After raising $4.5 million in third quarter, O'Rourke says he needs to 'break through' now more than ever
Former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke speaking with attendees at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People hosted by the Center for the American Progress Action Fund and the SEIU at the Enclave in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

The Democratic presidential candidate improved on his second-quarter haul but remains in the lower third of candidates who've released their latest numbers so far.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke raised $4.5 million in the third quarter, his campaign announced Friday as he acknowledged it was more urgent than ever to "break through" in the still-crowded primary.

The third-quarter total is an improvement over the $3.6 million that the former El Paso congressman took in during the previous quarter, and it came despite a halt to fundraising for roughly two weeks in August after the deadly El Paso shooting. Still, the total puts him behind a majority of primary rivals who have released their third-quarter figures so far, including two leading candidates who each raised around $25 million.

After announcing his third-quarter figures, O'Rourke gathered his staff in El Paso for a livestreamed meeting Thursday evening where he discussed the state of his campaign, which has been mired in the low single digits in polls for months.

"We have a path to the nomination — and through that, a path to the presidency — but at this moment we've got to break through," O'Rourke said. "So I need everyone's help, doing everything that they can ... to make sure that you make this commitment now. There is no later moment to do it. It must happen now if we're going to make the most of this moment, of the momentum that we have, of this wonderful trajectory that we're on."

O'Rourke's latest haul covered July, August and September, which his campaign said was its best fundraising month yet. It also said its average donation in the third quarter was $26, and 99% of contributions were under $200.

O'Rourke did not immediately share how much cash on hand he had. That figure was $5.2 million at the end of the second quarter.

At the staff meeting, O'Rourke campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon presented a host of metrics that suggested the candidate was gaining traction, especially last month, but acknowledged a frustrating disconnect between those measures and where he is at in the polls. She blamed a "media trap" that is portraying the primary as a two-person race — presumably between the two highest-polling candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden.

"That's a real impediment — it's total bullshit — but it's something that we gotta take seriously and figure out what to do about," O'Malley Dillon said, going on to cite polls that show how few primary voters have settled on a candidate yet.

To overcome the "media trap," she said, the campaign will focus on advertising and organizing — and it will need to raise $2 million over the next six weeks. She said the goal is "not a stunt, it's not a make-believe deal, it's like an actual built-out budget for line items."

Throughout the meeting, O'Malley Dillon sought to give supporters ample reason to be optimistic, touting O'Rourke's leadership on issues like gun control in the primary field, his travels to places that do not usually see presidential hopefuls and his connection with underrepresented voters who are not always reflected in surveys. She also insisted he was "playing to win" in the early voting states, emphasizing the delegate-rich opportunity awaiting him in Texas on Super Tuesday, or March 3.

Despite the bright spots identified by his campaign, O'Rourke has struggled for much of the race to climb out of the lower tier in polls, and his latest fundraising placed him in the lower third of candidates who have volunteered their third-quarter numbers ahead of the Tuesday deadline to report them to the Federal Election Commission. The totals have ranged from a little over $2 million to $25.3 million and $24.6 million for Sanders and Warren, respectively.

Still, O'Rourke can take a measure of solace in beating his second-quarter tally, which marked a sharp slowdown in fundraising after he pulled in $9.4 million in his campaign's first 18 days. Moreover, the third quarter saw him suspend campaign fundraising for 12 days in early August as he responded to the El Paso shooting, instead using his platform to raise over $1 million for groups fighting gun violence and other causes.

The other Texan running for president, Julián Castro, has not released his latest fundraising numbers yet. He raised $1.1 million in the first quarter and $2.8 in the second quarter. Without releasing specific figures, his campaign has said the third quarter was his best one yet.

Both Texans are set to participate in the fourth primary debate Tuesday in Ohio, but they have their work cut out for them to qualify for the fifth debate, which is Nov. 20 in Georgia. Both have accrued the 165,000 donors required for the event, according to their campaigns. However, they also need to hit 3% in four qualifying polls, something Castro has not done yet and O'Rourke has achieved just once. The deadline for the polling requirement is Nov. 13.