Beto O'Rourke has emerged as a wild card as the Democratic Party lacks a clear 2020 front-runner.
The 2020 Democratic presidential primary, already expected to be the party’s most wide open in decades, has been jostled on the eve of many long-plotted campaign announcements by a political threat that few contenders bothered considering until recently:
Will a soon-to-be-former congressman, with an unremarkable legislative record and a Senate campaign loss, upend their best-laid plans?
Beto O’Rourke of Texas has emerged as the wild card of the presidential campaign-in-waiting for a Democratic Party that lacks a clear 2020 front-runner.
After a star-making turn in his close race against Senator Ted Cruz, O’Rourke is increasingly serious about a 2020 run — a development that is rousing activists in early-voting states, leading veterans of former President Barack Obama’s political operation (and Obama himself) to offer their counsel and hampering would-be rivals who are scrambling to lock down influential supporters and strategists as future campaign staff.
Advisers to other prospective Democratic candidates for 2020 acknowledge that O’Rourke is worthy of their concern.
His record-setting success with small donors would test the grassroots strength of progressives like Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
His sometimes saccharine call to summon the nation’s better angels would compete with the likely pitch of Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.
And his appeal to some former Obama advisers — and, potentially, his electoral coalition of young people, women and often infrequent voters — could complicate a possible run for former Vice President Joe Biden, who would aim to win back many of his former boss’ constituencies.
O’Rourke would surely have vulnerabilities in a primary, including an absence of signature policy feats or a centerpiece issue to date.
In his Senate race, he was often disinclined to go negative, frustrating some Democrats who believe he wasted a chance to defeat Cruz, and he struggled at times in some traditional formats like televised debates.
He is, by admission and design, not the political brawler some Democrats might crave against a president they loathe.
And his candidacy would not be history-making like Obama’s nor many of his likely peers’ in the field, in an election when many activists may want a female or non-white nominee.
But the fact that O’Rourke is even considering a run speaks to uncertainty in the Democratic Party, as broad and simmering opposition to President Donald Trump is colliding with crosscurrents of gender, race, ideology and age within its ranks.
Array of supporters
With the unceremonious exit of the Clintons, Obama’s minimal appetite for party politics and the regret in some quarters about the 2016 primary coronation of Hillary Clinton, there are no obvious kingmakers in the party, nor many early calls for establishment intervention in the 2020 primary.
As its House-flipping midterm formula made clear, the party now absorbs an array of voters, from ardent socialists to disaffected Republicans, across generational and ideological lines.
And given that some three dozen Democrats are considering presidential campaigns, the primary field could end up so crowded that the vote gets diluted — a phenomenon that helped Trump edge ahead of the large Republican pack in 2016.
As he and a small team of aides weigh the merits of a campaign, O’Rourke, 46, has focused largely on whether he could run the kind of race he did in Texas — barnstorming towns with a liberal message and a perpetual social media livestream, talking up his disdain for pollsters and super PACs and staking his bid on a personal connection with voters as much as any issue platform.
There are several questions O’Rourke is considering aloud, a person close to him said: Could he build a full-scale national campaign without losing the down-home feel that powered his Senate bid, when fans tracked his 254-county tour of Texas (down to the four-hour drives and late-night burger runs) on a near-constant video feed? Would a hope-and-change chorus find an audience in a primary with other Democrats — and without an easy Republican foil like Cruz?
A king's welcome
Yet O’Rourke also plainly recognises two truths about politics in the age of Trump: Traditional qualifications to lead the country do not necessarily matter much, particularly if a candidate can channel the kind of enthusiasm that O’Rourke earned in a news media environment that prizes viral moments. And politicians rarely get shinier over time; his best shot at the White House, if recent history is a guide, may be this one.
“Democrats fall in love,” said Gene Martin, a local Democratic chairman in New Hampshire, describing a “pause” in 2020 staffing activity in the state while O’Rourke makes up his mind. “He would get a king’s welcome.”
At the same time, O’Rourke’s flirtation is dividing some liberals who wonder if a white man with his résumé and biography is the best fit for this moment, just after the party recaptured the House, in large measure, on the strength of female and non-white candidates.
“What is it with a party that gets excited about a guy who loses but tries to undercut somebody who wins?” said Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, describing the opposition among some Democrats to Nancy Pelosi’s continued leadership in the House, despite her presiding over a midterm wave. “Our party is emotional.”
In public, O’Rourke, who declined to be interviewed, has said only that he is not ruling anything out.
In private, O’Rourke is doing little to discourage his suitors. When one well-connected Democrat asked O’Rourke what to tell operatives who hope to work for him, the congressman said to have them contact him on his mobile phone, according to a party official directly familiar with the exchange.
In recent weeks, O’Rourke has spoken with a leading Democratic fundraiser about the financial demands of a presidential bid.
He met with Obama shortly after the midterms, as The Washington Post first reported.
Obama told O’Rourke he was impressed with the congressman’s show-up-everywhere Senate run, according to a person familiar with the conversation. The former president has publicly compared this approach to his own.
O’Rourke’s camp has also been in contact with several members of the extended Obama orbit, and the congressman’s chief of staff and de facto chief strategist, David Wysong, has reached out to a variety of Democratic consultants to ask about how to organise a run.
From his Senate race, O’Rourke has also already built a 50-state list of supporters that could form the foundation of a sprawling volunteer network.
The chief obstacle to a run, according to the person close to O’Rourke, is family considerations, after two years of taxing travel across his home state. He lives in El Paso with his wife, Amy, and three school-age children.
O’Rourke, who received broadly positive news coverage as an underdog candidate in 2018, would also face far deeper scrutiny in a national field, renewing attention on episodes like a drunken driving arrest in his 20s, during which he attempted to leave the scene, according to a witness who spoke to police at the time. (O’Rourke has denied trying to flee.)
Perhaps more significant to his chances, the ascendant role of non-white voters in the party, paired with the backlash to Trump’s weaponising of race and gender, has raised doubts among some Democrats that a white male candidate can win the nomination.
And the mere fact that O’Rourke, and not Stacey Abrams or Andrew Gillum, is the near miss candidate of 2018 who is being beckoned most forcefully toward the White House has bothered some Democrats.
They note that Abrams and Gillum came closer to winning their races for governor in Georgia and Florida than O’Rourke did in his Senate bid.
“Why Beto and not the other two?” asked Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina legislator. “I think Andrew and Stacey are equally talented.”
Sellers questioned whether O’Rourke could prevail in a nomination contest that will turn heavily on black voters in the South.
“I look forward to welcoming Beto to the Brookland Baptist Church,” he said, alluding to a historically black church near Columbia, South Carolina. “I would love to be there to see if he can clap on beat.”
If nothing else, Sellers suggested, the debate over a white man’s viability in today’s Democratic Party is a sign of the times.
“We’ve gone from people not believing Barack Obama can get the nomination, let alone win the presidency, because a black guy can’t win,” Sellers said, “to the fact that it’s going to be hard for Beto O’Rourke of El Paso to win.”