Beto O'Rourke will address the nation from El Paso Thursday, announcing his return to the presidential campaign trail for the first time since the Aug. 3 massacre of 22 people at a Walmart in his hometown by a suspect who told police he was hunting Mexicans and who O'Rourke said drew "vile inspiration" from President Donald Trump.
According to O'Rourke's campaign, he will resume campaigning after delivering the speech, which will outline the path forward for a presidential campaign that launched with great promise five months ago but is now mired at 2% in national polls.
O'Rourke has been importuned with increasing urgency, both publicly and privately, in the days since the El Paso tragedy to consider swapping his struggling presidential campaign for a more promising and potentially more consequential second run for the U.S. Senate, challenging the re-election of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
"He just needs to get home and take care of business,” former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, told the New York Times in the aftermath of the the El Paso tragedy. "We wouldn’t have five people running for Senate if Beto came back.”
An Emerson College poll conducted in the days leading up to the El Paso shooting found that more than half of Texas Democrats thought O'Rourke should run for Senate instead of president.
The poll found that most Democratic voters had not formed an opinion on the Senate race sans O'Rourke, and that none of the candidates already in the race had gained much traction.
On Monday,Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the founder and former executive director of Jolt, which works to increase Latino participation in politics,joined a field that already includes MJ Hegar of Round Rock, who ran a strong but losing race against U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, in 2018, state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards, former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston and Sema Hernandez, who won nearly a quarter of the Democratic primary against O’Rourke in March 2018.
The filing deadline for the March primary is not until December, but Thursday's announcement by O'Rourke would seem to effectively foreclose any possibility that he would enter a race now so crowded with lesser-known candidates that it appears destined for a May runoff that may hobble chances of defeating the state's senior senator.
While not campaigning for the last eleven days, O'Rourke has been ever more squarely in the public eye since his return to his wounded and grieving hometown, and has used it to good advantage, emerging as an unscripted and unbound voice of hurt, anger and outrage directed at a president he believes can only properly be identified as a "whiite supremacist" and at a broader media landscape he believes only amplifies the president's dangerous rhetoric.
In a crystallizing moment captured on video the evening after the shooting, a reporter asked O'Rourke, “Is there anything in your mind that the president could do now to make this any better?”
’What do you think? You know the s--- he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals,” O’Rourke replied with visible emotion. “It’s these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism; he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence; he’s inciting racism and violence in this country. So, you know, I just — I don’t know what kind of question that is.”
"We aren’t used to seeing candidates act like real people," the Houston Chronicle wrote in an unusual editorial last weekend. "Frankly, it’s made us wish O’Rourke would shift gears, and rather than unpause his presidential campaign, we’d like to see him take a new direction.
"So Beto, if you’re listening: Come home. Drop out of the race for president and come back to Texas to run for senator. The chances of winning the race you’re in now are vanishingly small. And Texas needs you."
O'Rourke was a three-term congressman from El Paso who came out of political nowhere to come within 2.6 points of defeating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. On the way to losing, O'Rourke became a media sensation, raised more money than any U.S. Senate candidate in history and emerged as a national Democratic hero and household name. O’Rourke’s presidential campaign got off to a very fast start in mid-March but the media narrative quickly turned on him, painting him as just another privileged self-involved white guy.
After his Senate loss, many Democrats urged O'Rourke to build on his 2018 momentum and mount a campaign to unseat Cornyn, who, despite his long tenure, has lukewarm ratings with Texas voters. But O'Rourke spurned the Senate run for a White House bid.
Before the tragedy in El Paso, a decision by O'Rourke to return to Texas to run against Conyn might have been seen as a another big-footed exercise of white male privilege.
But the argument for a change of heart is that what happened in El Paso clarified the stakes of the 2020 election, and that O'Rourke could do more to put Texas in play, not just in the Senate race but in the presidential race, as a candidate campaigning full time in his home state. If he did that, the argument went, he would be able to reclaim his status as a national Democratic hero and fundraising phenomenon.
In the last Democratic candidate debate in July, O'Rourke pitched his candidacy to his ability to put Texas with its 38 electoral votes in play, but the Emerson poll showed Vice President Joe Biden running ahead of him among Texas Democrats. Both Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the poll found, were leading Trump in a general election match-up by 2 points, while O'Rourke was trailing by 4 points.
In an op-ed Tuesday that may foreshadow Thursday's speech, O'Rourke wrote that, "When a white terrorist drove more than 600 miles to hunt and kill Hispanic people in my hometown, he followed a path of vile inspiration that reaches from the darkest chapters of our history and runs directly to the White House today."
"Mass shootings, like the murder of 22 people in El Paso on August 3, are not caused by video games. They are not simply caused by mental illness. And we should not be surprised that this kind of violence eventually found our community," he wrote. .In today's America, it was only a matter of time."
And, O'Rourke wrote, "The seeds of terror we saw that August day are transmitted day and night on Fox News, the most watched cable news channel in the country. They are amplified by right-wing websites like Breitbart, and in messages forced onto local news broadcasts by Sinclair Media.
"They metastasize on Facebook. And they filter up from grotesque online havens for white supremacists who preach intolerance and worship violence."