It wasn’t always clear whether Beto O’Rourke would run for president, but he sure did flirt with the idea. He took a road trip across America and kept a (very public) diary about it. He agreed to an interview with The New York Times in which he talked about his vaguely misspent youth as a nanny in New York City. He talked to Oprah.
These have all seemed like the moves of a recently unknown man building a narrative for his coming fame. Today, the former congressman from Texas made his candidacy official. It seems that O’Rourke will now tend to that growing fame by crisscrossing the icy, fallow fields of Iowa.
Since his November 2018 Senate loss to Ted Cruz, O’Rourke has been one of the most-buzzed-about potential candidates in the 2020 Democratic field. That excitement could help propel him to the top of the primary heap, but first he’ll need to prove that he can run — and endure — a national campaign.
O’Rourke, a three-term congressman, only truly captured national attention in the last year or so. He lost to Cruz by less than 3 percentage points, but his campaign was notable for how close he came to winning in deeply Republican Texas. If there’s an elevator pitch for O’Rourke’s presidential candidacy, that’s more or less it: “I came this close to turning Texas blue. Imagine what I could do nationally.”
Where O’Rourke performed well in 2018 in Texas may tell us a lot about who his core base might be in the 2020 primaries: urban Democrats or Democratic-leaners. O’Rourke won big in cities like Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. Not just that, but Texas saw an astounding 3.7 million more votes in 2018 than it did in the midterm elections four years earlier. Lots of that increased enthusiasm showed up in those same urban areas. An analysis by Kirk Goldsberry for FiveThirtyEight found that Harris County, where Houston is located, saw 500,000 more people turn out than had done so in 2014. Dallas County had 300,000 more voters, and the counties that are home to Austin, San Antonio and Fort Worth each saw turnout improve by more than 200,000. O’Rourke outperformed Hillary Clinton by about 6 percentage points in the state.
O’Rourke’s background also may endear him to Latino voters. He is a Spanish-speaker (with a Spanish nickname) who represented a heavily Latino district and who beat out a Latino incumbent to win his first term in Congress. O’Rourke performed well with Latino voters in Texas in 2018, winning 64 percent of their votes (while competing against a Latino Republican candidate), compared with Texas Democrats’ 2014 Senate nominee, who won only 47 percent.
O’Rourke’s national appeal to Democrats might be that he could push progressive boundaries and motivate a minority community without alienating independent white suburban voters. This “woke whiteness” factor — the idea that progressive white men in particular might be able to say and do things that minority candidates couldn’t get away with — certainly seems to be an implicit part of O’Rourke’s appeal.
Another plus for O’Rourke is his fundraising prowess: In 2018, O’Rourke raised around $80 million for his Senate campaign, $37 million of which came from donations of $200 or less. National interest in his campaign led to around $20 million in out-of-state donations.
In some ways, O’Rourke’s fundraising is a proxy for his out-of-nowhere rise to national celebrity. His answer to a question about whether it was disrespectful for NFL players to kneel in protest during the national anthem went viral, and he became a favorite with talk show hosts and journalists, who reached into the simile bag and repeatedly pulled out the same one: O’Rourke looks “like a Kennedy.” In a December poll of likely 2020 Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa, O’Rourke came in third, behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — an astounding indication of the kind of name recognition he has built.
The collective frisson brought on by O’Rourke isn’t just superficial, though. The ability to capture a media narrative and to build social media followings is key in America’s current politics-as-pop-culture moment. That O’Rourke might be able to command as much attention as, say, President Trump did during the 2016 campaign ain’t nothing. And it might well be that his X-factor charm has brought him attention from several high-profile Democrats. Former President Barack Obama met with O’Rourke after the midterms and spoke of him glowingly. “What I liked most about his race was that it didn’t feel constantly poll-tested,” Obama told David Axelrod in a podcast interview. O’Rourke has also received positive attention from former Obama aides of “Pod Save America” fame, which has given him a certain exposure to and credibility with millennial Democrats.
O’Rourke might have had the breakout story of 2018, but it doesn’t mean that his 2020 campaign will be drenched in ambrosia. Although he was a potent, toothy Democratic foil to Cruz, O’Rourke might not be in sync with the prevailing Democratic primary zeitgeist in the end. His brand as a pressed Oxford shirt with a punk past — a white man fronting a diverse progressive movement — could strike a discordant note, especially in a race with so many women and minorities. Women make up 58 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, and black women make up 60 percent of the black vote. Given those numbers, a candidate like, say, Kamala Harris might be who Democratic voters end up going for.
Experience could be another knock against O’Rourke. Many of the top-tier 2020 contenders are senators, while O’Rourke has only served in the House. That matters if we’re letting history be our guide: Only two men have won the presidency from the House, and it hasn’t happened in a while — the lucky congressmen were Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield. So, uh, recent history.
O’Rourke’s pre-politics professional biography is interestingly atypical for presidential candidates as well. Before his time in Congress, O’Rourke served for six years on the El Paso City Council and ran a web design company. He isn’t the typical lawyer-type. That 21st century background, and his the-road-less-traveled life path has become a key part of his campaign’s mythology. O’Rourke is, it should be noted, one of the wealthier members of Congress, ranked as the 97th-richest person in the last Congress by Roll Call.
There’s also the question of whether O’Rourke might have some vetting complications. O’Rourke was arrested and charged with a DWI in 1998, when he was 26 years old, and he acknowledged the incident as early as his first election. But more detailed reporting during the 2018 Senate campaign found police reports that said O’Rourke had hit another car during the incident and, according to one witness, had tried to leave the scene of the crash. (O’Rourke maintains that he never tried to flee.) It’s possible that other incidents from his past or dives into his record might prove to be complicating to his image. As Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal has taught us, campaign vetting and opposition research isn’t always as fulsome as we think it is.
Ultimately, the biggest test for O’Rourke might be whether he can sustain a national campaign. This is, of course, a question for every other candidate, but as a new star, O’Rourke is starting from a blanker slate than candidates who have been building de facto campaign infrastructure and connections for years. There’s also the question of whether O’Rourke has the kind of personality that will take to the presidential campaign trail — his soul-searching road trips and relatively late announcement might speak to some hesitation on the part of a man who has lately been “in and out of a funk.” The presidency has historically been an office for men with an idea of greatness about themselves. Candidates with an excess of introspection might set themselves up for ineffectiveness. Or perhaps the country is in the kind of emotional straits that a self-doubting Thomas figure seems like the right man for the time.
From ABC News:
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