DES MOINES, Iowa -- Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the 2020 presidential race on Friday after a disappointing campaign that failed to build off the momentum generated from his longshot Texas Senate run.
"Though today we are suspending this campaign, let us each continue our commitment to the country in whatever capacity we can," he wrote in an email to supporters.
His announcement came hours before he was expected to speak alongside 13 other candidates at the Iowa Democratic Party's Liberty and Justice fundraising dinner.
One O'Rourke supporter, Mary Lou Tevebaugh of Texas, said she drove 11 hours to hear from him at this big fundraiser.
"I was in tears when I heard the news," she said. "There are a few I’m interested in but it’s too soon."
Lagging in the polls and with fundraising, O'Rourke had yet to qualify for the Nov. 20 debate sponsored by MSNBC and The Washington Post.
O'Rourke's Iowa state director Norm Strzenbach told NBC News he he did not know the campaign would be ending Friday and in fact the campaign had just announced a big push in the first-in-the-nation voting state. Rumors, however, had been swirling in the 24 hours leading up to the announcement, leaving staff at headquarters on edge and unsure of how to respond with little direction from above, especially when the campaign manager didn't come to the office as usual.
"This is a campaign on life support," said one person involved in the campaign who spoke on condition of anonymity on Thursday.
President Donald Trump quickly mocked O'Rourke on Twitter.
Trump's reference was in regard to a cover story in Vanity Fair magazine as he jumped into the presidential race earlier this year that he was "just born to be in it."
O’Rourke, who represented El Paso in Congress, entered the race as one of the most talked-about candidates following his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz in deeply conservative Texas in 2018. After his loss, Democratic activists in states that hold early presidential voting contests, including Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina, formed "Draft Beto" groups, which raised money and tried to line up supporters for a potential 2020 bid.
Despite the initial jolt of interest from voters and the media, his campaign failed to find footing following debate performances that were highly critiqued and consistent struggles to crack double digits in polls.
O’Rourke repeatedly rejected pleas — including from The Houston Chronicle's editorial board — for him to drop out of the presidential race and run again for the Senate in Texas.
His campaign ran on an urgent need to fight climate change and corporations and overhauling the American health care system — though he stopped short of endorsing Medicare for All. He supported legalizing marijuana and received plaudits for the ways in which he discussed racial disparities in America.
O’Rourke shifted his focus toward gun control following an August mass shooting in El Paso, going farther than most other Democratic candidates in supporting not just background checks and an assault weapons ban but a mandatory buyback program.
"Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," he said during September's Democratic debate in what would become something of a campaign slogan for him. "We're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore."
He mentioned gun control in a series of tweets after he dropped out Friday.
O'Rourke's support for a buyback plan drew criticism from some fellow Democrats as going too far and playing into the hands of gun rights advocates who claims that liberals want to confiscate their firearms.
Outside of Wells Fargo Arena, where the fundraiser was held, O'Rourke told a crowd of supporters that he will "stay in this fight."
"I love you all and I know I will be seeing you down the road," he said. "I will stay in this fight in whatever capacity I can."
Tevebaugh said she will continue to fight for this country alongside O'Rourke.
"It’s about fighting the fear that we have in this country right now," she said. "It's important to us as a nation to be hopeful."