WASHINGTON — After a deadly mass shooting terrorized El Paso earlier this month, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke returned to his hometown, where he met grieving families and mounting calls for him to return on a longer-term basis. Perhaps one of the loudest voices was the Houston Chronicle, whose editorial board implored O’Rourke to drop out of the race for president and focus his efforts on winning GOP Sen. John Cornyn’s Senate seat.
Yet O’Rourke, as well as his staff, are not counting themselves out. A campaign aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, put it plainly: “Beto’s not dropping out; he’s not going anywhere.”
Instead, the Texas-based candidate is set to return to the trail to deliver a “major address to the nation” on Thursday morning, when he is expected to reset his campaign. According to the aide, the O’Rourke campaign plans to recast its candidate and his home state of Texas as new forces in the election.
Efforts to position Texas as a new battleground state in the 2020 presidential election have already begun, given that reliably red counties are showing an openness to swing blue. This is seen most starkly in overwhelmingly Republican-voting Tarrant County, where O’Rourke banked 4,000 voters over Sen. Ted Cruz during November’s midterm elections.
O’Rourke staffers have begun to expect high delegate turnout for their boss. Early projections from CBS/YouGov predict O’Rourke to have the third-highest delegate pickup in the state, with 48, trailing only frontrunner Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.
That’s not to say the strategy is limited to Texas. The campaign has also been bolstering field office operations in key states like Iowa, where O’Rourke has one of the largest organizing staffs of the 2020 contenders.
O’Rourke has also displayed a more emotional side of himself during his prolonged return to El Paso. In one instance, he lashed out at a gaggle of reporters when he was, once again, asked if there was anything President Trump could do to heal the country after back-to-back mass shootings.
“What do you think? You know the s*** he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals,” O’Rourke said. “I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the f***?”
Some believe that such raw feeling helped to reframe O’Rourke as presidential, said Obama reelection campaign alumna and democratic strategist Ameshia Cross.
“Beto responded in ways a lot of Americans wanted to see the president of the United States respond — with compassion and anger that should be there when something as disgusting as white supremacy attacks the nation,” Cross told Yahoo News, adding that she suspects his numbers will surge.
“Going from the guy who said he was ‘born to be in it’ to a post-Vanity-Fair-article candidate falling drastically in the polls, even among those who had previously supported him, he proved that he could rise out of this tragedy and showcase something.”
Cross also finds credence with the strategy of casting Texas as a key state. “We’re seeing the South take on a new meaning as a political beast, especially since Trump has put a laser focus on immigration,” she said.
Southern-based Democratic strategist and CBS contributor Antjuan Seawright agrees that a play for Texas could be game-changing.
“I think the larger question for his campaign is, ‘How do they see themselves shaping out in a primary that seems to be shaping up?’” questioned Seawright. He suggested the O’Rourke campaign go all in on the Lone Star state. “They should put all their weight, time and effort into Texas, which will have a large say in the delegate fight,” he said.
Both strategists warned that they felt it was premature to write off any candidate so early, though single-digit national polling numbers this early certainly aren’t playing to O’Rourke favor.
“I don’t know if [O’Rourke’s strategy] will translate outside of the [current] moment or penetrate into the political nerve center,” which Seawright believes is centered within African-American communities in Southern states, “but I do think that [his time in El Paso] demonstrates that he has a passion for people who need someone.”
Seawright insisted, though, that a forced narrative would more than anything else end up damaging a candidate.
“Leaders don’t create movements,” he said. “Movements create leaders.”
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