OTTUMWA, Iowa — 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. And on Friday in Iowa, his wife, Amy, joined him on the campaign trail, touring a farm with him, introducing herself at a town hall and taking pictures with voters after events.
Her presence will be an important test of whether 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 O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, has to do 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.”
On Friday, Amy O’Rourke largely listened as her husband toured a farm in Lacona, chatting with the farmer about conservation issues. She took a break from the conversation to go look at the farm’s horses, and Beto shouted after her, “Amy, are you gonna ride?”
O’Rourke later told reporters he wants his wife to see the “excitement” in Iowa for herself, and to introduce herself.
“I know folks are curious about Amy and why she wanted to run this race with me, and for this country, and I think no one’s better able to speak for her than Amy herself,” he said.
Amy O’Rourke told the crowd at the next event, a town hall in Ottumwa, that it was an “amazing” experience to join her husband on the trail during his Senate race and that she was excited to do it again in Iowa.
“I’m just really looking forward to meeting all of you, getting to hear your stories and be with you here today,” she said.
This Iowa swing comes as Beto 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.”
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. O’Rourke’s campaign also points to recent polling suggesting he could beat President Donald Trump in a head-to-head, 2020 matchup, fueled by strong favorability ratings with women.
Amy joined her husband as he shook hands and took pictures after the Ottumwa event — and her presence did help win over at least one Iowa Democrat.
“She seemed a little uncomfortable to talk to the crowd, as I would feel, but she seemed very easy to talk to,” said Deb Blew, a 64-year-old retired school administrative worker from Ottumwa.
Blew said she thought of Beto O’Rourke as “just another rich guy running for office,” but having seen him with his wife, “it humanized him,” and now O’Rourke was in her top three picks for the caucuses.
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.”
Weissert reported from Washington.