IOWA CITY — As presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke strode onto the stage at a CNN town hall Tuesday night, Teresa Schneider was seated in a college bar next to a claw machine filled with stuffed animals, hopeful that this appearance would mark a turn for the former Texas congressman’s campaign.
Schneider, 54, got involved with O’Rourke’s campaign as soon as it launched in March and has been to three campaign events in Iowa, where she said she found the candidate charming, compassionate and convincing — qualities she hoped more voters would notice by watching the town hall.
“Being from Iowa, we know who he is, because he’s here so much,” said Schneider, who has two children in college. “When you can actually see him and engage with him, you can see his commitment to people. He really listens to what you say and connects with you.”
But that evening’s watch party at Joe’s Place revealed the challenges facing O’Rourke as he seeks to reboot his campaign following an early rise and subsequent fall that were meteoric.
Less than two months ago, O’Rourke’s supporters hosted more than 1,000 watch parties in all 50 states to witness the formal launch of his campaign on a Saturday morning. On Tuesday night, there were only about 70 such gatherings to watch his first televised town hall — and more than a third of those were held in his home state of Texas.
There were eight parties held across Iowa, plus three in New Hampshire and one in South Carolina, according to a map on the campaign website. Nothing was scheduled in Nevada, which will host the country’s third Democratic nominating contest in February.
Here in Iowa City, only a handful of people braved a heavy rainstorm and warnings of flooding to be there. Whenever a group of University of Iowa students walked through the front door, campaign staffers excitedly asked if they were there to watch the town hall. Instead, most were headed to trivia night in a different part of the bar.
Like Schneider, O’Rourke’s campaign staff was hopeful that his reintroduction would spark not only interest but an infusion of fundraising dollars and a new wave of volunteers, both of which can be difficult to gather more than eight months before the first nominating contest, especially in a field of more than 20 Democratic candidates. A vibrant grass-roots movement is key to O’Rourke’s success, as he has pitched himself as the candidate who will bring the country together to solve the nation’s problems.
The core group that chose CNN over trivia included Schneider, who locked onto O’Rourke after watching his February interview with Oprah Winfrey, and her 77-year-old mother, Connie McCall, a retired nurse who still hasn’t decided whom she will caucus for next year. They were joined by Brad Adams, 41, a self-described “political junkie” who flips houses for a living and recently moved to nearby Coralville from Missouri.
Adams, a longtime Democrat, has been trying to see as many candidates as he can and went to O’Rourke’s Monday night town hall in Davenport — that’s where he learned about the next night’s watch party. Adams supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the 2016 Democratic primary and voted for the party’s nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election.
This time around, he has narrowed his list of favorites to four, in no particular order: O’Rourke, Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii).
“Anybody but Biden,” he said, referring to former vice president Joe Biden. “I think the media is trying to anoint Biden. He’s a ‘Me Too’ artist, and I just don’t trust him . . . it just feels like there’s a big invisible hand pushing Biden on us.”
Throughout the evening, Adams bounced between watching O’Rourke on CNN and the St. Louis Blues hockey team on a much larger screen over the bar. The Blues ended up beating the San Jose Sharks, blowing through expectations and advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.
“Now if we can just get a win like that in November,” he said with a smile, referring to the 2020 election.
Although the campaign had little control over the town hall, an O’Rourke aide said that they did suggest having a moderator who is not a white man, and the network chose Dana Bash. O’Rourke’s campaign also was happy to have the event hosted at Drake University in Des Moines, as O’Rourke has spent much of his time on college campuses and in Iowa, where he has held 67 events in 36 counties. The result was an audience that applauded mightily throughout.
In Iowa City, those watching the town hall simultaneously nodded in agreement as O’Rourke called on men to join women in the fight to protect abortion rights and promised that, if elected, he will ensure “every nominee to every federal bench, including the Supreme Court, understands and believes that the 1973 decision Roe versus Wade is the settled law of the land.”
“If we lose in 2020, it’s over,” Adams said. “It’s over . . . I have an 18-year-old daughter and I want all of her rights to be available to her.”
As O’Rourke talked about the mental toll that the threat of gun violence has on today’s children, including his own, a young man walking into the bar stopped and listened. Adams, the father of two teenagers, said he worries “every day” that his children will be harmed by gun violence — and Schneider said she felt a tiny bit of relief when her children went off to colleges with large campuses, where they would no longer be confined to one high school building.
As the candidate pledged to never separate migrant parents from their children at the border and to increase aid to the Northern Triangle countries that many of these migrants are fleeing, another young man in the bar burst into applause and whistled.
Early in the evening, O’Rourke was asked if he would support starting impeachment proceedings against President Trump, which some Democrats worry would solidify and energize Trump’s supporters ahead of the 2020 election. It’s a question that O’Rourke wavered on for several months before telling the Dallas Morning News earlier this month that he did support trying to impeach the president. He reiterated that call on Tuesday night.
“I understand the political implications of this,” he said. “But I think this moment calls for us to look beyond the politics and the polling, and even the next election. It’s the very sanctity of the ballot box and the very future of the world’s greatest democracy. And if this is important to us, and I think it is, then we need to look past those short-term consequences to the consequences to the future of this country.”
It was the first time Schneider had heard him talk about impeachment, an issue that she, too, is torn on — and she was impressed that he framed the issue not as a political calculation but as an opportunity to do the right thing.
In the final minutes of the town hall, O’Rourke offered to keep the question-and-answering going and invited everyone watching to submit more questions via his campaign website, promising to answer as many as possible.
“That is great,” Schneider said. “I think that’s a great idea.”
Her mother, McCall, agreed — adding that she appreciated the depth of O’Rourke’s answers and his ability to admit when he has changed his mind. While she still hasn’t picked a candidate, McCall said O’Rourke is at the top of her list.
Adams asked a campaign staffer how exactly they would answer all of those questions and concluded: “That’s going to be tedious. That’s a lot of work.”