Beto O'Rourke huddles with donors to discuss debate and ways to improve in the next round

Key Points
  • Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke huddled with some of his campaign's top donors and bundlers to discuss his poorly reviewed debate performance Wednesday night.
  • The financiers discussed with O'Rourke how to improve for what will be a crucial debate in July for the former lawmaker.
  • He "will be aware of what he needs to do to prepare for the next debate, and fortunately the needed improvements are purely stylistic," said a top O'Rourke backer on the call.
Democratic presidential hopeful former US Representative for Texas' 16th congressional district Beto O'Rourke gestures as he speaks during the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 26, 2019.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke's top donors and bundlers are looking for him to improve in the next debate after they spoke with him on a conference call Thursday to discuss his poorly reviewed Wednesday night performance.

In a discussion that was planned the day before the debate, the former Texas lawmaker's lead fundraiser, Louis Susman, organized a call with O'Rourke himself and other financial supporters to speak at length about how he fared throughout the showdown with nine other 2020 contenders, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Susman was a top bundler for former President Barack Obama's first presidential campaign in 2008 and was later nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to the U.K. He helped raise at least $500,000 for Obama at that time, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

While several O'Rourke donors and grassroots organizers on the call expressed their belief that he had a strong performance during the debate, contrary to the broader consensus, there were some on his team who gave their takes on how he could improve on his performance in Miami, these people added.

"My big takeaway is Beto is perceived as a much larger threat than I even thought this early in the race," after the debate, one of the donors on the call told CNBC on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was deemed private. Still, the donor also noted "the platform last night was clearly out of his comfort zone."

The financier added that O'Rourke "will be aware of what he needs to do to prepare for the next debate, and fortunately the needed improvements are purely stylistic."

Longtime Democratic donor Robert Wolf, also an O'Rourke supporter, told CNBC that he believes Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro were the winners of Wednesday's debate. Wolf declined to give his take on O'Rourke's performance.

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The reaction from O'Rourke's donor ranks could prove to put even more pressure on him to improve at next month's debate and prevent bundlers and donors from defecting to his rivals in the primary. O'Rourke's 2018 bid for the seat held by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was based around a juggernaut fundraising operation that ended up bringing in almost $80 million. He raised $9.4 million in the first quarter of his campaign for president.

O'Rourke spokesman Chris Evans confirmed the call to CNBC and said the candidate's supporters are looking to continue to make the efforts necessary to win the presidential election.

"Our supporters on the call and at debate watch parties throughout the country were excited to see Beto on stage last night and are eager to continue the work necessary over the many months ahead to win this election," Evans said. "The campaign is proud of last night's debate and how Beto introduced his new kind of politics to the country, laid out his plans on a wide variety of issues to achieve this vision, and shared how he's worked to bring more people into our democracy by writing nobody off and taking nobody for granted."

In the aftermath of O'Rourke's debate, some political analysts and pundits questioned whether this was the end of his campaign.

Van Jones, a CNN contributor and former Obama advisor, said O'Rourke may be finished as a 2020 candidate, while noting how fellow Texan Castro appeared to overtake him on fixing the immigration system, an O'Rourke staple.

"Unfortunately I think that may have been Beto's last hurrah," Jones said on CNN. "I think he's done," he added.

Eric Soufer, a former top advisor to former Democratic New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, wrote in the NY Post that O'Rourke's efforts were "surprisingly cautious and clearly uncomfortable." He added: "It was painful to watch."

New York Times opinion writer Wajahat Ali called for O'Rourke to drop out of the race and return to Texas to run against Republican Sen. John Cornyn.