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Beto O’Rourke doesn’t rule out a 2020 presidential bid

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 26, 2018

Beto O’Rourke speaks in April at a campaign stop in Texas. (Sergio Flores / Bloomberg)
Beto O’Rourke speaks in April at a campaign stop in Texas. (Sergio Flores / Bloomberg)
By Michael Scherer Washington Post

EL PASO, Texas – Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who built a national following and a deep fundraising base during his unsuccessful bid for the Senate, would not rule out a run for the presidency, telling constituents at an El Paso town hall that he and his wife were considering next steps.

“Amy and I made a decision not to rule anything out,” he told reporters afterward, admitting that his position is different from the one he took on 2020 during the campaign.

O’Rourke, 46, a three-term congressman from Texas, would enter the race with less elected experience than many of his rivals but a proven ability to excite Democratic voters in a political era dominated by President Donald Trump.

In a crowded field that could number more than 20 candidates, charisma is likely to be key to attracting attention of early voters and the small-dollar fundraising that most candidates will need to survive the early stages of the primaries.

With just weeks remaining in his congressional job, O’Rourke had already made clear that he intends to remain a part of the national conversation, penning occasional online essays, including a piece Sunday critiquing President Trump’s treatment of asylum seekers on the southern border.

Unlike other Democratic House members who have declared or are inching toward a presidential run, a list that includes Reps. Eric Swalwell of California, Tim Ryan of Ohio and John Delaney of Maryland, an O’Rouke bid in 2020 would be premised less on his service in Washington than his failed Texas Senate campaign.

In this year’s result, O’Rourke came up 2.6 percentage points behind Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. He received more than 4 million votes, about 250,000 more than Hillary Clinton got in 2016, when she lost the state by nine points to Donald Trump.

Many in the crowd of about 120 came to Monday’s town hall, billed as a congressional event, because of O’Rourke’s presidential potential.

“We want to see the next step because we want to be a part of it,” said Martha Morales, of El Paso, who had given money and put out signs for the Senate campaign. “We want him to be president.”

Other former volunteers from the failed Senate effort said they now felt free to speak about their real ambitions. “He’s the next Obama, and we weren’t allowed to say that,” said Ellen Young of El Paso of her campaign volunteering. Young said before the event that she was “hoping for a surprise announcement.”

Speaking after the event, Amy O’Rourke expressed hesitation about a possible presidential campaign, calling the prospect both flattering and “scary.” She said they had not talked to any political strategists about the prospect.

“I don’t know. To me that just seems like you have to give up so much,” she said. “I don’t know if this is a line that I or we really want to cross.”

More than any other candidate this year, O’Rourke found a way to harness social media and capture the imagination of Democrats nationally. From July to September, he raised $38 million in more than 800,000 individual contributions, breaking records for a Senate campaign.

“He is hip and he is contemporary, but there is something much deeper than that, which is he treats voters with respect,” said David Axelrod, the former strategist for Barack Obama. “I think people are hungry for that – this sense that politics can be something other than ‘The Hunger Games.’”

Days before the November midterm election, he swore off any interest in mounting a presidential campaign of his own. “Win or lose, I’m not – I’m not running in, in 2020,” he told “60 Minutes,” citing the pressures on his wife and family.

“Amy and I are raising an 11-year-old, a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old, and we spent the better part of the last two years not with each other, missing birthdays and anniversaries and time together,” he said. “Our family could not survive more of that. We, we need to be together.”

About a week after his defeat, he wrote a blog post that could be read as a coded tease of a coming presidential effort. With grammar and punctuation suited to a personal diary, he recounted a morning jog on the National Mall, describing how he overcame concern that he might slip, a chance meeting with a supporter and his affection for Abraham Lincoln’s prose. “I’m so much more alive in the middle of a run,” O’Rourke wrote.

Abraham Lincoln, notably, won the presidency with a record of public service not dissimilar from O’Rourke. A former one-term member of Congress, Lincoln had lost two Senate campaigns in Illinois when he won the White House.

The next day, gossip website TMZ caught O’Rourke walking outside the U.S. Capitol. “I haven’t made any decisions about anything is probably the best way to put it,” he said then.

O’Rourke admitted to a shift in thinking about a presidential run.

“Running for the Senate, I was 100 percent focused on our campaign,” he said.

Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who will succeed O’Rourke in the House, has said he should run for president, as have the social media accounts of many supporters who have devoted themselves to promoting the idea.

“I have never seen a Senate candidate – including Obama in 2004 – inspire the sort of enthusiasm that Beto did in his race,” wrote Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Barack Obama, who now stars in the Pod Save America political podcast. “If Beto were to go to Iowa City next week, I am confident he would draw a crowd three times larger than any candidate has since Obama first stumped there.”

Obama also weighed in last week, praising O’Rourke’s apparent authenticity. “It felt as if he based his statements and his positions on what he believed,” Obama said. “And that, you’d like to think, is normally how things work. Sadly it’s not.”

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