DES MOINES, Iowa — Beto O’Rourke abruptly ended his presidential bid Friday, bowing to the realities of weak fundraising and an underwhelming performance that never matched the hype that swept him into the Democratic contest.
The former congressman from El Paso, Texas, announced his decision on Twitter, as erstwhile rivals gathered in Des Moines for a party bash that kicked off the rush to the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses — a contest in which O’Rourke hadn’t mattered very much.
“Our campaign has always been about seeing clearly, speaking honestly, and acting decisively,” he wrote. “In that spirit I am announcing that my service to the country will not be as a candidate or as the nominee.”
Later, speaking to a small gathering of disconsolate supporters at a chilly riverfront park in downtown Des Moines, O’Rourke pledged to remain “in the middle of this fight” and said he would do all he could to help the eventual nominee.
“This has been the honor of my lifetime,” he said, ringed by supporters as he stood on a wooden soapbox with his name stenciled on it. “I love you all and know I’ll be seeing you down the road.”
His exit was a dramatic — if not unexpected — comedown for the 47-year-old former political phenom.
Waging an uphill battle for the U.S. Senate in 2018, O’Rourke raised a stunning $80 million and built a national following by nearly besting Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in their deeply conservative state.
With his toothy grin and tousled hair, O’Rourke was likened to the Kennedys. His fan base included former President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, among other celebrities. He was the subject of an HBO documentary and was ushered into the presidential contest with his portrait on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.
The trajectory was mostly downward from there.
There was little to make O’Rourke stand out in a field that, at one point, reached two dozen contestants. His positions were mostly standard Democratic fare: gun control, paid family leave, universal health care, LGBTQ rights, a $15-per-hour minimum wage, campaign finance reform, a more humane immigration policy.
His campaign was amateurish — at least before he gave in and surrounded himself with some more seasoned professionals — and often seemed aimless.
The spring day he announced his policy to fight global warming, he was in Yosemite National Park — invisible to a national audience for all intents — on a hike with a local climate change researcher and an environmental justice advocate.
“His chances at the presidential level were never really good and he never was anywhere near a top-tier candidate,” said Jim Henson, who closely watched O’Rourke’s rise and fall as head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
“From the beginning, the attributes that made him seem like an attractive presidential candidate were based on a very different kind of race,” Henson said. “They weren’t likely to transfer into the very different nature of a presidential nominating contest. Especially one this crowded.”
O’Rourke finally seemed to find his voice and purpose when tragedy struck his hometown. In August, a gunman targeting Latinos killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso.
Overnight, the former congressman turned his campaign into a crusade for gun control, breaking sharply with others in the party by calling for a mandatory buyback of military-style assault weapons. “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said at the Democrats’ third presidential debate in Houston, drawing no seconds from his rivals.
As a candidate, O’Rourke seemed liberated. He abandoned the conventional stops in Iowa and other early-voting states and blazed his own, less conventional path, visiting soup kitchens, rehab centers and scenes of racial and domestic terrorism.
But if O’Rourke was energized, voters were less so. He barely registered in polls and his fundraising slowed to a trickle compared with the torrent of his Senate campaign and its aftermath.
After raising more than $6 million in March in his first 24 hours as a presidential candidate, he pulled in just $4.5 million for the three months ending Sept. 30.
Henson said there was still time for O’Rourke to enter the 2020 race against Texas’ senior Republican senator, John Cornyn.
“The conditions now are a lot different than they would have been had he gotten in at the beginning” with several Democrats already in the race, Henson said. “But it will be the topic of a lot of discussion in Texas this weekend.”
O’Rourke, however, seemed to rule out any interest in the Senate — as he has over the last several months, adamantly and repeatedly — with his statement that he had no intention of running for any other office.
Within moments of his exit from the race, former rivals took to Twitter to offer their praise, particularly for O’Rourke’s emphasis on gun safety.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said his “commitment to ending gun violence and uplifting the voices of the victims and their families has made this presidential race — and our country — stronger.”
California Sen. Kamala Harris thanked him “for always speaking from the heart.”
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with whom O’Rourke scrapped in the last debate, said he was grateful for O’Rourke’s “leadership and for offering hope to Americans across our country. I know he will continue to fight for a safer and brighter future where all belong.”
President Donald Trump, speaking at a campaign rally in Tupelo, Miss., was less gracious. “Poor bastard,” he said. “Pathetic guy. He was pathetic.”
(Barabak reported from San Francisco and Mason from Des Moines.)
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