Beto O'Rourke speaks during a campaign rally in Plano, Texas, the US, September 16 2018. Picture: LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP
Beto O'Rourke speaks during a campaign rally in Plano, Texas, the US, September 16 2018. Picture: LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP

El Paso — Beto O’Rourke, the youthful Texan who gained a national following with his long-shot election battle against US Senator Ted Cruz in 2018, has launched a bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

The 46-year-old O’Rourke, a former three-term US congressman and a punk rocker in his youth, pledged to tackle “the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy and our climate”.

“This moment of peril produces, perhaps, the greatest moment of promise for this country,” he said in an online video.

O’Rourke followed his announcement with a trip to Iowa, the Midwestern farm state that will hold the first Democratic nominating contest in February 2020.

Greeted by cheers at his first stop in Keokuk, Iowa, he told his audience: "It is a huge, huge honour to be here with you."

O’Rourke outlined challenges facing the US, from immigration to climate change, saying, “the foundational challenge to get all of this done, is to fix our democracy”.

In running for president, O’Rourke is hoping to leverage the fame he gained with his Senate race in Texas. He was an underdog when he challenged Cruz, a Republican in the mostly conservative state, but he quickly demonstrated an ability to draw capacity crowds and raise money from voters nationwide.

His long-shot bid drew widespread media attention and excited voters in a party desperate for fresh political faces. O’Rourke lost the race by less than three percentage points, the tightest US Senate contest in the state in four decades.

Early opinion polls on the 2020 race have consistently ranked O’Rourke in the top tier of contenders, behind former vice-president Joe Biden, who has not yet announced whether he is running, and US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Since his Senate bid ended, O’Rourke has worked to keep himself in the public eye, regularly staying in touch with supporters and sitting for an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

He took a well-publicised road trip across the American southwest, stopping at colleges and diners. He met students in the key swing state of Wisconsin.

In February, he held a rally in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, on the same night as one staged there by President Donald Trump, a Republican. Both rallies drew thousands, and put the two men’s divergent positions on the border wall on sharp display.

In El Paso, Trump ridiculed O’Rourke as “a young man who’s got very little going for himself, except he’s got a great first name”.

Starting with the Iowa caucuses next year, the Democrat who amasses the majority of delegates nationwide in a series of contests will be nominated at the party’s convention in Milwaukee in the summer, and will likely face Trump in November’s general election.

Like progressives such as Sanders, O’Rourke premised much of his appeal in the Senate race on his refusal to accept money from political action committees and instead raised $80m from small-dollar donors — a national record for a Senate bid. He also ran a campaign staffed by volunteers instead of political professionals.

Building a national presidential operation, however, is a different matter. O’Rourke will need those same donors to flock to him in a way that makes him competitive with other well-funded candidates, including other grassroots stars such as Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

O’Rourke, whose given name is Robert Francis, acquired his nickname while growing up in El Paso. After studying at Columbia University and working briefly in New York, he returned to his hometown and started a software company.

In 2005, he was elected to El Paso’s city council. Seven years later, he ran against the incumbent Democratic congressman, Silvestre Reyes, and won, a notable feat in a Latino-majority district. He was re-elected twice.

A former bassist in a punk band, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated in 1998. That has been an issue in every campaign he has run and will undoubtedly resurface during his presidential bid.