The Texan’s boosters think organization and a moment could turn the campaign around. ‘Things can change on a dime,’ says one strategist.
INDEPENDENCE, Iowa — He got battered in his first presidential debate. His poll numbers have sunk to low single digits. Glowing press coverage has given way to questions about how long he can hang on.
Beto O’Rourke’s candidacy today is almost an inversion of what it was at the start of his campaign less than four months ago. Back then, he bathed in national attention and raised a staggering $6.1 million on the first day of his campaign, while drawing criticism for his light policy footprint and lack of campaign infrastructure.
Today, even as he’s assembled a stable of experienced operatives and released a spate of policy proposals, the former Texas congressman is polling at 2 percent nationally in the latest Morning Consult survey. One Iowa poll released this week put him at 1 percent in the state. A fundraising machine in his Senate campaign last year, O’Rourke has dodged questions about his latest performance in the money race.
Yet O’Rourke returned to Iowa this week in seemingly high spirits, campaigning alongside his wife and young children as they toured the state in an RV. The candidate has been expanding his organization at his Texas headquarters and in early primary states. And his advisers and supporters insisted they aren’t worried: The race is nothing if not fluid, they said, and O’Rourke has the political talent to catch fire.
O’Rourke is now working with the political media consultancy WIN and its Bill Hyers, a top Democratic strategist who specializes in running progressive campaigns, an O’Rourke aide confirmed to POLITICO. He has hired several other well-respected operatives in recent weeks. He has nearly 50 staffers in Iowa, and after spending two nights at his home in El Paso in June, he is beginning July with two full weeks on the road.
“It’s a long haul, and we’re in the third inning, and maybe Beto’s down 3-1,” said Kurt Meyer, an influential Iowa Democrat who hosted O’Rourke at his home in St. Ansgar for a house party this week. “But Beto has a fresh voice, and he’s whip smart, and he learns.”
O’Rourke’s reception in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, marked a reprieve from a difficult stretch in the campaign. On Thursday, O’Rourke walked in a Fourth of July parade in the small town of Independence in Iowa’s Buchanan County, starting two car-lengths behind fellow candidate Joe Biden but falling blocks back as he lingered to speak with spectators and pass out candy. He carried his 8-year-old son Henry on his shoulders and thanked even his critics “for talking with me.”
“I feel really good,” O’Rourke told reporters, when asked about the state of his campaign.
It was only a week ago that O’Rourke, in his first presidential debate, was pummeled by fellow Texan Julián Castro over his opposition to decriminalizing border crossings.
O’Rourke, who has centered much of his campaign on improving the treatment of immigrants, does not agree with Castro on the issue of decriminalization, and O’Rourke and his advisers publicly maintained he debated well. Privately, however, some cringed.
“He looked like someone drowned a puppy in front of him,” said a Democratic strategist who has been helping O’Rourke in early primary states and who still supports him.
However, the strategist added, “Nothing matters. Things can change on a dime.”
Inside O’Rourke’s orbit, the fallout from the first round of debates has been taken, paradoxically, as a source of comfort. Kamala Harris vaulted up in polls after one commanding debate performance. Castro gained a step in the primary after his exchange with O’Rourke. The thinking in O’Rourke’s camp is that if he can muster a similar performance — in an upcoming debate or some other venue — he could quickly improve his standing, too.
“It is clear that he is going to have to have an amazing debate performance this next time,” said Scott Brennan, an Iowa Democratic National Committee member and former state party chairman who is uncommitted in the primary.
O’Rourke’s poor poll numbers have spurred doubts about his long-robust fundraising. After saying earlier this week that he had not yet seen his money totals from the second quarter of the year, O’Rourke on Thursday said he had since reviewed those figures but declined to detail them.
He characterized the fundraising numbers as “good, because they reflect people who are willing to make a donation — five, 10, 15 bucks, contribute to this campaign.”
When asked whether he had raised more or less than the $9.4 million he collected in the first quarter of the year, O’Rourke demurred.
“We’ll release those numbers at some point soon,” he said.
O’Rourke said his strategy to win Iowa remains unchanged: “To continue to hold the town hall meetings, to gain the commitments of caucusgoers, and to expand the electorate that will participate, which is something that we did in Texas.”
In Texas last year, O’Rourke was initially considered an almost comically long-shot candidate in what became his near-miss Senate run against Ted Cruz. But he also ran from behind in his successful City Council and congressional races. And now, he appears in the presidential contest to be settling into his position outside of the top tier.
Joined by his wife, Amy, and his children on the eve of Independence Day, O’Rourke lingered for three hours at a carnival in downtown Clear Lake, tasting funnel cakes and deep-fried Oreos and climbing on to rides.
His advisers asked anyone who appeared interested if they would like to meet him. He spoke at length with ride operators and passers-by about immigration and health care. He posed for a photograph with an inebriated man who told him, “We agree on almost nothing” and with a man who said he was in his current “top four.”
When a woman said to him, “Hopefully, you become the president,” O’Rourke responded, “Yeah, hope so. We’re working on it.”
In recent weeks, O’Rourke has drawn such highly regarded professionals to his campaign that some former critics are refraining from discounting his candidacy. Unlike many other low-polling candidates, O’Rourke has enough small-money donors to qualify for debates into the fall, one such Democratic strategist in Iowa noted — and a large enough donor list to reanimate his fundraising if he can capture the public’s attention again.
At a house party in Ames, Joan Bolin Betts, a former deputy state treasurer in Iowa, compared O’Rourke to Robert F. Kennedy.
“I think this guy can do it,” she said.
At WIN, Hyers and Matt McLaughlin, who will produce video for the campaign, helped launch Randy Bryce into fame in his unsuccessful run to succeed former Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin. Hyers, a former Martin O’Malley strategist, previously advised de Blasio and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. He was President Barack Obama’s Pennsylvania state director in 2012.
Monica Guardiola, who was deputy general counsel for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, is joining O’Rourke’s campaign as its director of ballot access, a campaign aide confirmed to POLITICO.
Those hires follow the addition of Abe Rakov, a longtime aide to former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander who lived in Des Moines for much of the 2018 election cycle and forged close ties to influential Iowa Democrats, including state Auditor Rob Sand. Rakov has signed on to be O’Rourke’s early-states director. Dan Sorenson, the national finance director for John Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign, defected to O’Rourke’s campaign, as well.
In Iowa, O’Rourke now has seven field offices in addition to a headquarters in Des Moines. And J.D. Scholten, an Iowa Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year, said “it’s far too early to write off somebody who has the name recognition that he does.”
“I mean, obviously he hasn’t had the moment that Mayor Pete [Buttigieg] or Kamala is having now,” Scholten said, “but it’s still anybody’s game.”
Politico · by David Siders · July 5, 2019