Beto O’Rourke cracked open the door to a 2020 presidential run in the most Beto way possible: walking the down the street and chatting with a celebrity tracker for TMZ.com.
His public tease was inevitable, considering the amount of public pressure that’s being put on him. After O’Rourke’s narrow loss to Senator Ted Cruz, his Senate campaign staffers quickly leaked their interest in keeping the band together for a presidential primary tour. Democrats from Iowa didn’t waste time inviting him to speak. Even Golden State Warriors basketball coach Steve Kerr posted on Twitter: “Beto 2020.”
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The hype is based on the premise that even though O’Rourke lost, he nearly won in the largest red state. He helped lift several down-ballot Democrats to victory with a proudly progressive message, a mastery of online media, a relentless campaign schedule and a smile brighter than a solar panel in the Texas sun. He has a gigantic small donor list and oodles of free time, both great resources to fuel a presidential campaign. This is the candidate who can beat Donald Trump with soaring turnout from a multiracial coalition. This is Obama 2.0.
But before O’Rourke announces a presidential run, he should step out of the echo chamber and consider the possibility that the hype doesn’t tell the whole story.
First, let’s not grade O’Rourke’s campaign on its own curve. Yes, he made great strides in Texas, earning 48 percent of the vote, 5 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton did in the state two years ago. But two states over in Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema—the only Democratic Senate challenger to win in a Trump state— posted a similar improvement over Clinton of 4.5 percentage points.
O’Rourke’s steady stream of viral video has been credited with his strong youth support. But exit polling shows that O’Rourke and Sinema got the exact same percentage of the under-45 vote. She did better than him with Latinos, as well as whites. And Sinema’s campaign was everything O’Rourke’s was not: robotically centrist and devoid of hipster cool.
Like O’Rourke, she was attacked as a far-left loon, but Republicans had to rely on vintage Sinema clips, because she tacked to the center after joining the U.S. House. In contrast, O’Rourke willingly gave the Cruz campaign fodder, on the logic that he was galvanizing the left base.
When O’Rourke said, referring to the anti-racism protests by NFL players, there was “nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights,” the progressive video site Now This News, declared his answer “perfect,” set it to inspiring music, and generated 20 million views. Then the Cruz campaign used the footage in its own ads, juxtaposing O’Rourke with a veteran who lost both legs in Vietnam who said, “I expect you to stand for me when that national anthem is being played.” Red state Democratic candidates like Sinema who steered clear of the culture wars had better results on Election Day than forthrightly progressive candidates like O’Rourke.
If O’Rourke had made real inroads in Trump territory, then it would make perfect sense to dispatch him to similar territory across the country as the party’s standard-bearer. But he was crushed in Texas’ more rural, lightly populated counties by a 2-to-1 margin. Where O’Rourke was strong was the five most populous, urban-suburban counties, four of which Clinton and Barack Obama won in the past two presidential elections. O’Rourke improved upon Clinton’s performance in all five counties, including a narrow win in the Fort Worth area that Clinton and Obama had lost. But Clinton had improved upon Obama’s performance in all five counties as well, which suggests that O’Rourke benefited more from the continuation of a demographic shift in Texas than his own charm.
What about O’Rourke’s down-ballot coattails? Wasn’t he able to juice Democratic base turnout so much that Democrats flipped two U.S. House seats, two state Senate seats and 12 state House seats?
Let’s not be so quick to give Beto all the credit. All those red-to-blue wins were on urban-suburban turf, the same kind of turf that was fertile for Democrats nationwide. The two U.S. House seat flips in Texas were in districts that Clinton won, districts already primed to turn blue.
Outside Texas, other, less viral Democrats were able to win U.S. House seats in more challenging territory, such as Oklahoma’s 5th District and South Carolina’s 1st District. And Democrats flipped 380 state legislative seats nationwide, including 10 state House and six state Senate seats in North Carolina, and seven state House seats in Iowa—both swing states that went to Trump. No electrifying progressive superstar was at the top of the ticket in any of those four states.
It was surely better for Texas Democrats to have a viable Senate nominee than not. But after accounting for Democratic victories nationwide, it’s hard to argue that Betomania provided a unique benefit for Democrats in Texas.
You may say, so what? Regardless of how his 2018 electoral numbers compare with other midterm candidates, Beto has other numbers that prove his 2020 potential: $69 million in campaign cash, more than 800,000 donors and zero dollars from political action committees. Maybe a rhetorically flat centrist, the argument goes, can thread the needle in a Senate or House race, but in a national campaign, such a candidate won’t be able to generate the kind of grassroots energy that O’Rourke can. Furthermore, many people in O’Rourke’s inner circle are likely telling him: This is your moment. And moments are just that, one tick and they’re gone.
O’Rourke may not want to end up like Chris Christie, who passed on his moment in 2012—remember in September 2011 when the New Jersey governor was begged to run by an adoring crowd during an address at the Ronald Reagan Library? By 2016, he had angered conservatives one too many times and fizzled out in New Hampshire.
Senator Elizabeth Warren also appears to be a cautionary tale. She ignored the calls from the “Ready for Warren” PAC in 2016, dousing the dreams of progressives who thought she had the stuff to sell anti-Wall Street populism to middle America. Perhaps Warren will prove the doubters wrong in 2020 and gut out a victory, but it is indisputable that her star has faded in the past two years, eclipsed by the rise of Senator Bernie Sanders and sullied by her own difficulty in responding to Donald Trump’s “Pocahontas” barbs.
So why wait? Obama didn’t, even though in early 2007 he had barely begun his first Senate term and nearly everyone assumed Clinton was a lock for the 2008 nomination. On the heels of a wildly successful book tour, he seized his moment and made history. Shouldn’t Beto do the same?
Obama is an excellent example of meeting one’s moment. But there are also examples of succumbing to one’s own hype. Marco Rubio was a young first-term senator touted as the fresh face Republicans needed to stave off demographic disaster. But in the 2016 presidential primary, he proved to be in over his head, skewered by Christie as an overly scripted empty suit. He won one state.
Or take John Edwards. Democrats fancied the syrupy sweet-drawling first-term North Carolina senator as the solution to winning back the South. But while he didn’t embarrass himself (at first) like Rubio, neither did he make Democratic dreams come true. Edwards won only one state in the 2004 primary before dropping out. He still generated enough buzz among Democrats to persuade the nominee John Kerry to put him on the ticket (against Kerry’s gut instincts), and then Edwards proceeded to add precisely zero Southern states to the Democratic column. After losing luster, Edwards would try again, but his presidential 2008 bid was quickly overshadowed by the rivalry between Obama and Clinton.
Granted, Edwards didn’t help himself by spending 2007 trying to hide the fact that he had impregnated his mistress while his wife was dying from cancer. But the more important point is that being showered in early hype doesn’t mean much if you can’t live up to it. For years, many Democrats were convinced that Edwards could pick off red states, without much proof beyond his personal charm, a superficial interest in poverty and his lone Senate campaign victory (which is one more Senate campaign victory than O’Rourke has.) In the end, Edwards didn’t have enough substance, not to mention character, to match the image.
Obama’s moment came together because he was not only a charismatic campaigner who could build a powerful multiracial coalition, but also because he was on the right side of the 2008 campaign’s dominant issue: the Iraq War. When all the other top-tier Democratic candidates voted for George W. Bush’s war resolution, the then-state Senator Obama was predicting it would be a “dumb war.” And he was able to speak cogently enough about a wide range of foreign and domestic policy issues to beat back arguments that he was a paper-thin, single-issue candidate.
O’Rourke wouldn’t come into the 2020 campaign with a signature issue that would distinguish himself among the sprawling Democratic pack and define his candidacy. The main argument for a Beto campaign comes down to little more than, well, he’s Beto, and people really like Beto. But a successful presidential campaign needs a lot more than that to survive the presidential primary marathon. While it’s possible O’Rourke has what it takes to be Obama 2.0, the risk remains he could be Edwards 2.0.
If this was truly O’Rourke’s only moment to become president, the logical choice would be to seize the moment. But he has another, more promising path: Stay in Texas first and finish the job of turning it blue.
While Texas’ changing demographics may well mean that a Democratic future in the state is inevitable, Democrats still need solid candidates to turn favorable demographic trends into election wins—and good candidates can make the inevitable arrive sooner than it otherwise might. Yet the bench is thin. Despite the relatively good 2018 election, Democrats still have no statewide elected officials in Texas. No Democrat in Texas has a better statewide profile, and statewide campaign apparatus, than O’Rourke.
O’Rourke would have to survive a cage match with about 20 other Democrats if he is to be the 2020 presidential nominee. But the 2020 Senate nomination to run against incumbent Senator John Cornyn is his for the taking. He could literally announce today, immediately clear the Democratic field, and focus like a laser on Cornyn for the next two years.
And Cornyn appears ripe for the plucking. Dr. James Henson, who teaches government at the University of Texas-Austin, recently noted Cornyn is “one of the least popular top-tier statewide officials in Texas,” with an approval rating among Texans that’s 28 points lower than Cruz’s. In turn, Henson concluded, “Cornyn’s relatively soft support among the GOP base, coupled with presidential year turnout among Democrats, makes Cornyn appear less formidable in 2020 than Cruz in 2018.”
Democrats will not be lacking in choices in their presidential primary. There will be candidates old and new, left and center, heartland and big city. O’Rourke is not needed there. But in Texas, there is only one Beto.
And yes, sometimes people, like Obama and Trump, become president because they catch lightning in a bottle. But others become president after years of toil at the job of governing, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Even John F. Kennedy, America’s youngest elected president, first accumulated more than a decade of service in Congress. None of those politicians lost their charisma as they gained valuable experience. If Beto truly is a president-in-waiting, he can wait.