Scott Bauer / AP
Published Thursday, March 14, 2019 | 8:09 a.m.
Updated Thursday, March 14, 2019 | 8:41 a.m.
AUSTIN, Texas — Former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke jumped into the 2020 presidential race Thursday, shaking up the already packed field and pledging to win over voters from both major parties as he tries to translate his political celebrity into a formidable White House bid.
After months of ignoring states that vote early in the presidential nominating process, O'Rourke made his first-ever trip to Iowa — popping into a coffee shop in the town of Keokuk while many cable networks went live. He took questions about everything from his support of federal legalization of marijuana to abortion rights to the possibility of a universal basic income — all while waving his arms and gesticulating.
It was the kind of high-energy, off-the-cuff style that made him a sensation in Texas, but O'Rourke also was clear that he doesn't believe in strict immigration policies — drawing a policy distinction that could allow him to clash with President Donald Trump on the issue.
Trump, for his part, took note of O'Rourke's energetic gesticulation, on display as several cable TV networks aired O'Rourke's comments.
"Well, I think he's got a lot of hand movement," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. He added: "Is he crazy or is that just how he acts?"
Until he challenged Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year, O'Rourke was little known outside his hometown of El Paso. But the Spanish-speaking 46-year-old former punk rocker used grassroots organizing and social media savvy to mobilize young voters and minorities and get within 3 percentage points of winning in the nation's largest red state.
"This is going to be a positive campaign that seeks to bring out the very best from every single one of us," O'Rourke said in a video announcement before dawn Thursday, with his wife on a couch. "We saw the power of this in Texas."
Weeks of gleefully teasing an announcement are behind him, but O'Rourke now must prove whether his unique campaign style will resonate on a much larger stage than Texas. For all the buzz associated with his candidacy, the former three-term congressman hasn't demonstrated much skill in domestic or foreign policy. And, as a white man, he's entering a field that has been celebrated for its diverse roster of women and people of color.
California Sen. Kamala Harris singled him out by name in an email to supporters, noting that a "record number of women and people of color" are running and adding she was looking forward to "substantive debates" with candidates including "the newest to join the race today, Beto O'Rourke."
In Iowa, O'Rourke said, "I could care less about your party persuasion, your religion, anything other than the fact that, right now, we are all Americans." O'Rourke's record in Congress has drawn criticism from some on the left for being too moderate, but he spoke at length about combating climate change and supporting the Green New Deal on Thursday.
O'Rourke has promised to travel the country listening to voters, then will return to El Paso, on the border with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on March 30 for an official campaign kickoff.
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 the Texan defending NFL players' right to protest during the national anthem went viral this summer. Beyonce, a Houston native, endorsed O'Rourke.
Trademark, black-and-white "Beto for Senate" yard signs became staples in places like New York and Los Angeles — with some supporters now converting them to read "Beto for President 2020." And he was the only presidential prospect interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, who appeared genuinely excited last month 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.
Democrats have long dreamed that a booming Hispanic population and droves of Americans moving to Texas from elsewhere could turn the nation's largest red state blue and transform the Electoral College by making the Republican path to the presidency all but impossible. Another Texas Democrat, former Obama administration housing chief Julian Castro, was already running.
O'Rourke visited all 254 of Texas' counties while running for Senate. It's a strategy that could serve him well in Iowa, where Cruz campaigned in all 99 counties before winning its caucus during the 2016 GOP presidential primary.
In New Hampshire, home to the nation's first primary, an O'Rourke adviser asked specifically for guidance on how they might schedule a driving tour through the state should he arrive coming from the West.
Although he's entering the race relatively late, O'Rourke has strong national name recognition. Democratic operatives around the country formed Draft Beto groups that spent months fundraising and building campaign infrastructure until their candidate was ready.
O'Rourke refused donations from outside political groups and shunned pollsters during his Senate campaign. He nonetheless harnessed 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. But during his election night concession speech, he let rip the kind of casual swearing that's become a trademark, 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," and promising, "We'll see you down the road."