CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa ― Beto O’Rourke is still figuring it out.
The former congressman from El Paso, whose narrow Senate race loss to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made him into a fundraising sensation and a national Democratic Party star, rolled into Iowa for the first trip of his presidential campaign with little formal notice and seemingly even less organization. He was greeted with large crowds of potential supporters, the glare of cable news cameras and waves of new criticism.
O’Rourke’s interactions with voters during his jaunt through the eastern half of the Hawkeye State were heavy on optimism and confessions, and light on policy specifics and confrontation. Driving from town to city to town in a Dodge Caravan, O’Rourke continued the pervasive transparency and post-partisan rhetoric that defined his Senate run, while also remaining opaque on his campaign’s plans and his policy proposals. Voters praised the former, while largely brushing aside the latter.
While O’Rourke’s Senate run was one of the most closely watched races of the midterms ― the number of magazines and newspapers that profiled O’Rourke is a running joke among the Republicans who worked to defeat him ― he quickly learned a presidential run creates an entirely new level of scrutiny. The retinue of reporters trailing him included every major national newspaper, multiple foreign outlets and two on-air MSNBC reporters.
Twice in the first two days of his campaign, O’Rourke cracked a joke he had made multiple times during his 2018 campaign, saying his wife Amy was raising their three children “sometimes with my help.” This time, it sparked a flurry of online criticisms, noting a similar remark from a female candidate was less likely to be met with laughter.
So O’Rourke, appearing at a live taping of a local politics podcast, said he regretted repeatedly making the crack.
“My ham-handed attempt to try to highlight the fact that Amy has the lion’s share of the burden in our family ― that she actually works but is the primary parent in our family, especially when I served in Congress, especially when I was on the campaign trail ― should have also been a moment for me to acknowledge that that is far too often the case, not just in politics, but just in life in general,” O’Rourke said.
He also issued another apology, this one for a violent story he wrote as a teenager that was uncovered by a Reuters reporter who revealed O’Rourke was a member of a hacker group in the 1990s. It was one of a trio of stories digging into O’Rourke’s past published in a 12-hour span on Friday, along with dueling Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reports on how Republican donors helped him unseat a Democratic incumbent and win his House seat in 2012.
But the voters who flocked to O’Rourke’s events didn’t seem to care, and were far more likely to have seen the viral video of his defense of NFL players protesting police brutality by kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner than they were to have read any of the aforementioned reporting. Kathleen Tupker, an employee at a local credit union who went to the podcast taping, said the viral video was when she first learned of O’Rourke.
He was everything you see on TV, just right there in front of you. Kathleen Tupker, an employee at a local credit union
“It was like he said exactly what I’ve been saying to my friends, only better,” she said of the video. After meeting him in person? “He was everything you see on TV, just right there in front of you.”
O’Rourke also noted his privilege as a white male, acknowledging he may not have earned a second chance after his arrest for driving while intoxicated if he were a person of color. (The Club for Growth, a conservative group, has been airing an ad in Iowa attacking him along these lines.) The apology was enough to win over Shayna Jaskolka, a college freshman and political activist who has met nearly every Democrat who’s made a trip to Iowa so far.
“His acknowledgement of white privilege was really, really cool,” she said. “You don’t hear that from candidates, or really from anyone.”
That’s not to say none of the red rose Twitter crowd’s critiques of O’Rourke have leaked into the real world. Janice Weiner, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who attended the Cedar Rapids event, said she wanted to back a candidate with “experience and bona fides.” And at a town hall the next day at the public library in the small town of Independence, one man said a friend had sent him an article about O’Rourke receiving money from the fossil fuel industry, and questioned how he could still be a “friend of the climate.” Another voter asked him about his change of heart on Medicare For All, and said he didn’t measure up to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “the gold standard of policy.”
Some of the criticism of O’Rourke as a policy lightweight is unfair. While he launched his campaign without an issues or policy page on his website, only two top-tier candidates ― Warren and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ― actually have fleshed-out policy pages. And while Sanders’ stump speeches have a near-exclusive focus on policy, most of the candidates, including Warren, rely as much on their biographies as their plans for their country when selling themselves to Iowans.
O’Rourke said he no longer thought Medicare For All, the signature legislation of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, was the fastest way to “universal, high-quality health care,” instead backing legislation from Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) and Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) that would create a public, national health care plan while also allowing private employers to continue offering private insurance plans.
This cannot be the policy or the plan of just one person or party. O’Rourke on health care
“We may disagree about the best policy forward, but for me, that affords us the greatest buy-in from the greatest number of Americans,” O’Rourke said. “This cannot be the policy or the plan of just one person or party.”
“So the greed has to stay in the insurance industry in your opinion?” the man shot back.
“I don’t think it’s a function of greed,” O’Rourke responded, saying Democrats needed to be careful “not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
The exchange provided a prime example of how O’Rourke, throughout his time in the state, avoided naming-and-shaming bad actors in the style of fellow candidates Warren and Sanders, instead joining New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Vice President Joe Biden in emphasizing unity above all.
“I hope the next president of United States can be all about bringing this deeply divided, highly polarized, very partisan country back together,” O’Rourke said in independence, lamenting that national politics was “so mean and so petty and so partisan.”
That rhetoric pleased the crowd of 250 who had gathered in Waterloo to see O’Rourke campaign for Eric Giddens, the Democratic candidate in a special election for state senate. Blythe Smith, a counselor from the Chicago suburbs who had driven five hours and stayed overnight in the city to see O’Rourke, was smitten with the candidate.
“He has a message of hope. I like the optimism, it’s a sharp contrast to the current administration,” she said. “He’s like [Robert Francis Kennedy] come back.”
Rita-Jo Preschel, a retired nurse, was similarly enthused: “He was inclusive. He didn’t put any fear into us,” she said. “I want someone who says I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an independent. Right now, our president really only cares about his 30 percent.”
The Waterloo appearance also showcased the lingering star power granted by O’Rourke’s Senate run. While a crowd of over 100 had gathered at the local Democratic Party headquarters a few hours earlier to see Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, organizers moved O’Rourke’s events across the street to an empty parking lot to accommodate the 250-person strong crowd. The candidate hopped into the bed of a pickup truck, and spoke without the loudspeaker Giddens and the local Democratic Party chair both needed to be heard over the din of the crowd.
A crush of media, including national television show hosts Chuck Todd and John Heilemann, blocked O’Rourke from making the 10 feet to his car, giving the journalists time to pepper him with questions. (Among what reporters learned from O’Rourke this weekend: He’s likely to select a woman as his running mate. He won’t reveal his early fundraising numbers, and doesn’t plan to host high-dollar fundraisers. And he doesn’t have a campaign manager yet.)
O’Rourke’s relative lack of early organization was clear. While other candidates have sent aides to assist Giddens in canvassing his district, O’Rourke hasn’t ― because he doesn’t have any Iowa staffers yet. At the podcast taping, there was no one collecting names and e-mail addresses of attendees, typically standard practice for presidential campaigns. Not every reporter who came to Iowa was told of every event, leading to some minor grumbling.
It appears O’Rourke plans to keep driving around the country ahead of his March 30 kickoff rally back in El Paso. He traveled to Wisconsin on Sunday and is scheduled to continue on to at least Ohio, Michigan, New Hampshire and South Carolina in the next week. But plenty of questions about how he planned to run ― would he continue his Senate campaign practice of forgoing a pollster? ― remained unanswered.
As O’Rourke made his way to the driver-side door of the Caravan, Nate Gruber, the deputy chair of the Black Hawk County Democratic Party, reflected on the frenzied nature of O’Rourke’s early campaign days.
“That message of unity will resonate well in parts of Iowa,” he said. “This early in the campaign, in terms of crowd size, Obama is the closest analogue.”