The Republican National Committee on Sunday sent out a tweet linking Democratic 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s Irish heritage to his 1998 drunken-driving arrest, in an attack that a scholar said raises questions about the party’s “use of stereotypes to wound potential opponents.”
Republicans have previously sought to focus attention on O’Rourke’s DWI arrest, but the tweet by the RNC – which came on St. Patrick’s Day and described O’Rourke as a “noted Irishman” – appeared to be the first time they have raised the topic of his ancestry.
“On this St. Paddy’s Day, a special message from noted Irishman Robert Francis O’Rourke,” the tweet states. It includes O’Rourke’s 1998 mug shot with a leprechaun hat on top, along with the message “Please drink responsibly.”
An O’Rourke campaign spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Robert Schmuhl, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, said the tweet appeared to be an effort by the RNC “to try to neutralize the charisma of O’Rourke by using his formal name and Irish stereotypes.”
“There’s a long, tortured heritage, if you look at the way the Irish were depicted in the 19th century, in newspapers. There, you had depictions of them as rum-loving individuals who were creating havoc in America. To a certain extent, the message about O’Rourke draws on that questionable past,” said Schmuhl, who has studied portrayals of the Irish in America and is the author of the forthcoming book “The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump.”
Schmuhl added that the RNC’s tweet, combined with President Donald Trump’s frequent use of the derisive nickname “Pocahontas” for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raises questions about how the Republican Party is approaching its messaging against 2020 contenders more broadly.
“Is the party engaging in the use of stereotypes to wound potential opponents?” Schmuhl asked.
Even before announcing his 2020 White House bid on Thursday, O’Rourke, a former congressman who narrowly lost last year in his bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had drawn considerable attention from across the aisle: The day before his campaign launch, the conservative Club for Growth released an ad focusing on O’Rourke’s family wealth and accusing him of being “entitled.”
Trump responded Thursday to O’Rourke’s announcement by poking fun at his body language. “I think he’s got a lot of hand movement,” the president told reporters at the White House. “I said, ‘Is he crazy, or is that just the way he acts?’ “
O’Rourke has called his DWI “a serious mistake for which there is no excuse.” His arrest has long been publicly known, but reports surfaced last summer suggesting that the episode was more serious than detailed in previous media accounts.
The state and local police reports said O’Rourke, who was 26 at the time, was driving drunk at what a witness called “a high rate of speed” in a 75 mph zone of an interstate when he lost control of his Volvo and hit a truck.
O’Rourke “attempted to leave the scene,” according to a witness, and was arrested and charged with DWI. He later completed a court-approved diversion program, and the charges were dismissed.
The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson and John Wagner contributed to this report.