ALEXANDRIA, VA -- Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) stormed Virginia on Wednesday, staking his claim as the first Democratic presidential contender to campaign in the critical Super Tuesday state.
O’Rourke drove himself and his campaign staff across the state in an old Dodge Caravan, making eight stops over a two-day swing that focused heavily on minority voters and electing down-ballot Democrats ahead of a pivotal state election in Virginia in 2019.
Democrats are looking to build on their 2018 gains in House races across the country by flipping the state House and Senate in Virginia this year.
At coffee shops, Mexican restaurants, in backyards and at convention halls, O’Rourke stumped for state-level Democrats and met with local party leaders, whose endorsements could provide a burst of momentum next March in the Virginia presidential primary.
“As important as 2020 is, 2019 sets the ground for whoever the nominee will be,” O’Rourke said to a group of about 350 supporters who packed a local coffee shop on Wednesday morning in Fredericksburg. “Let’s make this commitment as well - whoever [the Democratic nominee is], we do everything we can to make sure they defeat Donald Trump.”
Virginians aren’t used to getting attention this early in the primary process. The once reliably red Southern state has voted Democratic in the past three presidential election, but Republicans narrowly control the state legislature.
Diverse crowds of hundreds of people turned out at each stop to hear from the Texas Democrat, who became a star last cycle when he nearly toppled Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails The Memo: Like the dress or not, Ocasio-Cortez is driving the conversation again Ocasio-Cortez defends attendance of Met Gala amid GOP uproar MORE (R).
O’Rourke has been one of the top fundraisers in the Democratic field but that hasn’t translated into a polling bump yet.
In recent weeks, O’Rourke’s star has been eclipsed by up-and-coming South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegLGBT film festival to premiere documentary about Pete Buttigieg Pete and Chasten Buttigieg welcome twins Coalition urges Democrats to restore billion in transit funding MORE, another young candidate who has been raising big money and winning glowing reviews from Washington insiders and the media.
The strain of two nonstop days on the road showed on O’Rourke. He nearly lost his voice and struggled to speak during his first campaign stop on Wednesday morning at a sweltering warehouse behind the Pimenta Coffee Shop in Fredericksburg.
“I’ve been talking a lot,” O’Rourke quipped.
But he powered through with an hour-long campaign speech before leaving the stage, dripping with sweat. O’Rourke took selfies and signed autographs on his way out and then talked with reporters in a dusty parking lot out back.
O’Rourke took questions from the crowd at every event on Wednesday, especially from women and people of color. He answered in Spanish, when he could.
O’Rourke also focused heavily on issues that are important to African-Americans and Hispanics, two key constituencies in the Democratic primary.
Racial tensions boiled over in Virginia earlier this year when Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark Herring (D) admitted to having worn blackface in the 1980s
O'Rourke hammered President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE on immigration and other policies that he described as racist.
“We must call out hatred and racism where it exists, including in the highest positions of power,” O’Rourke said.
“Mexican immigrants are not racists and criminals. Muslims are not inherently dangerous. Klansmen and Nazis and white nationalists are not very fine people. The genius of this country was the way we incorporated people from every country, walk of life and faith. Whatever the differences do not let this man divide us or make us afraid,” he added.
At a Mexican restaurant in Dumfries, O’Rourke railed against voter ID laws, pay inequality between men and women, and drug laws that disproportionately send black men to prison.
He lamented the rise of hate crimes, and accused Trump of inciting violence against Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarEnough with the GDP — it's time to measure genuine progress Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Democrats eye potential carbon price in reconciliation bill 'Squad' members call on Biden to shut down Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota MORE (D-Minn.). Democrats are furious at Trump for releasing a video linking the Muslim lawmaker to the 9/11 attacks.
O'Rourke also said the nation must address “racist gerrymandering” laws.
But O’Rourke equivocated when a woman asked if he would support reparations. He said he would support a bill sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeAngelina Jolie spotted in Capitol meeting with senators Elon Musk after Texas Gov. Abbott invokes him: 'I would prefer to stay out of politics' Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime MORE (D-Texas) to create a commission to study the matter but that the discussion about reparations needs to start “at a community by community level.”
Several supporters at the events said they decided to back O’Rourke after seeing his viral video defending NFL players right to kneel during the national anthem last year.
O’Rourke on Wednesday argued that the U.S. had never recovered from the “racist foundation” it was built on.
“The larger problem, of which our criminal justice system is just a part, is the very racist foundation of this country,” he said, noting that "the wealth of the United States and the commonwealth of Virginia was built literally on the backs of those kidnapped in their home countries and brought to this country and who had no hope or prospect of enjoying the fruits of their labor."
Still, O’Rourke told The Hill he didn’t believe his allegations of racism against the president would negatively impact his ability to reach out to Trump voters if he is the Democratic nominee in the general election.
O’Rourke said he’d be happy to do a town hall event on Fox News Channel. He recalled that the first stop on his 2020 presidential campaign was in a district that voted for former President Obama in 2012 and then swung to Trump in 2016.
And he noted that 500,000 people in Texas in 2018 split their ticket between him and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
“Everyone counts, everyone matters and we’re not writing anyone off,” O’Rourke said.