EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Beto O’Rourke has been searching for the spotlight almost since he entered the crowded race for president. He found it in a way he could never have predicted or wanted.
Since a white nationalist shot and killed 22 people at a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso, on Texas’ border with Mexico, the former congressman has emerged as the face of a community coping with a jarring tragedy.
He insists he’s not focused on politics — even canceling a high-profile trip to Iowa this weekend — but his response to the massacre undoubtedly has far-reaching implications for his White House bid and clear political risk. It may provide the jolt O’Rourke needs to revive a flagging campaign . Or it could leave him looking like he’s trying to capitalize on the tragedy while the other presidential candidates roll on without him.
O’Rourke announced Wednesday that he won’t attend the Iowa State Fair or other planned events, meaning he’s avoiding the state that kicks off presidential primary voting at a time when nearly every other Democratic 2020 hopeful will be there. Instead, his Iowa campaign staff is organizing a moment of silence before a Friday night event featuring most of the other candidates.
That means O’Rourke will be suspending his campaign for more than a week and counting — and when he will rejoin the race isn’t yet clear.
But that hardly means he’s refraining from going on the political offensive.
Since the shooting, O’Rourke has blamed President Donald Trump’s rhetoric for spreading fear and hate, picking fights with the president in a feud that has predictably captured attention. Asked on MSNBC Wednesday if Trump was a white supremacist, O’Rourke responded, “he is.” As the parade of Republican presidential candidates discovered in 2016, though, winning such clashes with Trump is difficult.
O’Rourke also urged Trump not to visit El Paso. The president came anyway on Wednesday, but not before tweeting that O’Rourke should “be quiet.”
While Trump was in town, O’Rourke attended an “El Paso Strong” community event timed to be an alternative to the president’s visit and being held a few blocks from the University Medical Center where shooting victims were being treated. He opened his speech with words of condolences in Spanish.
“I ask you to make sure that those murders, that act of terror, not define this community,” O’Rourke said. “El Paso, we are bigger and greater and better than this.”
Dozens of families and well-wishers lined up to take selfies and chat with former congressman afterward, and O’Rourke gave his cell phone number to one Walmart employee and instructed him to call if he needs help getting counseling.
Mateo Cisneros, a 25-year-old tennis instructor who attended the gathering, applauded O’Rourke’s numerous public appearances in recent days.
“He was the first to be outspoken about Trump, to not sugar-coat anything,” Cisneros said.
Becoming such a high profile face of a tragedy is not without political risks, and not all candidates would have rushed home like O’Rourke. Presidential candidate and Rep. Tim Ryan reacted to a home-state shooting in Dayton, Ohio, that killed nine people mere hours after the El Paso attack by calling on Congress to approve strengthened background checks for those purchasing firearms. Hillary Clinton’s formal announcement of Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate was delayed in July 2016 as word was spreading about a shooting in Munich, Germany.
After a gunman shot and killed three people and injured 13 others at the popular Gilroy Garlic Festival in California last week, Sen. Kamala Harris didn’t head back to her state. But spokesman Ian Sams said she “closely monitored the situation and was engaged directly with Senate staff and other contacts in California as developments unfolded.”
O’Rourke was campaigning in Nevada and had plans to visit California when news broke about the mass shooting last Saturday. He flew home a short time later and has remained there, visiting victims who were hospitalized and attending vigils and other events to honor the victims.
“For Beto, the silver lining for the tragedy is it shines a national spotlight on him,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “Being from El Paso, he has a level of authority to speak on issues related to El Paso that’s much larger than that of anyone else.”
O’Rourke has made his city a centerpiece of his campaign, telling campaign audiences across the nation that being from the U.S. southern border makes him qualified to overhaul the federal immigration system and appreciate the value of inclusivity across language and cultural barriers. The suspected shooter, a 21-year-old white man who drove more than 600 miles to carry out the shooting, is believed to have posted an anti-immigrant screed online.
Many top Democrats have indirectly blamed the president for the El Paso shooting, but O’Rourke has taken it further, lashing out at reporters who asked about that.
“He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals,” O’Rourke responded. “Members of the press, what the (expletive)?”
O’Rourke became a national political star by nearly upsetting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year and some Democrats in Texas and beyond have for months called on him to scrap a presidential bid and instead use 2020 to challenge his state’s senior senator, Republican John Cornyn.
Canceling presidential campaign events sparked speculation in some political quarters Wednesday that he could be mulling switching races — but O’Rourke campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon quickly dismissed that.
“It is unconscionable that political reporters remain more focused on the horse race rather than a community in crisis. Beto is staying in El Paso to support his hometown that was the target of a terrorist attack, inspired by the words of Donald Trump,” O’Malley Dillon said in a statement. “Now more than ever, this country needs the honest leadership Beto continues to demonstrate — and that is why he is running for president.”
Weissert reported from Washington.