By Gregg Re
Published August 19, 2019
On his way to the site of the Oklahoma City bombing on Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke affirmed that he categorically opposes the death penalty — even in the cases of convicted terrorist Timothy McVeigh and the El Paso mass shooter, who killed 22 Wal-Mart shoppers earlier this month in the district he once represented in Congress.
"I don't support the death penalty," O'Rourke told reporters. "I don't know that taking another life will prevent the taking of lives going forward. I understand that some people feel differently, and it's hard to argue with them after seeing the faces of the lives lost.
"It's hard to argue with those in El Paso who feel that way, when someone came in and killed 22 human beings in our community. ... That's my belief and — but I understand those who feel differently about it," he said.
O'Rourke has previously said that nonviolent felons should be able to vote while behind bars, stopping short of fellow White House hopeful Bernie Sanders, who has called for the total enfranchisement of all felons, including the Boston Marathon bomber.
The former Texas congressman's comments came after he announced last week he would reset his flailing presidential campaign, with a tougher tone and a new focus on domestic terrorism and gun violence.
O'Rourke's position puts him at odds with authorities in his own state and the Justice Department. Prosecutors in Texas have announced they will seek the death penalty against the El Paso gunman, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, as a domestic terrorism and hate crime investigation unfolds.
In July, Attorney General Bill Barr said the federal government will resume capital punishment and will move forward with plans to execute five inmates on death row for the first time in more than 15 years.
"It’s a good thing Robert Francis O’Rourke will never be president and stand in the way of justice being served in this case," Trump campaign Communications Director Tim Murtaugh told Fox News late Monday, using O'Rourke's legal name.
O'Rourke's opposition to the death penalty is a recent policy shift. In March, he apologized for backing legislation in 2017 that would have made it easier to pursue the death penalty in cases where law enforcement officers or other first responders were targeted and murdered. The bill, called The Thin Blue Line Act, has not been taken up by the Senate.
O'Rourke's vote for the bill came shortly after he launched his ultimately unsuccessful bid to defeat incumbent Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.
“I think attacking a police officer should be an aggravating factor, but I don’t think that should contribute to taking someone else’s life," O'Rourke said earlier this year. "And so that was a mistake on my part, and if I could have that vote again, I would not vote for it."
At the same time, O'Rourke has made clear what he feels could prevent future massacres: change in the White House. On Sunday, O'Rourke squarely blamed President Trump for the massacre in El Paso, saying it was a "cost and consequence" of his rhetoric.
“It wasn't until that moment that I truly understood how critical this moment is and the real consequence and cost of Donald Trump,” O’Rourke told NBC's “Meet the Press.“
In his manifesto, the El Paso shooter cited a range of motivations, including immigration and ecofascism, or militant environmentalism. The shooter said his views predated the Trump campaign.
Nevertheless, O'Rourke said, the administration's crackdowns on illegal immigration sent an unmistakable signal.
"There is a concerted, organized attack against immigrants, against people of color, against those who do not look like or pray like or love like the majority in this country,” O’Rourke said. “And this moment will define us one way or another. And if we do not wake up to it, I am convinced that we'll lose America, this country, in our sleep. And we cannot allow that to happen.“
O'Rourke, in a speech last Thursday in the face of stagnant and deep-underwater poll numbers, announced he wouldn't leave the presidential race to challenge Republican Sen. John Cornyn next year. He said "that would not be good enough" for El Paso and its shooting victims, since only taking on Trump will do.
Trump's reelection campaign responded that O'Rourke was using tragedy "to bolster his struggling presidential bid."
"O'Rourke's second campaign reboot is likely to end up failing just like his first," Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Cotton said in a statement.
O'Rourke had attempted a major strategy shift in recent months, increasing his television appearances and releasing a string of policy proposals, attempting to show he didn't prioritize political style over substance. Those efforts failed to recapture the strong buzz and fundraising O'Rourke had upon entering the presidential race in March, though, and he's remained plagued by low fundraising and polling ever since.
Fox News' Alex Pappas and The Associated Press contributed to this report.