O'Rourke avoids TV spotlight for small gatherings in risky 2020 gamble

Former Rep. Beto O’RourkeBeto O’RourkeBiden will help close out Texas Democrats’ virtual convention: report O’Rourke on Texas reopening: ‘Dangerous, dumb and weak’ Parties gear up for battle over Texas state House MORE (D) is avoiding televised town halls and appearances on the national news circuit in his presidential campaign, employing many of the same tactics he used in his nearly successful bid to unseat Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote The Hill’s Morning Report – Trump’s public standing sags after Floyd protests GOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police MORE (R-Texas) in last year’s midterm race.

But using the same game plan in the presidential race is looking increasingly risky as the former Texas congressman battles for space and attention in a crowded Democratic field.


Instead of facing one boogeyman in Cruz, O’Rourke this time faces more than a dozen Democrats — many of whom have strong followings in the party and who are jockeying for national attention with televised town halls and sit-downs with news organizations. 

“In my opinion, we’ve seen a nationalizing of the 2020 primary, where early state polling isn’t so different from national poll results,” said Christy Setzer, a Democratic strategist.

“That’s markedly different from years past, where really working the turf in Iowa and New Hampshire — regardless of whether it grabbed national headlines — paid dividends. This year, it’s all TV, TV, TV.”

O’Rourke’s absence from the cable news circuit became clear last week during a town hall event in Alexandria, Va., when one woman remarked that, unlike other 2020 hopefuls, O’Rourke had not appeared lately on the airwaves.

“We have held more town halls in the month and four days that we’ve been doing this than I think any other candidate, because meeting you eyeball to eyeball, to me, is so much more satisfying than being on cable TV and in a soundbite,” O’Rourke responded, though he conceded that he “may have to give in and be on your television set” eventually.

O’Rourke’s strategy — eschewing large speeches, rallies and national television appearances in favor of intimate town halls and house parties — is largely the same one that propelled him to political stardom during his 2018 Senate bid and fueled speculation of a presidential run in the first place.

His 2020 campaign has so far been light on policy rollouts, focusing more on building personal connections and trying to project authenticity.

Taken together, his strategy amounts to a bet on the notion that Democrats are eager to nominate a fresh face in 2020 — a candidate who eschews political norms in favor of deeply personal interactions with voters.

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But in doing so, he has invariably drawn comparisons to another 2020 hopeful, Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., who has seen his political stock rise in recent weeks amid a series of high-profile media appearances, including a well-received CNN town hall in March that earned him widespread attention. 

“He, in large part, has risen in prominence because he says yes to every single interview,” said Nate Lerner, who previously ran Draft Beto, a group that sought to recruit O’Rourke into the presidential race. “He’s relentless, going on TV, going on every single podcast.”

That strategy appears to have fueled a recent rise in the polls for Buttigieg.

A survey of likely Democratic voters in New Hampshire released this week by the University of New Hampshire showed the South Bend mayor placing third in the primary field, trailing only Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE who, at the time, had yet to enter the race — a major leap for a candidate who remained a relative unknown until little more than a month ago.

O’Rourke, meanwhile, was tied with Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-N.J.) for sixth place in that poll.

“[Buttigieg] made himself available to anyone, any camera, anywhere, and now he’s rivaling much-better known, more experienced opponents in the polls,” Setzer said. “Does the opposite strategy — intimate events and aggressive travel — work as well? Right now, the only measure we have of effectiveness is polling. And by that count, Beto has yet to prove that his strategy is working.”


Unlike many of his opponents, O’Rourke has yet to appear on a CNN town hall. While he takes questions from reporters at campaign stops frequently, he has granted few televised interviews to national networks since launching his presidential bid last month.

Meanwhile, other 2020 hopefuls are eyeing town hall events with Fox News after a widely viewed appearance by Sanders earlier this month. Buttigieg and another Democratic contender, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-Minn.), are slated to go on the network in May.

There’s still time for O’Rourke to regain momentum. Voting in the presidential primaries doesn’t start for another nine months, and Democratic strategists and operatives routinely point out the fickle nature of a candidate’s popularity so early in election cycles.

But if there’s ample reason for candidates to maintain a strong presence on the national stage early on, it may be the 2020 primary schedule itself.

There is only one month between the Iowa caucuses and Super Tuesday, when voters in 12 states will head to the polls, meaning that candidates will have to scramble to introduce themselves to voters outside of the four early primary and caucus states.

And with large, delegate-rich states California and Texas in play on Super Tuesday, national television appearances are likely to become even more valuable, said Jim Demers, a veteran Democratic strategist in New Hampshire who is informally advising Booker’s presidential campaign.

“If you’re going to drive a message that positions you for those big states, you’ve got to not only get your local media focus in those early states — you’ve got to get national attention so you are positioned to run in the big states,” Demers said. “Candidates have got to figure out how they drive their message in those four early states but also in the national scheme, too.”

Lerner acknowledged that O’Rourke will have to broaden out his campaign eventually, if he hopes to distinguish himself in the primary field. But, Lerner argued, that shouldn’t be a difficult task for him.

“He’s someone who is very good at capturing the national spotlight when he wants to,” Lerner said. “And right now he doesn’t want to.”

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