O’Rourke, 46, who is leaving the House after three terms, would enter the race with more limited elected experience than many of his rivals but a proven ability to excite Democratic voters in a political era dominated by President Trump.
In a crowded field that could number more than 20 candidates, O’Rourke’s ability to draw crowds and communicate using his large social media audiences could give him an edge in attracting voters in early primary states and the small-dollar donors 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.
“We can either give into the fear of walls and tear-gassing children in diapers,” he told the crowd of more than 120 Monday, at his first public event since losing the election. “Or we can live up to the best traditions, potential promise of what we are as Americans.”
Much of his address focused on themes that are likely to play a central role in the coming Democratic presidential primaries. He spoke of winding down foreign military engagements “that have continued to metastasize” since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He expressed concern about the growing national debt and voiced opposition to Trump’s plans for a new southern border wall.
Three different members of the audience mentioned a potential campaign for the White House when they got the microphone, and he expressed discomfort each time, looking repeatedly at Amy O’Rourke, who sat in the sixth row.
“We got to take a vacation with our kids, spend some time with our family for the first time in a year and a half,” he said, in explaining why he was delaying any decisions until after he leaves Congress on Jan. 3. “I love waking up in my own bed.”
In this year’s election, O’Rourke came up 2.6 percentage points behind Sen. Ted Cruz (R). He received more than 4 million votes, about 250,000 more than Hillary Clinton got in the state in 2016, when she lost Texas by nine points to Donald Trump.
Many in the crowd 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,” Ellen Young of El Paso said of her time as a campaign volunteer.
Speaking after the event, Amy O’Rourke expressed concern about a possible presidential campaign, calling the prospect both flattering and “scary.” She said she and her husband 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 from more than 800,000 individual contributions, breaking records for a Senate campaign.
Days before the November midterm election, O’Rourke 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 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.
Lincoln 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 Monday 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-Tex.), 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.
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Barack Obama who now co-hosts the Pod Save America political podcast, has argued that the enthusiasm O’Rourke inspired this year was greater even than the Barack Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign, making the Texan a viable contender in 2020.
But in an interview Monday, Pfeiffer said O’Rourke would find it difficult to balance another campaign with the needs of his family. “The idea of running for president and finding a balance is impossible,” he said. “The question is: Can you do things to mitigate some of the challenges? It was one of the reasons Obama’s headquarters were in Chicago rather than somewhere else.”
“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, a former strategist for Obama. “I think people are hungry for that — this sense that politics can be something other than ‘The Hunger Games.’ ”
Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party in Iowa, said O’Rourke had been invited twice to speak in the county but had yet to respond, which was unusual for potential candidates. “The joke around town is you would need to rent out Wells Fargo Arena if you get him, which would be tens of thousands of people,” he said. “I don’t know if it would be that big.”
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.”