This is the first in a series of stories that will identify the central challenges confronting prominent potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
For a minute, Beto O’Rourke looked like a politician who could win by losing.
In the weeks after his defeat in last year’s Texas Senate race, “Draft Beto” presidential efforts took shape. Early-state Democratic activists pined for visits from the outgoing congressman, whose statewide campaign had electrified liberals across the country. And the comparisons to President Barack Obama spread, as the ex-president himself mentioned O’Rourke approvingly.
But now, as the contours of the Democratic presidential field emerge and O’Rourke faces growing scrutiny, some Democrats say the early excitement is dissipating. Should O’Rourke run for president in 2020, he will face a vastly different environment—not only compared to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, but also compared to his own Senate race.
“He’s kind of a house of cards,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic operative who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “When you’re running against Ted Cruz for Senate, it’s really easy to come out the victor in public opinion.”
In a contest for his party’s nomination, O’Rourke would confront not Cruz—a hero to conservatives, an archvillain to Democrats—but a growing list of credentialed Democratic candidates. Many of O’Rourke’s potential rivals have more experience (Joe Biden), stronger connections to the Democratic Party’s diverse base (Kamala Harris, Cory Booker), and tighter bonds with the party’s increasingly vocal liberal wing (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders) than he does. And many have been organizing in the early states for weeks if not months.
Whether O’Rourke — who as a Senate candidate eschewed a pollster, and for the most part, negative campaigning—could compete with those contenders without losing the energy and authenticity that powered his Senate bid is his central challenge if he runs for president, according to more than a dozen Democratic operatives, activists and strategists from early-voting presidential primary states and Washington D.C.
“Can what worked when people who had given him a strong look because it was Beto versus Ted Cruz, can that same strategy that was in play there work when it’s Beto versus a field of 20 Democrats, who share similar views and include a number of people who are very charismatic?” said former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges. “That’s his challenge.”
As 2020 hopefuls including Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julián Castro, Booker and Harris made their presidential intentions known over the last several weeks, O’Rourke, characteristically, followed a less traditional path: He took a solo road trip and blogged about the people he met along the way.
That’s the kind of everyman accessibility that delighted many O’Rourke fans last cycle, and it’s a rebuke of scripted, consultant-driven politics that draws supporters to him now.
But under the presidential microscope and in comparison with the emerging slate of candidates, O’Rourke—who says he is still deciding whether to pursue a White House bid and declined an interview for this story—has also faced criticism and even ridicule.
There was the Washington Post interview in which the former El Paso congressman struggled to give specific answers to questions about issues like immigration policy. There was the conversation he filmed with his dental hygienist about life on the U.S.-Mexico border, complete with a momentary close-up of his mouth mid-appointment. And there was the time he wrote about his post-campaign angst, sparking incredulity from some observers who said female candidates could never get away with such public ruminations.
“He has so far, in a lot of interviews since the Senate campaign, given pretty unsatisfactory answers around core issues, even talking about things he should probably be an expert on,” Morales Rocketto said. “I’ve been pretty unimpressed with him so far.”
It’s not that there is vigorous Beto backlash, though some progressives have increasingly expressed concerns over what they see as a too-centrist record in the House.
But with so many other likely candidates parading through early states and actively conducting outreach, he simply isn’t top of mind, right now, with many activists—or with some potential staffers: A number of Democrats who had explored the possibility of a role with O’Rourke have since joined other campaigns.
“I haven’t really heard much in the way of events or anything else here on the ground,” said Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley, vice chair of the Des Moines School Board and a sought-after activist, who said in a phone call last week that she had met former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper the previous day and was headed to watch the CNN town hall with Harris.
“He is not a familiar face or name,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, South Carolina’s longest-serving African-American state House member ever. “That’s certainly something that could be rectified with a bit of effort.”
Indeed, the Iowa caucuses are about a year away, and O’Rourke’s allies insist there is plenty of time for him to make a decision—and for minor controversies of the last month to blow over. O’Rourke has already demonstrated fundraising prowess, setting a record-breaking haul of more than $38 million in a quarter, and he still has star power and a proven ability to create viral moments, a major advantage on a debate stage. Should he enter, he would immediately be considered a serious candidate—one who has caught the attention of some of President Donald Trump’s advisers, according to The New York Times.
The next big opportunity for O’Rourke to indicate his intentions comes on Tuesday, when he is slated to appear with television star Oprah Winfrey in New York, a moment that will be closely watched by supporters looking for clues as to whether he’s leaning toward a run.
A former senior O’Rourke staffer who remains in his orbit, and spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to get ahead of O’Rourke, said, “I would expect her to ask him what his plans are. That in itself would be news.”
Even if O’Rourke does signal interest in running for president, operatives hoping that he would then sanction some of the traditional campaign mechanics that he ignored last time may be disappointed.
“I don’t think he would,” the O’Rourke source said when asked if O’Rourke would engage a pollster for a presidential campaign, though added later that he “hasn’t sworn them off.” “I doubt he’d hire consultants. Whether he should is a different question...he much rather would just go to people, hold a dozen town halls in a day or a weekend and get to know what people are thinking about the issues there. People will tell you if you’re not talking about something they want to hear about, or talking about it the wrong way. “
That attitude gives some Democratic strategists pause. O’Rourke’s overall strategy ultimately didn’t work against Cruz, even if he got closer to defeating an incumbent Republican senator in Texas than any other Democrat has in 40 years. They wonder how that heavily grassroots-focused approach would scale up to a national campaign, when opponents could run daily tracking polls and have an advantage simply because they have more information accessible.
“His operation has always been by using ‘the Force,’” said a senior national Democratic operative who has followed O’Rourke’s career closely, making a Star Wars reference. “Using ‘the Force’ is not going to get it done in a presidential race.”
The Democratic operative added: “I’m not saying you need a strict hierarchy. You do need someone calling the shots. It can’t just be you and a movement.”
O’Rourke’s Senate campaign was still data-driven, his former staffer argued, pointing to the information gleaned from tactics like text messaging campaigns, phone banking, and their aggressive field program (“he’s not anti-data, he’s anti-pollster.”). But the idea of staffing up with pollsters and other consultants still rubs O’Rourke the wrong way (certainly, sometimes a non-traditional presidential campaign can succeed, too. Just ask Trump, who at a tactical level ignored much of the basic blocking and tackling typical of professional campaigns).
“It’s not how he thinks politics should be done. That could potentially be a challenge,” the O’Rourke source said.
But that’s also the whole point, and it’s partially what earned O’Rourke praise from Obama.
“The way he ran his campaign is the reason why we’re talking about him potentially running for president,” the former staffer said. “It launched him to the national stage because people were so inspired by it, they liked they way he ran it, that he went everywhere and was positive, civil, respectful.”
At the moment, however, it’s the other contenders who seem to be everywhere, at least in the early-voting states. That includes Harris, an African-American senator who was recently in South Carolina with fellow members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. —a sorority that was founded at Howard University, her historically black alma mater.
No community is monolithic, and in a match-up against Cruz, O’Rourke (who first won the Senate Democratic primary) posted strong numbers with a diverse array of constituencies.
But national Democratic strategists privately note that the candidates who were most successful in Democratic primaries in 2018 were predominantly women, and often people of color, dynamics that could complicate O’Rourke’s ability to connect this time around, even as racism and sexism could also work against many of his potential opponents.
“What you look like, where you come from—I think your demos are going to play a much larger role in this presidential than any other,” said another senior Democratic strategist who was heavily involved in the midterms. “There’s no way they can’t, with the most diverse crop of candidates we’ve ever had.”
The O’Rourke source pointed to the ex-congressman’s ability to speak Spanish fluently, his passionate advocacy for issues like criminal justice reform and frequent presence in communities of color during the Senate campaign, and the fact that he has survived a rough Democratic primary before. He defeated Rep. Silvestre Reyes, once the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in a shock upset in 2012.
“He’s the only candidate in the field that gets me fired up, gets me off my ass to go work on a campaign, something I thought I’d hung my cleats up on,” said Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina state legislator and a senior national adviser to an independent Draft Beto effort that is especially focused on South Carolina, California and Nevada (there is also the heavily grassroots-focused group Draft Beto 2020, which has been more active in Iowa and New Hampshire. The two groups have loosely discussed divvying up their geographic focuses accordingly).
“We can’t beat a candidate who fills arenas with a no-name governor from the middle of nowhere, or someone with no name ID,” he continued.
As O’Rourke makes up his mind, his supporters are readying infrastructure should he jump in. Between the two draft efforts, there are house parties and fundraising appeals, video campaigns, nascent student group mobilizations and attempts to keep Democratic influencers from joining other teams until O’Rourke reaches a decision.
“He offers up that Obama-type message of hope, and taking the high road, and that’s just so sort of unique in this day and age,” said Tyler Jones, the South Carolina state director of Draft Beto, who works closely with Brown. “He’s got something nobody else has. But he’s still going to have to stand out. I think that’s his biggest challenge.”