In the lead-up to forcing a runoff for the Chicago mayor’s seat, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia never wavered in his belief that incumbent Rahm Emanuel could be beaten despite his mountain of campaign cash and powerful Washington connections.

Now that he has forced a runoff where he will square off one-on-one with the first-term mayor on April 7, Garcia says that Tuesday’s result shouldn’t be mistaken as merely a road bump for Emanuel en route to him winning reelection.

“People kept looking at this election with a conventional lens,” Garcia told USA TODAY on Wednesday. “The conventional lens is that money wins out over candidates and people, and a lot of people bought into that. My sense has always been that this is an unconventional campaign.”

Emanuel, a three-term congressman and President Obama’s former chief of staff, heads toward the runoff with some undeniable advantages. He raised more than $15 million for this election and went into Tuesday’s primary with Obama serving as his chief surrogate.

Despite appearing in campaign ads endorsing Emanuel and even traveling to Chicago last week to announce the designation of the city’s first national monument with the mayor by his side, Obama appeared to have little impact on the campaign.

While some of Emanuel’s challengers criticized the timing of Obama’s visit, Garcia downplayed its importance and predicted it wouldn’t have much of an impact.

“It was important four years ago for him to have the backing of the president,” Garcia said. “Four years ago, the people didn’t know Rahm Emanuel. Four years ago the people hadn’t experienced Rahm Emanuel. … I’m not angry at the president. I think he was simply being loyal to a former employee.”

Emanuel would seemingly have the easier path to victory in the coming runoff after taking 45% compared to the 34% Garcia was able to take in Tuesday’s five-candidate primary. But the numbers also show that nearly 55% of Chicagoans that turned up for the non-partisan primary think Emanuel should be shown the door.

In the weeks ahead, Garcia said he plans to further draw out his own personal narrative — one that he said he thinks is reflective of Chicago’s mosaic of neighborhoods.

Born in Durango, Mexico, Garcia moved to Chicago after his father — a migrant worker who came to the United States through the World War II-era bracero program — gained permanent residency for the family. He got his first taste of organizing when he and other high school students organized a picket line around a seedy theater in his southwest side neighborhood.

Garcia is no stranger to Chicago politics. He currently serves on the Cook County Board of Commissioners, and previously served on Chicago’s city council and in the Illinois General Assembly. He came late to the mayor’s race after Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis — both who polls showed would have provided Emanuel with a tough race — considered but opted not to mount challenges.

Going into the campaign, Garcia said he suffered from low name recognition — something that should be less of an issue for him in the weeks ahead.

“The fact that was I getting into the campaign three months and two weeks (ahead of Election Day) made it seem like kind of an impossible undertaking,” Garcia said. “But these aren’t ordinary times, and I think I have a good pulse of Chicago … and we demonstrated yesterday that there was, in fact, a different reality out there.”

In forcing the runoff, Garcia has also attracted an outpouring of interest in his campaign.

Left-leaning organizations, such as U.S. PIRG and MoveOn.org, cast Tuesday’s results as a vociferous rejection by Chicagoans of big money in politics. On Wednesday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee e-mailed a plea to it’s 1 million members asking them to “show him some love” by donating $6 to help Garcia defeat “one of the worst corporate Democrats in America.” Garcia was outspent 12-to-1 by Emanuel in the primary.

Among Chicago voters, there were also signs that Garcia’s showing is spurring fresh enthusiasm about his bid.

Clare Fauke, 38, of the Logan Square neighborhood, voted for Garcia in Tuesday’s primary. But until the results began rolling in on Tuesday night, Fauke said that she wasn’t very optimistic that Garcia had a “real chance.”

“All we heard going in was about Rahm’s war chest, his big-name contributors, his editorial board endorsements (and then more recently, Obama), which made any challenge seem doomed from the start,” Fauke said. “Personally, I feel a lot more energized to get out and plan to canvass for Chuy now that it seems he’s got a chance.”

Thom Serafin, Chicago-based political consultant, said he expects “an awfully entertaining horse-race” in the six weeks ahead.

Garcia’s campaign could become “a rallying cry for labor and a new focus against the 1%,” Serafin said. “The cinders are there – all they need is a light.”

Contributing: William Spain