CARROLL, Iowa — Beto O’Rourke is back behind the wheel of a rented minivan in Iowa. And political pros — including some of his own advisers — are cringing.
In presidential politics, candidates almost never drive themselves to events, and for good reason: Car rides are an opportunity to nap, make phone calls, return emails or read briefing materials.
O’Rourke, however, operates differently. He became a Democratic sensation after visiting every one of Texas’ 254 counties in his closer-than-expected Texas Senate race last year, often pulling up to events behind the wheel. He stayed in the driver’s seat for his highly publicized, unaccompanied road-trip through the American Southwest in January while mulling a run for president. And there he has remained in the earliest days of his campaign.
“It’s icy and the cops are out — Jesus,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who tried persuading O’Rourke to hire a driver, as most candidates do, when the two met for lunch shortly before O’Rourke announced his presidential campaign.
“If the candidate hits someone and hurts someone — campaign over,” added Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania and former Democratic National Committee chairman. “If the candidate drives and wrecks a car, campaign teetering on the brink.”
On most presidential campaigns, allowing a candidate to routinely drive would be considered operational malpractice — one misstep short of a catastrophe or, more likely, a colossal waste of time. Running for president is exhausting, distances between events are long and candidates have more productive things they could be doing instead.
Even some of O’Rourke’s advisers have quietly suggested that he cut down on driving himself, but to no avail.
Following a flight to Des Moines, a drive to Ames, a rally at Iowa State University, a question-and-answer session with reporters, a photo line and another round of media interviews, O’Rourke late Wednesday stepped into a waiting Dodge Grand Caravan and drove off. It was still raining the next morning when O’Rourke tweeted he was “on the road and excited to see you” at events in Carroll, Denison and Sioux City.
The publicity O’Rourke has commanded for driving has proved effective in an O’Rourke-isn’t-too-good-to-drive-himself kind of way. He told Radio Iowa this month — in an interview conducted while O’Rourke was driving — that driving is “just a way for me to fully engage.”
“I don’t like being on my phone, being distracted looking at emails or texts,” O’Rourke told the radio station. “I want to be seeing the beautiful country through which we’re driving, seeing that community as we pull in, really taking in Main Street and I love being behind the wheel. I love driving. I love road trips.”
As O’Rourke arrives at events in new cities, photographers gape at O’Rourke disembarking from the driver’s seat, or they rush to re-position themselves after realizing he is not emerging from the passenger side. With a non-driving aide holding the camera, O’Rourke sometimes appears while driving on Facebook Live.
But there have already been signs of how taxing the exercise can be. Earlier this month, O’Rourke was more than an hour late to his first event in New Hampshire after driving all day from Pennsylvania.
“We are trying to responsibly get there as quickly as we can,” he told viewers on his livestream from the car. “We started this drive in Central Pennsylvania eight-plus hours ago, and we’ve really been on the road ever since.”
When an aide said that the drive did not initially appear likely to take so long, O’Rourke replied, “You’ve got to factor in some bathroom breaks, some picking up a sandwich … getting slightly lost when I was looking for the gas station in Massachusetts.”
For O’Rourke, it is not a stunt. He does not, by numerous accounts, turn the wheel over to an aide once he is out of public view. And despite being offered a beer at several campaign events, O’Rourke — who has apologized repeatedly for a past arrest for DUI — has religiously turned such offers down.
Even so, Chris Lippincott, an Austin-based consultant who ran a super PAC opposing Sen. Ted Cruz in the Senate race, said, “We know how dangerous it is to drive when you are distracted. The statistics are clear on that. I can’t imagine a bigger distraction than someone running for president.”
Lippincott, who was once a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said he mostly worries about O’Rourke’s safety.
But recalling years in politics in which he “had to put my foot down from time to time” to keep a candidate in the passenger seat, Lippincott said, “As a former scheduler, it’s a waste of his energy. That is time to rest, to look out the window, to call supporters, to call your kids. You know, there are a hundred more things that you can do safely and that are productive from the passenger seat or the back seat than you can from the driver’s seat.”
The risks are not entirely theoretical. Then-Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice nearly died when the vehicle he was driving veered off a roadway and wrecked violently in a single-vehicle crash in 1996. More than 20 years later, Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan abandoned his campaign for Oklahoma City mayor after the car he was driving was involved in a pileup, breaking multiple bones in his foot.
“It essentially was the end of my campaign,” Maughan said, recalling that the alternative to staying off his feet was the prospect of a foot that “turns abscess and starts to rot from within — it turns gangrene and they’d have to take my foot.”
He said, “You can’t do much campaigning on your back.”
Maughan might just as easily have been injured had he been a passenger — and not the driver — of his vehicle. Because most high-profile politicians use drivers, most accidents in which they are involved occur when they are not behind the wheel. A trooper was driving the Chevrolet Suburban in which New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine was badly hurt in a crash in 2007. Katie Arrington, a South Carolina congressional candidate, was a passenger in a car involved in a crash that severely injured her last year. That same year, the Republican candidate for secretary of state in Minnesota, John Howe, was on the back of a parade float when it crashed, sending him and his campaign manager tumbling.
“It could have been lights out for both of us,” said Howe, who recalled he needed 14 staples in the back of his head.
Still, he said, “We did get quite a bit of media coverage. I was joking with my campaign manager, ‘If you can line up another car crash, we’ll have this thing sewed up.’”
Following the incident, Howe said he could see some logic in O’Rourke driving himself.
Unlike when someone else is driving, he said, “There’s a certain security factor in being in control of your own vehicle.”