Beto O'Rourke; Donald Trump (AP/Salon)

A preview of 2020? Donald Trump and Beto O'Rourke host competing rallies in border city of El Paso

As Trump visits his hometown, O'Rourke gets an opportunity to show how a potential White House race would play out


Shira Tarlo
February 11, 2019 11:14PM (UTC)

President Donald Trump will host his first campaign rally of the year Monday in El Paso, a Texas city that shares a border with Mexico, as the country faces the possibility of another government shutdown if a deal between his administration and congressional Democrats over border security and immigration reform cannot be reached by Feb. 15.

Trump's rally in El Paso will be his first — and, arguably, most significant — since the 2018 midterm election cycle, in which Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives. It will provide him with a backdrop to again rally support for a border wall to stop what he has called "an urgent national crisis" at "our very dangerous southern border" that he claimed has led to a surge of crime, drugs and human trafficking caused by migrants seeking illegal entry.

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At the same time, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who represented El Paso in Congress for six years until he fell short in his campaign against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in the Texas Senate race during the midterms, will speak at 7 p.m. ET at an event at a high school located about a half-mile away from Trump's rally, where he will provide a counter argument to Trump's hardline message on immigration. The group will then march toward the venue where Trump's "Make America Great Again" event is taking place. Trump, for his part, will begin speaking at 9 p.m. ET.

In a video shared to his Twitter account on Sunday, O'Rourke previewed his "March for Truth" event, urging "everyone in El Paso to turn out." Sitting alongside his daughter Molly, O'Rourke said, "We will meet lies and hate with the truth and a vision for the future from the U.S. Mexico border."

In a tweet shared on Monday morning, Trump said he will heading to El Paso "very soon" to deliver a "big speech on Border Security and much else tonight."

Trump falsely cited El Paso during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday as an example of a city where building a wall had worked to deter crime.

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"The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the country — and considered one of our nation's most dangerous cities," Trump said. "Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities."

In fact, before the border barriers were installed in El Paso in 2008, the city "had the second-lowest violent crime rate among more than 20 similarly sized American cities," the New York Times reported. El Paso's crime rate stayed the same in 2010, after the fence construction, and it was never considered one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S.

The dueling rallies will provide a significant preview of a possible 2020 presidential contest between Trump and O'Rourke, who has yet to throw his hat into the growing ring of Democratic presidential candidates. O'Rourke remains one of the most high-profile Democrats yet to officially forge a White House bid. With Trump's visit to his hometown, he will get an opportunity to get demonstrate what his candidacy would bring to the table.

Although O'Rourke said during his Senate campaign that he did not have Oval Office aspirations, he admitted at a town hall late last year that his position had changed from what he said on the campaign trail and that he and his wife had "made a decision not to rule anything out."  By signaling that he is even open to throwing his hat in the ring for 2020, however, O'Rourke has continued to generate buzz and speculation in the sprawling field of prospective Democratic candidates for 2020.

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O'Rourke has been keeping a low public profile since the midterm elections, even as other Democrats announce their candidacies. O'Rourke's near-silence, in turn, had swirled speculation that his interest in a possible presidential bid might have dimmed. If he runs, however, O'Rourke would likely face competition for the Democratic nomination from what is expected to be a very crowded Democratic field that already includes California Sen. Kamala HarrisNew Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro. Over the weekend, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) formally jumped in the 2020 race — and these names are far from the complete list.

In an interview last week with Oprah Winfrey, O'Rourke revealed he will make a decision about throwing his hat in the ring before the end of February.

"The serious answer is really soon . . . before the end of this month," O'Rourke told Winfrey.

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Although O'Rourke fell just 200,000 votes short in his bid to unseat Cruz in 2018, he has emerged as something of a national phenomenon along the way, drawing comparisons to former President Barack Obama for his speaking style and bipartisan message of hope and unity. The former Texas congressman O'Rourke raised a staggering $38 million in the third quarter of his Senate campaign — the most of any Senate candidate in history — and his closer-than-expected performance to Cruz in November, as well as his post-election missives, have fueled interest from Democratic donors and the highest levels of the Democratic Party — including from Obama himself — that the right candidate could turn the reddest states blue.

Should the former congressman decide to enter the 2020 race, he would likely leapfrog most of the 2020 Democratic contenders, largely because of his wide name recognition among Democrats and his extensive fundraising network. To lure O'Rourke to campaign for the White House, a group of Democratic political operatives have launched "Draft Beto," an ambitious grassroots movement that has a goal of raising $1 million for a future Oval Office bid and building a donor email list that could eventually be transferred to the former congressman — if he runs for president.

During his race against Cruz, Trump called O'Rourke a "total lightweight," and said he "will never be allowed to turn Texas into Venezuela."

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In an October 2018 interview with ABC News, O'Rourke said he would not address Trump's attacks.

"The kind of bitterness and the name-calling and partisanship that has unfortunately defined so much of the national conversation, you can add more to it or you can stay focused on the future," O'Rourke said at the time.


Shira Tarlo

Contact Shira Tarlo at shira.tarlo@salon.com. Follow @shiratarlo.

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