And then, 232 days after getting in, he would be gone.
In one of the most hyper-charged political rises and dramatic collapses in recent times, O’Rourke on Friday evening became the highest-profile candidate to drop out of the 2020 presidential campaign, amid financial strains and lagging popularity. His abrupt exit capped a week in which Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) significantly curbed her own ambitions, laying off most of her New Hampshire staff and reorienting her campaign toward Iowa. In the same week, a super PAC set up to benefit Joe Biden began operating, a reflection of his struggle to gain ground in Iowa even as he maintains a position at the top of what is now a 16-candidate field.
O’Rourke’s departure demonstrated the winnowing of what began as a historically large and diverse presidential field and now is largely controlled by four candidates, all of them white, most of them in their 70s, and two of them far to the left ideologically. His decision, coupled with Biden’s and Harris’s difficulties, leaves establishment moderates worried about the shape of the race three months before the Iowa caucuses.
O’Rourke, 47, was supposed to be the sort of candidate that Democratic voters would embrace: a young, charismatic politician who spoke passionately about uniting a divided country and embraced social media in a way that garnered him a large following when he unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate from Texas last year against Sen. Ted Cruz (R). He had lived most of his life on the border, spoke Spanish fluently and made reaching out to diverse communities a cornerstone of his campaign. The former punk rock musician and three-term congressman hated labels and often operated on his own, independently of the Democratic Party. He didn’t have a pollster and said he tried to follow his heart instead of the crowd.
But it wasn’t always clear what O’Rourke’s heart was telling him. He launched his campaign without a manager or a clear plan, instead choosing to go on a listening tour of the country, starting in Iowa, a place he had never visited.
He declared that his top issue was combating climate change, later shifting toward bringing what he said was needed humanity to the U.S. immigration system and, later, fighting hate. After a deadly shooting in his native El Paso in August, he shifted toward gun control.
He merged moderate positions on some issues with stances that even some Democrats criticized as extreme, including a proposal for a mandatory assault weapons buyback program that Republicans seized on to lambaste the entire Democratic field.
As his presidential campaign foundered in recent months, he was encouraged to jump into the 2020 Senate race in Texas, but he repeatedly declined. Two people close to him said Friday that he would not run against Republican incumbent John Cornyn, leaving his political future unclear. As O’Rourke comforted supporters in Des Moines on Friday evening, he promised to continue fighting for the issues he highlighted during his campaign. He repeatedly insisted that he’s optimistic about the future.
“This is a campaign that has prided itself on seeing things clearly and on speaking honestly, and on acting decisively,” he told a group of shocked supporters in Des Moines, where he had been scheduled to attend a multicandidate dinner. “We have to clearly see at this point that we do not have the means to pursue this campaign successfully. And that my service will not be as a candidate nor as the nominee of this party for the presidency.”
The moment was a sober end to a campaign that began with ample optimism. He attracted top political talent — Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, one of the most sought-after Democratic consultants, was his campaign manager — and he had one of the field’s best fundraising hauls on his first day as a presidential candidate.
But what had seemed spontaneous and refreshing in a Senate campaign — constantly live-streaming activities both personal and political, driving his own car and going on treks off the beaten political path — never fully translated for presidential voters. Early social media posts — including one in which he broadcast a trip to the dentist — reinforced an impression that he was self-involved and lacked substance.
He made little impression during debates. In the final debate in which he would take part, he was dressed down by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, one of his competitors as a fresh Democratic face. A fellow Texan, former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, likewise belittled him on another debate stage. In both cases, O’Rourke was visibly stunned.
He was also struggling to meet the polling threshold to be part of the next debate, and with donations drying up, aides said he faced a decision: He could cut staff to save money and then spend that money on ads to lift his standing in the polls — or he could end the campaign.
He made the decision to drop out on Thursday morning, according to a campaign aide.
“I decided to run for President because I believed that I could help bring a divided country together in common cause to confront the greatest set of challenges we’ve ever faced,” O’Rourke wrote in a Medium blog post announcing his decision. “I also knew that the most fundamental of them is fear — the fear that Donald Trump wants us to feel about one another; the very real fear that too many in this country live under; and the fear we sometimes feel when it comes to doing the right thing, especially when it runs counter to what is politically convenient or popular.”
Trump quickly mocked O’Rourke on Twitter as his decision became known.
“Oh no, Beto just dropped out of race for President despite him saying he was ‘born for this.’ I don’t think so!” Trump wrote, in a reference to O’Rourke’s quote in Vanity Fair that he was “born to be in it.”
Steve Ortega, who once served on El Paso’s city council with O’Rourke, said he learned that his close friend had dropped out of the race when reporters called him Friday evening.
“I’m proud of him. I’m proud of the race he ran. . . . Part of his charm is what hurt him in a race like this. He’s not testing and polling everything he says. He speaks from his heart. . . . He shot from the hip and wasn’t running the traditional campaign with the canned lines,” Ortega said. He said that while O’Rourke focused on immigration and gun control, voters in key states might have wanted to hear about other issues.
“I’m glad that he ran, being from El Paso, because he brought a needed voice to border issues and gun control issues.”
The news of O’Rourke’s decision slowly arrived at a rally he had planned Friday on the riverfront in Des Moines. Tickets were still being distributed at an entrance, and some supporters expressed disbelief at the news, asking to be shown some proof.
Volunteers, some of whom had awoken early to decorate a park and line the road with signs, hugged each other, wept and sometimes screamed expletives.
“I saw him in Sioux Center, the reddest place in Iowa,” said Tammy Growth, a 48-year-old pastor. “His willingness to listen to everyone is what attracted me to listen to him.”
Ryan Holliday, 40, who had traveled from Galveston, Tex., was hurt because, he said, O’Rourke didn’t plan his campaign for years like some candidates who outlasted him.
“It’s so disappointing that he did this before Super Tuesday,” Holliday said. “We have all these new voters coming out, and we needed him to come to Texas.”
Rosia Dumey, 35, said that O’Rourke was unfairly dismissed by Democrats who made fun of his Spanish speaking, blaming the party’s focus on winning back white voters in the Midwest.
“They just lost Texas,” said Dumey, who had driven from the Fort Worth area. “Do you think we’re going to do this for other candidates? No. We knew what we had in Beto.”
When O’Rourke arrived, he began by thanking his supporters
“We’ll miss you!” a supporter cried out.
“Beto! Beto! Beto!” a chant began.
O’Rourke stood in the center of the swarm of people and spoke on a sound system that wasn’t always loud enough. He had made the decision so recently and so reluctantly, he said, that his wife could not be by his side and was instead in El Paso with their children.
He spoke of his campaign’s advocacy on issues like climate change, guns, structural racism and immigration and pushing back against Trump.
“I will do everything that I can to support the eventual nominee. ... I will still be part of all of the causes that brought us together,” he said. “I will still be part of the fight, and so will you.”
David Weigel contributed to this report.