DES MOINES — Beto O’Rourke is dropping out of the presidential race.
The former El Paso congressman announced the decision Friday evening, ahead of a major Democratic gathering here in Iowa.
“Though it is difficult to accept, it is clear to me now that this campaign does not have the means to move forward successfully,” O’Rourke wrote on Medium. “My service to the country will not be as a candidate or as the nominee. Acknowledging this now is in the best interests of those in the campaign; it is in the best interests of this party as we seek to unify around a nominee; and it is in the best interests of the country.”
O’Rourke’s decision ends a White House bid that began with much anticipation in mid-March, months after his near-miss loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. O’Rourke’s campaign launch coincided with a splashy article on the cover of Vanity Fair, and he reported raising $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his bid — at the time, the largest announced first-day haul of any 2020 Democratic contender. Soon after, he showed double-digit support in multiple national polls.
But O’Rourke never lived up to the high hopes, and after the initial fanfare of his entrance, he sunk into the low single digits in polls and saw his fundraising come back down to Earth.
He was facing the possibility of missing the cut for the next debate, which is Nov. 20 in Georgia. As of Friday evening, he had gained only two out of four qualifying polls, and the deadline is Nov. 13. A poll of likely Iowa caucus participants released Friday showed he had 1 percent support in the critical early state.
After O’Rourke’s announcement — “a decision we made so recently and so reluctantly,” he said at an event in Des Moines on Friday evening — a person close to him reiterated that his future will not include running for U.S. Senate next year in Texas. Some supporters have been encouraging him to challenge the state’s senior senator, John Cornyn, but he has long said he is not interested. A massive Democratic field has already assembled to take on Cornyn, but so far no candidate has been able to match the excitement O’Rourke created in his 2018 bid.
In September, O’Rourke declared — on a debate stage and then on campaign merchandise — “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.” His assertive defense of a mandatory assault weapons buyback won him momentary celebrity status in a competitive Democratic field. But it may have capped his political future in gun-loving Texas, where he saw some success in 2018 running as a more moderate candidate. O’Rourke also drew ire from the right for asserting in October that religious institutions should be stripped of their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage.
O’Rourke had long emphasized his Texas roots, selling the state — and its 38 electoral votes — as an asset to his lagging campaign and strategically deploying staff there in the early fall. Success in Texas’ Super Tuesday primary, his campaign made clear, would be critical to clinching the nomination and also a good argument for putting him on the ticket in a competitive 2020 general election.
O’Rourke’s nationally watched bid to unseat Cruz ignited liberal hopes in a state that has not elected a Democrat since the mid-1990s. But ultimately, whether because of a more competitive national field or because of a nontraditional campaign strategy difficult to replicate on the bigger stage, O’Rourke could never re-create the excitement that fueled his bid in Texas, which set national fundraising records and marked a closer margin of victory than a Texas Democrat has seen in decades. In 2018, O’Rourke helped sweep into office a dozen new Democratic members of the Texas House, two Democratic members of Congress and four new Democratic majorities on state appellate courts.
An August mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso gave newfound urgency to his presidential campaign. In the wake of a racially motivated shooting at a Walmart near the U.S.-Mexico border, O’Rourke canceled campaign events to head home to the city where he grew up and once served on the City Council. After the massacre, O’Rourke pledged to travel to sites of other mass violence — even those unlikely to support a Democrat — to spread a message of gun control.
The high points of his bid included head-to-head spats with the president, who celebrated the news of O’Rourke’s dropping out Friday on Twitter.
Shortly after breaking the news, O’Rourke headed to a rally he had scheduled before the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration. Addressing a tearful group of supporters on the banks of the Des Moines River, O’Rourke reiterated he does not “have the means to pursue this campaign successfully” and thanked everyone who had worked on his campaign in Iowa and elsewhere. O’Rourke also thanked his wife, Amy, making reference to “a decision that we made so recently and so reluctantly she can’t be here in person.”
Speaking in front of large blue letters spelling “NO FEAR,” O’Rourke ticked through the issues he advocated for passionately during the campaign: climate change, the plight of immigrants, gun violence. He reflected on the last place he visited before making the campaign-ending trip to Iowa: Newtown, Connecticut — the site of the 2012 school shooting.
Before wrapping up his remarks and receiving a line of sobbing supporters waiting to embrace him, O’Rourke signed off with a line reminiscent of election night 2018 in Texas.
“This is the honor of my lifetime,” O’Rourke said. “I love you all, and I will be seeing you down the road.”