SAN ANTONIO (CN) — Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman who shot to Democratic stardom in his strong but unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz last fall, announced Thursday that he will seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.
“Amy and I are happy to share with you that I am running to serve you as the next president of the United States of America,” O’Rourke said in a 3-minute video with his wife released Thursday morning. “This is a defining moment of truth for this country and for every single one of us.”
O’Rourke, 46, who grew up along the Texas-Mexico border and is a fourth-generation Irish American, made the long-anticipated announcement after months of speculation, and a dramatic build-up that included an interview with Oprah in Times Square, and a statement at the end of February that he and his wife “have made a decision about how we can best serve our country.”
Bolstered by his record-breaking fundraising and cross-generational appeal, O’Rourke, a three-term congressman who raised over $80 million from donors nationwide in his campaign against Cruz and came within 3 points of defeating the incumbent, enters the crowded Democratic primary as a top-tier candidate.
He is credited with helping get Texas Democrats to the polls last November, resulting in an increase of first-time voters in some of the state’s largest counties, and the flipping of two U.S. House seats from the Republicans. He also enters the race with a nationwide network of small-dollar donors that helped fuel his Senate run.
O’Rourke’s announcement comes just days before he is scheduled to travel to Waterloo, Iowa for a three-day trip where he will campaign for a state Senate candidate. He returns to El Paso to kick off his campaign on March 30, after traveling the country to “listen to those I seek to serve.”
“We can listen to and lift up rural America,” O’Rourke said in the video. “We can work on real justice reform and confront the hard truths of slavery and suppression in these United States of America.”
O’Rourke, a 1995 graduate of Columbia University, worked a few jobs in New York before starting a small tech company in his hometown of El Paso four years later. By 2011, he had served two terms on the El Paso City Council before going on to unseat an eight-term incumbent the following year to win election Congress.
When O’Rourke filed his candidacy for the U.S. Senate race in March 2017, he was barely known beyond his border district and Democratic circles in Austin and Washington. But he quickly emerged as the midterm candidate to watch when he announced a $2.1 million fundraising haul within the first three months of his grassroots-style campaign, the most of any Senate candidate.
His race against Cruz was the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history, costing more than $125 million.
O’Rourke, who visited all 254 Texas counties and refused to accept money from political action committees, came within striking distance of defeating Cruz in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since the 1990s.
Born Robert Francis, O’Rourke was depicted by Cruz and other opponents as “too liberal for Texas” and mocked for his nickname, Beto, which his Senate campaign said he has used since childhood as a derivative of Robert.
During the campaign, O’Rourke was forced to defend his 1998 DWI arrest when he was 26 as “a serious mistake for which there is no excuse.” The DWI episode, which was a topic during one of his debates with Cruz, did not come up until the final months of the campaign.
O’Rourke said Thursday that his presidential campaign will be a positive one “that seeks to bring out the very best from every single one of us; that seeks to unite a very divided country.”
“We saw the power of this in Texas,” he said.
O’Rourke is at least the thirteenth Democrat to enter the presidential primary race in what is shaping up to be the largest field since 1976, when the Democratic Party nominated Jimmy Carter over 15 other candidates. The Democrats’ slate of 2020 presidential contenders is the most diverse in history, with a record number of women, a Latino, two African-Americans, and an openly gay man all either formally declaring their candidacy, or forming exploratory committees.
O’Rourke passed at calls to challenge Sen. John Cornyn, a move that paves the way for San Antonio Congressman Joaquin Castro to take on Texas’ senior senator in 2020 if he chooses, something Castro’s campaign said it is “seriously considering.”
O’Rourke, a former bassist for El Paso-born punk rock band Foss, and his wife have three children: Ulysses, 12, Molly, 10, and Henry, 8.
He said he will take on issues that include climate change, improving the nation’s immigration system, and justice reform.