Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman whose failed bid to the U.S. Senate catapulted him to national recognition, kicked off Virginia’s presidential campaign season this week while also lending his name to Democrats’ efforts to capture the General Assembly.
“It goes without saying that 2020 is going to be a very important year for the Democratic Party,” said Lizzie Drucker-Basch, chairwoman of the Henrico County Democratic Committee. “We have a really heavy lift here in Henrico. … That’s why we’re here, and Beto.”
O’Rourke made several stops on Tuesday — starting in Norfolk, then to Hampton, the College of William & Mary, Richmond and ending the day at the University of Virginia. On Wednesday, he will attend an event with Joshua Cole, a Fredericksburg-area candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, who lost by 73 votes in 2016 in a district mixed up by misassigned voters.
He highlighted the same issues throughout the day: the cost of health care, climate change, the use of prison in place of mental health care, raising the minimum wage, teacher pay and gerrymandering.
“What I know from listening to teachers in Texas and in Virginia and that not only is it the low pay you struggle against, it is the fact that so many cannot afford the health care that you already have, don’t have the co-pays for the prescriptions, cannot afford the premiums or the deductibles to take care of yourself or to take care of your family,” he said.
About 1,000 people showed up at the event at a Short Pump Hilton hotel, according to the O’Rourke team. The crowd was enthusiastic, at times so loud it drowned O’Rourke out.
In addition to his policy positions, the Texas representative spoke about the importance of flipping the Virginia General Assembly, as did Virginia politicians who spoke before him.
“Suddenly Henrico County is on the map,” said U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, who beat Republican Dave Brat last year and introduced O’Rourke on Tuesday.
Henrico Dels. Schuyler VanValkenburg and Debra Rodman, who is making a bid to unseat Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, were in attendance. Drucker-Basch also recognized some other Henrico-area candidates running for state seats including newcomer Rodney Willett in the 73rd District and Juanita Jo Matkins in the 56th District.
O’Rourke will end his Virginia visit Wednesday night at a town hall in Fairfax.
“He certainly won’t be the last of the Democratic hopefuls that will come to Virginia,” said Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.
In the crowded Democratic primary race, only a handful are truly viable candidates and right now, O’Rourke is one of them, Bitecofer said.
She predicted South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg would be the next candidate to start campaigning in the state; He’s already scheduled to appear at a Democratic Party fundraiser in June to rally the party for legislative races coming up in November.
Having candidates like Buttigieg and O’Rourke at this point in the process is a big win for state Democrats, Bitecofer said, and gives the presidential candidates a chance to form relationships with the state party to help later efforts getting on primary ballots next June.
“(Virginia Democrats) have more incentive than normal because they can’t look to Northam to stump for Democrats because he’s tarnished from his scandal,” Bitecofer said.
The Virginia GOP didn’t waste any time making that connection, calling O’Rourke’s presidential bid a “comically inept campaign.”
O’Rourke didn’t make any specific mention of Northam, but spent some of his time discussing the importance of addressing racial inequity and the “compounding effects” of Jim Crow laws and other discriminatory practices.
A woman from Henrico County asked O’Rourke if he would consider creating a post in his presidential administration to specifically look at and work toward racial equity.
“I have never thought of an executive post until you raised it,” he answered. He “loved” the idea, he said.