First came the Cory Booker relaunch. Then a pivot from Kamala Harris. Now, Beto O’Rourke is hosting high-dollar fundraisers and courting national TV.
It’s reset season in the presidential primary campaign.
For months, top-tier Democrats largely adhered to their pre-laid plans, ignoring the noise around them. They dismissed early polls as folly and labored to avoid making campaign calculations based on a still-emerging and fluid field of competitors.
But as the primary landscape has settled, a crop of candidates who aren’t seeing the trajectory they envisioned, or find themselves in danger of falling back in public opinion polls, are beginning to recalibrate.
It was less than a month ago that O’Rourke, asked about his relatively light footprint on TV, said at a campaign event that meeting voters “eyeball to eyeball, to me, is so much more satisfying than being on cable TV and in a soundbite.”
But there he was on Monday on Rachel Maddow’s influential show on MSNBC — a main artery to progressive voters — after hosting a fundraiser in New York City, his first of the campaign. He is scheduled to appear on ABC’s “The View” on Tuesday and he will follow that with a CNN town hall next week.
“Beto O’Rourke is really the canary in the coal mine here,” said Mathew Littman, a Democratic strategist and former Joe Biden speechwriter. “What Beto is going through now is that he’s been surpassed by Mayor Pete [Buttigieg], maybe Elizabeth Warren, in terms of attention. It’s going to happen to everybody in the race … Joe Biden today is flying high in the polls. But Joe Biden’s not going to be able to go six months without explaining everything on policy.”
Littman said, “The reset — it’s going to happen to everybody.”
O’Rourke had acknowledged last month that he might “have to give in and be on your television set” at some point. But that point turns out to be now, nine months out from the Iowa caucuses, as a newfound urgency permeates the entire 2020 field.
Biden’s entry into the race — accompanied by evidence of far more robust appeal than many expected — is one reason for the reorientation. But there are also signs that the lanes of support are solidifying. On the party’s progressive flank, support is coalescing behind Sen. Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser degree, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Then there is the first presidential debate looming next month, widely regarded as a critical test in the 21-candidate field.
“When Biden announced, everything changed,” said Robert Wolf, a venture capitalist and influential Democratic donor who raised money for and advised former President Barack Obama. “So, if the combination of those three are 50-60 percent of the field right now, the others have to make sure that, for them to get in the teens, they have to break out away from each other.”
Harris shifted her approach earlier this month, not long after Biden entered the race with an attack on President Donald Trump’s equivocal response to white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. The California senator, who had largely kept her criticism of Trump focused on policy, lit into the president as a purveyor of sexism and racism. Her advisers acknowledged that after several introductory stops in early primary states, she is now adopting a more full-throated critique of the Republican president.
“Let’s speak truth here today — this president isn’t trying to make America great; he’s trying to make America hate,” Harris said.
Before that, just prior to Biden’s formal announcement, Booker sought to breathe new life into his campaign by touching off a two-week “Justice for All” national tour to draw attention to the New Jersey senator’s policy positions. At the time, Booker campaign manager Addisu Demissie told reporters that with so many candidates in the race, it was “a moment to be able to say clearly, and above the din of what’s happening on the day to day basis, why Cory is in the race and what he’s fighting for.”
It was also a moment to rethink his message — love and unity — at a time when he was languishing in the polls. According to the latest Morning Consult poll, Harris stands at 7 percent, O’Rourke is running at about 5 percent and Booker is at 3 percent nationally.
O’Rourke, in particular, seems stalled after the heady early days of his campaign.
“Beto needs to reset,” said Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who ran for president in 2008. “And I still think there’s time, because he has charisma and inspiration. But what he needs to do is get more detailed policy proposals and more strategic in his campaign approach.”
However, Richardson said that for O’Rourke and other candidates, “It’s plenty early, so doing resets now is OK … This is fairly common. Because it’s such a big field and there’s so many heavy candidates like Biden and Bernie and others, you have to scramble a bit.”
O’Rourke has not been absent from television coverage. His rallies draw cameras, he speaks to reporters after most of his events, and he has done interviews with Univision’s Jorge Ramos, CBS’s Gayle King and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. He sat for a lengthy conversation with David Axelrod for his show “The Axe Files” on CNN. O’Rourke’s advisers have pointed to such interviews as evidence O’Rourke is not reinventing his campaign.
But Maddow’s platform is especially large. The progressive television host averaged the second most viewers on cable news last year, with 2.9 million nightly viewers, according to Nielsen. Candidates can count on fundraising bumps during their appearances on the show, and they can repackage clips from their interviews for use on social media for weeks to come. The same opportunity is presented by the CNN town hall that O’Rourke will participate in next week.
O’Rourke told Maddow on Monday that he is “running today the same way we started,” blitzing across the country for a non-stop schedule of rallies and town halls.
“But I recognize I can do a better job also of talking to a national audience,” O’Rourke said. “I hope that I’m continuing to do better over time, but we’ve been extraordinarily fortunate with the campaign that we’ve run so far.”
Meanwhile, O’Rourke is also beginning to turn on his high-dollar fundraising apparatus, after raising heavily from small donors online. Following his fundraiser in New York City on Monday, O’Rourke is scheduled to host another big-dollar fundraiser in Chicago next month. Required contributions for the event at the Park Hyatt Chicago range from $250 to $2,800.
O’Rourke had never said that he would not host big-dollar fundraisers — and his emergence on both the fundraising and media front were not unexpected. Yet the candidate is still known more for his relentless pace of retail campaigning: According to his campaign, he has hosted more than 150 events in 116 cities since announcing his campaign, answering more than 1,000 questions from voters. While Biden has granted reporters pooled access to his fundraisers, O’Rourke streamed his remarks at the event live.
Following a spate of campaigning in New Hampshire over the weekend, O’Rourke’s wife, Amy, said in an email to supporters on Monday that “this weekend has been a reminder to not read too much into the latest news story, the latest poll, but to keep focused on why we are running and how we want to run.”
Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina lawmaker and former Democratic National Committee member, said O’Rourke’s experience is not unique and that candidates this early in the primary are not necessarily resetting, but “trying to find their footing.”
“I think a lot of people are just kind of coming out the gate,” said Brown, an early O’Rourke supporter. “It’s a horse race. Come out the gate, then the pack kind of dovetails into each other, and then down the home stretch, you try to break away.”
However, he said Biden’s fundraising and early momentum “has just blown out all expectations.”
In response, he said, “I think the rest of the pack is just trying to figure out how they make their move.”