PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — The crowds that once massed for him have dwindled, the rock-star energy has faded, and his standing in Democratic presidential primary polls has tumbled.
But Beto O’Rourke is still out there, trying to recapture the magic by going back to his roots.
In a grassy park in this western New Hampshire town last week, he was upbeat if humble as he focused on what he knows — immigration — and where he is from — a Texas border town — once more on the road in the kind of relentless, activist campaigning that first catapulted him to national fame.
“Thank you for what you’re doing right now,” O’Rourke told about 150 people gathered July 12 at one of hundreds of vigils nationwide protesting the US treatment of migrants and immigrant detainees. “Especially for those people and those children who have no voice, who fear that they’re not being heard, who are strangers in a strange land . . . in many cases, imprisoned though they’ve committed no crime.”
He released new fund-raising totals this week, and they were grim: just $3.6 million in the second quarter. That was well behind his top Democratic rivals and less than half of what O’Rourke raised in the first quarter when he had the look of a potential front-runner.
He has enough cash — $5.2 million as of June 30 — to buy the time to try to figure out how to replicate the success of his near-upset victory in the 2018 Texas Senate race. But the clock is ticking. He’s in the low single digits in New Hampshire polls.
“We’re running a different kind of campaign, and because of that, we’re often underestimated,” said his campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon.
O’Rourke has yet to transform the strategy he used against polarizing Republican Senator Ted Cruz into success against fellow Democrats in the presidential race.
“Presidents have risen and declined in the polls before gaining the nomination,” said Emily Farris, an associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University. “But his campaign is struggling to court a small part of the Democratic base — young, moderate voters who aren’t very excited.”
It’s all been a considerable comedown for the hacker, punk rock musician, and entrepreneur turned congressman who raised an astounding $80 million in his failed Senate bid.
Despite his stumbles since 2018, O’Rourke has retained his grass-roots vibe and constant schedule. In stump speeches, conversations with voters and interviews, he harkens to his hometown of El Paso and the lessons learned on a back-breaking road trip through all 254 counties in Texas on his quest to beat Cruz.
Across New Hampshire last weekend, he often drove himself and his staff in a van, stopping at homes and town halls where many undecided voters arrived skeptical or lukewarm and came away willing to give him another look. As the Trump administration threatened national immigration raids, inflaming racial tensions, O’Rourke shared stories of migrant children and parents at the Peterborough vigil.
“When you add up all those children and all the Border Patrol stations and all of the detention centers, you have the largest mass incarceration of children who have not committed a crime since the mass internment of Japanese-Americans in the Second World War,” O’Rourke told the crowd after a light storm had cleared. Many held signs that read “Reunite Families” and “Close the Camps.” Some in the audience held back tears.
In smaller gatherings, such as in Amherst, he seemed to capture some of his old spark.
“I wanted to see him because of his amazing start at the top and his amazing drop to the bottom,” said Andrea Amodeo-Vickery, 69, who represents whistle-blowers from the state veterans hospital. “And I wanted to see him in person because I did not think he handled himself well in the debate, and having seen him, I am much more impressed.”
At a potluck picnic in a Manchester park, O’Rourke brought a bowl of pasta and urged more than 100 people to see themselves in other Americans and new Americans.
“When I think about those kids who face those challenges, it is not too unlike those kids on the border in my community who faced those challenges,” he said, pointing to New Hampshire’s struggles with water toxins that have led to higher rates of pediatric cancer. “By knowing their stories, repeating them, reflecting them in how we campaign and in how we serve, we bring this very divided, highly polarized country back together again.”
When he was finished, Charlie Balban, a 66-year-old retiree, wanted to know, “Who are you? Were you born with a silver spoon in your mouth?” Afterward, he said he was pleased with how O’Rourke answered his questions.
Other Democratic voters and operatives in New Hampshire said that O’Rourke remained on their radar because of his ability to connect with audiences, his upbringing in a bicultural part of the country, and his boldness in taking on President Trump on border issues.
“We have all been talking about what we could do to make things better for detainees, for these children and mothers,” Lindsey Schust, a 44-year-old musician, said of Andover residents. “And he just came in and addressed it right off the bat.”
During his nine-stop swing through New Hampshire, O’Rourke said his Senate campaign allowed him to bring a progressive agenda to unlikely places and find common ground between Democrats and Republicans on issues such as gun control and calls for a humane immigration system.
“It doesn’t matter how rural or conservative or urban or liberal, folks understand that the current system is not working, that we’ve got to rewrite these laws, and they want to do that together,” he said in an interview. “That gives me a lot of optimism about our ability to actually get this done.”
Not all were interested in his message. Some voters wanted to see a woman as the Democratic nominee. Others were still deliberating. But veterans advocate Stephanie Keegan said she was sure O’Rourke could climb back up in the race and then took out a photo of her son sipping a latte at a Dunkin’ Donuts.
She said Army Sergeant Daniel Keegan died in 2016 of an infection from injecting drugs. Some of the other presidential candidates have worked on legislation to help veterans who struggle with drug addiction, but none have seemed to care about the problem as much as O’Rourke, she said.
“He is the best listener I have met on Capitol Hill far and away — if he is going to win, it is going to be this way,” she said, pointing to O’Rourke, who was still shaking hands with people well after the Manchester picnic was over.Reach Jazmine Ulloa at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa