Determined not to ignore Wisconsin in his quest for the White House, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke made his second visit to the state in a month on Sunday, meeting with voters who spilled out of a downtown Madison coffee shop out to the sidewalk.
"This state is fundamental to any prospect we have of electing a Democrat to the presidency in 2020 and being ready to start on Day One in 2021," the former Texas congressman told reporters after the event. "I’m really glad that the Democratic National Committee selected Wisconsin and Milwaukee to host the convention, I think that’s a good sign and a recognition of this, but that won’t be enough. We’ve got to show up."
About 400 people showed up at Cargo Coffee to hear from the candidate on Sunday morning, many of whom stood outside once the building was full. Standing on a metal chair, O'Rourke made his case to voters and answered questions for about an hour.
O'Rourke, 46, officially entered the race on Thursday, months after losing a bid to unseat Texas Sen. Ted Cruz by less than 3 points. He immediately followed his announcement with a three-day road trip throughout Iowa.
Last month, prior to launching his campaign, O'Rourke met with a group of University of Wisconsin-Madison students and faculty and with a smaller group at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Before the Madison meet-and-greet, O'Rourke met with U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan at The Old Fashioned on the Capitol square. After leaving Madison, he was set to meet with women in the Emerge Wisconsin program, IBEW union members and organizers with BLOC (Black Leaders Organizing for Communities) in Milwaukee.
Speaking to the crowd at Cargo, O'Rourke said he'd been to Wisconsin about 20 years ago, touring with his punk band in a Plymouth Satellite station wagon. He compared his campaign launch — a road trip across the country in a Dodge Caravan — to his earlier "punk rock adventure."
The same way "punk rock was able to strip down all the excess of rock and roll," O'Rourke said, his campaign is a stripped-down effort to meet voters directly and eschew outside influences including donations from political action committees or lobbyists.
"The only way to win is to show up. I have found that in every political race I’ve run, from city council to Congress to U.S. Senate. When we don’t show up, we get what we deserve, and that is to lose. So i’m going to show up everywhere for everyone," he told reporters. "The only way for you to take me at my word is to see me in person and for us to get the chance to meet, to hear each other out."
With early visits from candidates and the selection by the Democratic National Committee of Milwaukee for its 2020 convention site, Democrats have made clear that they see Wisconsin as a battleground state.
Wisconsin delivered its 10 electoral votes to President Donald Trump by a 22,000-vote margin in 2016, making him the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since 1984.
In the months that followed Trump's victory, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was widely criticized for not setting foot in Wisconsin after losing the state's primary to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Trump visited the state frequently during his campaign and has returned several times since he was elected.
Voters asked O'Rourke about his plans for campaign finance reform, social services, education, rural communities, immigration enforcement, environmental policy and gun violence.
He also fielded a question about his favorite Spoon album — he doesn't have a favorite album, but named "The Underdog" as his favorite song by the Texas band — and was asked by a small child perched atop an adult's shoulders if he would "please be nice."
Yes, he said, he will be nice.
O'Rourke offered broad philosophical statements along with some specific policy prescriptions in response to most questions.
He advocated for raising the cap on income taxed for Social Security and for universal "guaranteed, high-quality health care." He offered his support for nonpartisan redistricting and undoing voter ID laws, for "debt-free" higher education and rural broadband expansion, for universal background checks and banning the sales of some semiautomatic weapons. He praised the "ambition" of the Green New Deal by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and advocated for the use of renewable energy.
Asked if he supports dissolving Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, O'Rourke — who hails from the border town of El Paso, Texas — said the agency has a role to play in internal enforcement against "those who truly pose a violent risk," but not for otherwise law-abiding citizens.
O'Rourke said El Paso is a safe city not in spite of its immigrant population, but because of it.
The candidate was also asked about comments he made the previous day suggesting that, if he wins the party's nomination, he would select a woman as his running mate.
Asked if it was premature to make such a statement, O'Rourke said, "the answer is yes."
"On this fourth day of the campaign, to talk about who I might select were I to be your nominee, for vice president, seems a little bit presumptuous," O'Rourke said. "But to the spirit of the question, 'Would you select a woman if you were the nominee?' it's very hard for me to escapee that conclusion given the record number of extraordinary women who are running along with me in this field."
Asked why voters should choose a white man instead of one of those women, O'Rourke said "the great thing is that the voters are going to decide the answer to that question."
O'Rourke touted his experience as a small business owner, an elected official willing to work across the aisle, a resident of a community of immigrants and a Democratic candidate who exceeded expectations running a statewide race in Texas.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, drew a contrast with O'Rourke in a Sunday morning interview on NBC's "Meet the Press." O'Rourke has said he was "born to be" a presidential candidate. Klobuchar said she has a lot of respect for O'Rourke, but noted that as a woman who grew up in the 1970s, there weren't many people who "thought a girl could be president."
"I can’t contrast myself to others," he said. "I can just offer you what I have been able to do and the way in which I wish to run going forward."