Beto O'Rourke raises $6 million in first 24 hours of campaign as Republicans crank up attacks

Nick Allen


Word travels fast through the corn fields of Iowa - and the word among Democrats is that Beto O’Rourke could be the real thing.

After launching his White House bid last week the Texan, light on policy but long on charm, has beguiled and dazzled voters at cafes, bars, and other small venues across the state, which is the first to vote in the 2020 primaries.

"He's Obamaish," said Jenny Turner, 38, a Republican voter who stopped in at an O'Rourke event to see what all the fuss was about. "I saw every Republican candidate in 2016 and this guy's better than all of them," she said. “He's something else, more likeable. He looked me straight in the eye and he really connected. Yes, he can win.”

On Monday it was revealed that the O'Rourke campaign raised $6.1 million in the first 24 hours after his announcement, outstripping all other Democrat candidates. 

Reactions like that are why Republican operatives in Iowa have Mr O’Rourke at the top of their list to be torpedoed early. Anti-O’Rourke TV adverts, the first against a 2020 Democrat contender, have already launched.

The Republican answer to the “Beto problem” is an unexpected one. Rather than painting the skateboarding former punk rock guitarist, as a dangerous radical, the adverts instead describe him as a man "dripping in white male privilege”.

The 2020 presidential candidate gesticulates enthusiastically as he speaks to a crowd in Iowa Credit: Reuters

He is from a "blue blood pedigree,” educated at a  private boarding school, and his father-in-law, a billionaire property developer, "bought" him a seat in Congress, it is claimed. When he fled the scene of a drunk-driving crash, he got away with it because he was white and rich.

The allegations, which will dog Mr O’Rourke, 46, for the next year, are aimed at driving a wedge between the candidate and the liberal primary voters he will need to win the Democrat nomination.

For Republicans there is a sense of urgency because if Mr O’Rourke becomes the Democrat nominee, then his native Texas, the biggest Republican state, could turn blue for the first time in decades. Without Texas, Donald Trump almost certainly cannot win re-election.

There is substance to this Republican depiction of Mr O'Rourke. He is far from the left-wing firebrand some might have expected. During six years in Congress his voting record put him in the most moderate 25 per cent of Democrats.

With socialism all the rage in progressive circles he proudly declares himself a capitalist, and he has been evasive on committing to a government-run healthcare system.

Those are positions that went down well in the tiny Iowa town of Washington, where a "Make America Great Again" banner welcomes visitors in the main square. Voters in the area went for Mr Trump by 20 points over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Speaking in a tiny art gallery, surrounded by paintings of corn fields, Mr O’Rourke delcared himself a "unifier" who could work with both parties. In a hyperbolic, and sometimes contradictory, speech he vowed to save the world from climate change, while also empathising with business owners.

O'Rourke stands on a pick-up truck to speak to an audience of 200 on his plans for healthcare and education Credit: Xinhua/Barcroft Images

He hailed US victory in the Second World War, and called for it to “reassert global leadership,” but also admitted to having voted against more funding for the military when he was a congressman.

Then he misquoted Sir Winston Churchill. It didn’t matter, his audience applauded anyway.

All the while Mr O’Rourke bobbed up and down on his toes, accepting questions by saying "Right on, right on" and flashing what some have described as his “Kennedy smile”.

Mr O’Rourke is one of the most gesticulative politicians ever to take to the stump. When he talks his hands flail around wildly. On occasion he resembles a human windmill. If he gets particularly enthused - which is often - he raises an arm and appears to dunk an imaginary basketball. Whatever he says, he is difficult not to watch.

While he was talking, and gesticulating, in Washington the first real scandal of his candidacy emerged. The Reuters news agency reported that he had once been part of a notorious computer hacking group called the “Cult of the Dead Cow”.

Speaking outside the art gallery, in the deserted, windswept town square, Mr O'Rourke admitted it was true. He told The Telegraph: “Yeah, stuff I was part of as a teenager is not anything that I’m proud of today, that’s the long and short of it. It was something I was a part of in El Paso a long, long time ago.”

O'Rourke told the Telegraph he was 'not proud' of his days in a hackers collective as a young man Credit: AFP

Could it hurt him with centrist voters? "It could,” he admitted, nodding. "I can't control anything that I've done in the past, only what I do going forward. What I plan to do is give this my best. I will work with everything I’ve got. It’s going to be largest grassroots campaign this country has ever seen."

Given his position towards the right of the party Mr O'Rourke may end up competing for the same moderate Democrat primary voters as Joe Biden. The Texan said he thought "very highly" of Mr Biden, but believes he would do a better job in the White House.

"I do absolutely, yeah," he said. "I've got a history of running a (internet software) business, meeting a payroll week in week out, working in Congress across the aisle."

Asked if he thought Mr Trump should be impeached, he was more forthright than other Democrats.

He said: "You're asking me has the president committed impeachable offences? Yes. Period.”

Mr O’Rourke’s foreign policy agenda has yet to be fleshed out. When asked about Brexit the candidate said he had "no position" but appeared to oppose it. He told the Telegraph: "I think it's in the world’s interest to strengthen our alliances and our partnerships. “I think the more breakups we see the more isolations we face and the harder it’s going to be for us to face our common challenges."

He dismissed suggestions that his policies lack detail, saying part of the purpose of the campaign was to listen to citizens and hear their ideas. "If you have all the answers already then why show up," he said, then flashed a particularly Kennedyesque smile.