Beto O’Rourke’s team and supporters think the narrative around their campaign is bunk.
When the Texas Democrat jumped into the race, he was tagged as a political vanity project come to life on the campaign trail; a candidate whose paper-thin résumé made little sense next to the glossy coverage he received. And so, his team set about changing it. For weeks, O’Rourke has been introducing policy papers and sticking to a meet-everyone, go-everywhere plan that initially sidestepped some high-profile media hits.
But instead of earning kudos, or even recognition, from the press corps, his standing in the Democratic presidential primary has dropped. And, increasingly, those in and around the campaign are starting to get fed up that the narrative has lingered.
“The media bashed this guy because he didn’t do their bullshit dog and pony show,” Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina Democratic state lawmaker who backed O’Rourke early told The Daily Beast. “Morning Joe, they want you to do their circuit. They repeat the stuff they hear at their cocktail parties in Greenwich and the Hamptons over the weekend. And they come back and think everybody’s going to agree to all the inside-the-beltway bullshit that they listen to day in and day out.”
Not everyone shares Brown’s sense of injustice or colorful language. Publicly, O’Rourke’s team insists that the plan that they put in place is going as envisioned. The candidate may be trailing in the polls, but as with many candidates in his current position so early in the process no one is putting too much stock in them. Aides have pointed to various surveys showing that O’Rourke is still up for consideration among many voters who have not made many final determinations yet.
O’Rourke himself believes that his policy rollouts are resonating with the public, including detailed plans that have addressed climate change, immigration, voting rights, reproductive justice and most recently the LGBTQ+ community. The last of those was unveiled in conjunction with a 2-mile Pride Run O’Rourke did with supporters—and this reporter—along Manhattan’s Hudson River Greenway, ending at an LGBTQ memorial site. The event also took place on the three-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
“You know I’m actually encouraged by the response that we’re receiving already this morning on our proposals to ensure full equality for the LGBTQ community,” he told The Daily Beast on the breezy Wednesday morning amid a throng of reporters in suits and runners in shorts. “Yes this is absolutely tough but this is a tough time for a lot of people in this country and the way to respond to that is a relentless pursuit of those things you know to be right and necessary and true and connect with your fellow Americans who make that possible. So, no, I’m grateful for everyone who’s engaging and responding to the proposals that we’re laying out.”
But it’s not hard to see signs that the campaign is frustrated that the image of O’Rourke as a flighty policy lightweight who prefers standing on tables to talking about details persists. In a recent fundraising email, O’Rourke’s new digital director Rob Flaherty said: “You know and I know that the narrative is mostly garbage.” Others in O’Rourke’s circle have expressed less annoyance with coverage than confusion, believing that he demonstrates policy acumen routinely in his town halls.
The press and fellow Democrats have begun to notice, especially as O’Rourke has begun incorporating more national media hits to his daily schedule of campaign events and participated in a well-received and substantive CNN town hall.
“I went to that CNN town hall of his and I thought it was chock-full of policy discussion and was sort of short on platitudes. And I think that’s what he’s been doing at a lot of these meetings around the state,” Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist told The Daily Beast. “The point right now is not to be in front, the point is to be on everyone’s consideration list.”
O’Rourke has introduced a climate plan calling for net zero emissions by 2050, an immigration platform including a new visa category to allow for religious congregations to sponsor refugees, a voting rights plan that seeks to vastly boost turnout and turn Election Day into a national holiday and a reproductive justice platform that includes codifying Roe v. Wade with federal legislation.
But his campaign has still had trouble shaking a meta-dialogue about the candidate’s fall from grace with headlines about O’Rourke being “Generation X cliché,” and references to being a “magical man-boy”. And the candidate remains stagnant, if not lagging, in polls in early states like Iowa where his campaign has placed a high premium on performing well.
Brown, who was willing and able to speak more freely about his frustrations as he’s not a member of the campaign team, acknowledged that the initial strategy to focus less on national media may have temporarily hurt O’Rourke. It also, he suspects, may have contributed to the rise for South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose do-every-interview media strategy has been shepherded by Lis Smith, whom Brown said he knew from the 2016 Martin O’Malley campaign.
“If the Weekly Wiper in Windsborough, South Carolina wants him to do an interview, she’s going to have him sit down and do an interview with this small-town newspaper,” Brown said, concocting a fictitious publication to make his point. “It’s good advice but honestly I think that builds your support maybe a mile wide but an inch deep.”
Whether or not O’Rourke can catapult to a better position once votes are actually tallied is anyone’s guess. To do so, he and his team are putting in a lot of work in Iowa, trying to mirror the feverish style of his Senate campaign, though with different leadership at the top. According to the campaign, this past weekend alone, O’Rourke and his wife Amy (who traveled with him for the first time) went to nine cities and held 14 events. The campaign’s organizers and volunteers did an additional 31 events in 26 different cities. Since he launched his presidential bid, the campaign says O’Rourke has taken over 300 questions from Iowans, held 83 events, visited 40 counties and has 44 staffers in the state.
"Beto is building the grassroots infrastructure to win, putting forward the bold policy proposals voters are looking for on the issues that matter most to them, and—most importantly—connecting with Americans where they live and speaking with them face-to-face about their concerns, their ambitions and their values,” Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, O’Rourke’s campaign manager, told The Daily Beast. “We’re more energized every day by the overwhelming grassroots response to Beto’s vision for a future where every American shares in our successes and opportunities."
Despite the projection of confidence, there is still an evident desire among the campaign staff to prove doubters wrong. Recently, some were tweeting a New Republic article from the ground in Iowa, arguing that O’Rourke was in a better position than his poll numbers suggest.
That’s what Linda Nelson, the former chair of the Pottawatomie County Democrats in Iowa, seems to think. She saw him at an event in Council Bluffs recently and was impressed even as she hasn’t yet made an endorsement. And the perception of a flailing campaign did not match what she had seen.
“I don’t know what they’re talking about. To me, that’s like what 45 would call ‘fake news,’ she said of dismissive media coverage of O’Rourke. “It was a huge crowd, the enthusiasm was incredible. The way he connected to people and took questions from folks he didn’t know. He was on his toes and very quick to respond and very sincere and the enthusiasm was incredible.”