SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Beto O’Rourke’s campaign has all of the outward signs of what his run for the presidency was supposed to be and what his most devoted supporters believe it still can be.
He’s collecting millions of dollars in campaign donations, has hired experienced Democratic operatives and is paying his field organizers eye-popping wages, probably the highest in the primary campaign. O’Rourke has quickly built a large operation in Iowa, with 11 offices scattered throughout the state, and he welcomed crowds of at least 100 during his last two town halls there.
But those images belie the struggles he’s facing: spending money more quickly than he is raising it, polling nationally between 1 percent and 3 percent in the past month, and trying to convince voters he has the experience and vision to be president. After a first debate appearance that raised alarm among his major donors, there is ever-increasing pressure on O’Rourke to shine at Tuesday’s debate and remind Democrats why so many thought he could be a front-runner just a few months ago.
O’Rourke says he is now taking the approach of “me being me,” and he has been hyper-focused on the immigration crisis that has so much resonance in his hometown of El Paso — while spending less time talking about his previous leading issue, climate change.
In the month since the first debate, O’Rourke has visited three detention centers housing migrants, held a rally outside a Border Patrol station, traveled to Mexico to meet with asylum seekers, volunteered at a shelter for migrants in El Paso, held immigration-focused events in New Hampshire and Tennessee, attended a “Lights for Liberty” vigil for migrants in New Hampshire, and visited Ellis Island with his wife. As he took the stage at the NAACP convention in Detroit on Wednesday, O’Rourke proclaimed: “¡Buenos días!”
This shift in focus comes as the Trump administration faces renewed criticism for its treatment of detained migrants, especially children — and as O’Rourke tries to maximize his strengths, including delivering lofty, inspirational monologues about America’s core values. His polling is strongest in his home state of Texas, which will hold its Democratic primary on Super Tuesday on March 3, and among Hispanic voters.
“Folks have chosen to come here to this country and, by their very presence, have made us stronger and safer and more secure — that’s a wonderful thing,” O’Rourke said as he met with a dozen voters at La Juanita Mexican Restaurant in Sioux City recently. “And we lose sight of that at our peril, and so as president, you’ll certainly see us focus on that.”
Speaking in English and Spanish, O’Rourke introduced himself as being from a “binational community” and answered questions about the treatment of migrants and President Trump’s executive orders on immigration — along with queries about his stances on gun control, college affordability, climate change and health care.
O’Rourke and those close to him are convinced that if he meets enough people — especially in Iowa, which will hold the nation’s first nominating contest in February — he can surge ahead.
“All of the people I’ve spoken to have all come away more impressed after hearing him and speaking with him,” said former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D), who took a similar approach in Iowa during his unsuccessful run for president in 2016. “Having come to know and understand Iowa, I believe his message, story, truthfulness and leadership ethic will appeal broadly to Iowans.”
Still, the more time O’Rourke has spent in Iowa, the worse he has done in statewide polls. O’Rourke is at about 1 percent in the state, according to a CBS News-YouGov poll earlier this month, a decline from polls earlier in the year.
In addition to meeting voters, O’Rourke is investing heavily in digital advertising and staff salaries and benefits. The campaign prides itself as offering a starting salary of $50,400 and paying regional field directors $62,400, which are considered one of the highest rates on the campaign trail, along with offering benefits that align with changes O’Rourke has called for nationally. The campaign offers 12 weeks of paid parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child and provides a 3 percent donation for all employees participating in a 401(k) program, even if those employees don’t contribute anything to the account.
O’Rourke has raised $13 million since launching his campaign in mid-March and has spent $7.6 million. In the second quarter, he raised $3.7 million and spent $5.2 million, giving him one of the highest burn rates. Campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon has said that she’s confident the campaign can increase its fundraising, and O’Rourke told reporters recently that he plans to grow, not shrink, his campaign in the coming weeks.
“There is definitely a disconnect between what the political pundits see versus what we see on the ground,” O’Rourke said in an email to supporters earlier this month. “There are many reasons for that. I’ve received a million pieces of advice on how to make it better. Ultimately it comes down to me. Me doing the best possible job when I have the chance to talk to a national audience. Me doing as well as possible in the debates. And it also means me being me.”
O’Rourke kicked off a recent trip to Iowa by visiting neighborhoods in Council Bluffs, a throwback to his 2012 run for Congress when he knocked on more than 16,000 doors in the El Paso area and persuaded voters one by one to pick him instead of the Democratic incumbent.
During the Iowa trip, he held a Friday night town hall at a Sioux City bar that attracted about 125 people, including a stay-at-home mom from Kansas who drove hours to meet her favorite candidate. The next afternoon, about 100 people showed up to hear O’Rourke speak at a coffee shop in Sioux Center, including two Republicans in their 20s who wore red Trump campaign hats and T-shirts advocating gun rights and quietly listened. Afterward, O’Rourke welcomed them onstage for a photo.
O’Rourke’s staff marveled at his crowds, but that same weekend in the same area, nearly 300 people showed up to a Friday morning event with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
When O’Rourke made his first trip to Iowa in March, he rushed from event to event, being greeted by hundreds at each stop and having little time to mingle. Now, he’s spending more time trying to personally connect with individual voters.
At the Mexican restaurant in Sioux City on a Saturday morning, O’Rourke met Claudia Hernandez, her husband and their two children, ages 10 and 11. The family drove more than 90 minutes from Storm Lake to meet a candidate Hernandez calls “my president.”
Hernandez said she worries about the deep divisions in the country and growing discrimination.
“Even though I’m a naturalized U.S. citizen, just because of my color, I feel that there is still discrimination,” said Hernandez, 41, who moved to Storm Lake from Texas 19 years ago and works as an interpreter at a meatpacking plant. “I don’t want my kids to feel that way. They were born here, and I want for them to have all of their rights.”
Hernandez was thrilled when O’Rourke thoughtfully answered her question about Trump’s executive orders on immigration, which he promised to quickly undo — and she said she became speechless as the politician she had watched on television sat down with her children and asked them about school, the musical instruments they play and their life in Storm Lake.
Afterward, one of O’Rourke’s field organizers chatted with her in Spanish about volunteering for the campaign and participating in the Iowa caucuses — the sort of person-by-person organizing O’Rourke hopes will save his campaign.
Scott Clement and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.