SAN FRANCISCO ― Beto O’Rourke brought his presidential campaign to California for the first time this weekend, pitching San Francisco-area voters on his ability to invoke the magic of his 2018 Texas Senate race in a political showdown with President Donald Trump.
Speaking to a packed crowd at the city’s Irish Cultural Center on Sunday, the Democratic former congressman touched hard on voting, prison and immigration reform, climate change, and universal health care, an issue O’Rourke has been pressed on in recent weeks as his opponents come out in support of “Medicare for All.”
When asked by an audience member to support that single-payer plan championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other progressives in the race, O’Rourke pushed his own plan, “Medicare for America.”
“What it says is the tens of millions of our fellow Americans who have no care right now, enroll them in Medicare immediately,” he said, adding that his plan would let people who have employer-sponsored insurance keep it if they want to.
The strategy lands the Texan to the right of some of his strongest 2020 opponents, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sanders, but it aligns with one of the larger, underlying message of his campaign: He believes he can win over lifelong Republican voters. He counts his own mom as one of his converts, as he reminded the San Francisco crowd.
In an unusual campaign strategy, O’Rourke has been shirking televised appearances in favor of the smaller, face-to-face events like these. It’s a technique that served him well in 2018 when he nearly unseated Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and charmed a nationwide audience, but it remains to be seen whether that tactic can play out on a national stage.
Speaking on Harris’ turf, O’Rourke received a big applause when he touched on one of her sore points: her highly criticized record on prison and sentencing laws while serving as California’s attorney general.
“Why do we incarcerate 2.3 million of our fellow Americans disproportionately for crimes [committed by] people of color?” he asked, noting that many of the convictions are for “nonviolent drug crimes, including possession of marijuana.”
Making early inroads in California is more important than ever now that the state has moved up its primaries to March 3, 2020. Winning the Democratic stronghold will likely be an uphill battle for O’Rourke as he faces off against Harris and other candidates with heftier resumes, but he made his case Sunday that he knows issues like climate change are extremely personal to Californians.
“For two weeks the people of this community were wearing masks on their face last year because of the smoke that came here from wildfires that raged at historic levels,” he said of the catastrophic Camp fire. “For as long as we’ve been keeping records, in California, in North America, these fires defy every single one of those records.”
Following Sunday’s rally and Saturday’s in Los Angeles, O’Rourke’s next scheduled events are in Modesto and San Diego.