination with the O’Rourke campaign and described the contribution as “a drop in the bucket.”

The group launched television, radio and print ads, as well as a field program urging moderate Republicans to vote Democratic in the open primary for O’Rourke. O’Rourke’s campaign also reached out to GOP voters, dispatching a group of GOP supporters to make phone calls to other Republicans.

A shocking victory

It worked. An El Paso Times analysis found that more than 3,000 people who voted in the 2010 GOP primary switched to the Democratic primary in 2012, which was more than O’Rourke needed to cross the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff in a race that featured five candidates.

O’Rourke ended up winning by more than 6 points, taking nearly 51 percent of the vote to Reyes’ 44 percent. The El Paso Times found high turnout in the district’s whiter and most affluent West Side and average turnout in the heavier Hispanic areas in the Lower Valley.

Democrats familiar with the 2012 race said O’Rourke, who speaks Spanish, won over younger and more liberal Hispanic voters. The 16th District is more than 80 percent Hispanic, and O’Rourke’s campaign made sure their ads and mailers were in both Spanish and English.

O’Rourke shocked Texas Democrats with his win that year, and he shocked the political world six years later by coming close to unseating Cruz in 2018. Whether he will pull off another stunner by picking up support in the presidential race remains to be seen.

Some Texans would rather have him run against Republican Sen. John Cornyn, but O’Rourke has been adamant that he’s focusing on his White House run.

“He’s going to do what he wants to do,” said Ortega, the former city councilman. “He feels like you can effect the greatest amount of change in the seat of the executive. And he’s right about that.”