Beto O’Rourke stumbled with women from the start, featuring his wife sitting silently in his presidential campaign launch video and joking repeatedly about being a part-time parent.
But with his campaign at risk of stalling, O’Rourke is attempting to improve his standing with female voters. His wife, Amy, will begin a rare string of campaign appearances on Friday in Iowa, speaking at joint events and making herself available to chat and take pictures with would-be supporters.
Her presence will be an important test of whether Beto O’Rourke can reverse his less-than-favorable first impressions with women. It’s an unusual position for a candidate whose appeal with women helped make him a national political phenomenon while nearly upsetting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz last fall. And it shows how much work has to be done to get his presidential bid back on track.
“Any perceived entitlement by a young white male candidate did disqualify him with some young women activists,” Judy Downs, executive director of the Des Moines-area Polk County Democratic Party, said of O’Rourke. Downs remains undecided in the party’s 2020 primary but added, “In a field where we have 24 qualified candidates, that kind of small-level of gaffe can be enough to cut someone off the list.”
This Iowa swing comes as O’Rourke seeks to reintroduce himself to voters.
He burst into the presidential race at a breakneck pace, bouncing around the country and prioritizing town hall crowds over national media appearances and building out a campaign infrastructure. When initial buzz fizzled, O’Rourke changed course, hiring dozens of new staffers, appearing more often on national TV and rolling out detailed proposals on immigration and other hot-button issues, attempting to shake perceptions he offered more style than substance.
Aides insist that strategy shift doesn’t extend to Amy O’Rourke, noting that she campaigned in New Hampshire last month. They say her stepping more into the presidential race spotlight is due to the logistics of their three children finishing the school year — not an acknowledgement that his campaign needs her help.
“When she can get on the road, she wants to get on the road,” O’Rourke spokesman Chris Evans said. “She is as much of the core of the campaign as he is.”
But others in O’Rourke’s orbit acknowledge there’s ground to be made up.
“He has this kind of persona of the preppy rich kid and it’s easy to say, ‘He’s just another privileged white guy and does America need that now?’ I totally see that,” said Tzatzil LeMair, who helped organize campaign events while O’Rourke was running for Senate in Texas and helms the “Latinos for Beto” page on Facebook. “Beto is like this product, but you have to try it. You have to get people to meet him. You need to ‘experience’ Beto.”
Iowa state Sen. Clarie Celsi remains undecided in the primary but said O’Rourke’s parenting quip was a “deal breaker for me,” despite his quickly apologizing and abandoning it during the campaign’s opening days.
“You see young men with five kids running for office, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I wonder how you’re able to do that — oh, you have a wife at home, great.’ But women have to fight a lot harder to be able to have that much freedom,” she said.
Playing an active role in the campaign, Amy O’Rourke could smooth over such impressions. A 37-year-old teacher and school administrator, she advised on policy and strategy during the Senate race and is doing the same for the presidential bid, aides say. Even while not personally campaigning, she helps plan travel schedules, reviews major issue proposals and critiques things like designs on campaign shirts.
“We’re better when Amy talks. We’re better when she’s talking, be it in a video, on stage or in Beto’s ear,” said Kim Olson, a friend of the O’Rourkes who campaigned unsuccessfully for Texas agriculture commissioner last year and is now running for Congress in a district between Fort Worth and Dallas.
Winning over women will be crucial to success in Iowa. Women made up a majority of Iowa voters who supported Democratic House candidates, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters from the 2018 midterms, and they typically turn out in stronger numbers than men for the caucuses, which begin the presidential nominating process.
O’Rourke received 52 percent of the 2018 female vote in the nation’s largest red state compared to 48 percent for Cruz, according to VoteCast, though Cruz won the race by 2.6 percentage points.
Even as he reboots his campaign, the new Beto O’Rourke at times looks like the old one. He recently livestreamed getting a haircut, a move he also made while running for Senate. But he joked this time about “cutting off some of this ear hair you get when you get older,” a quip that women on social media quickly noted a female candidate wouldn’t have been able to live down.
Avery Blank, an adviser to the Washington-based Wilson Center’s Women in Public Service Project, wrote a column about Amy’s nonspeaking role in the O’Rourke launch video. She says the campaign missed a chance to leverage what she knew about her husband as a person — but appearing together before voters can fix that.
“Let Amy speak,” Blank said. “Give her the mic.”