It seemed like this news has been hanging out there since January, just waiting for Beto O’Rourke to pull the trigger on a 2020 Presidential campaign. In the past two weeks, we learned that Beto had decided to pass on a Senate challenge against Republican John Cornyn, which practically assured he had made a decision to seek the 2020 Democratic nomination in a challenge against President Trump.
The field continues to crowd for Democrats, with each lane starting to fill up. Beto (the name he prefers to be called by) will be fighting somewhere in progressive territory against Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, carefully weaving an image of center-left-progressive.
Here’s the announcement video via his official Twitter account:
I am running to serve you as the next president. The challenges we face are the greatest in living memory. No one person can meet them on their own. Only this country can do that, and only if we build a movement that includes all of us. Say you're in: https://t.co/EKLdkVET2u pic.twitter.com/lainXyvG2n
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) March 14, 2019
FiveThirtyEight breaks down O’Rourke’s chances and looks at the challenges he can expect to encounter as he jets off on this journey:
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.
Beto did well in Texas, he was as good a shot as Democrats have had in decades to unseat a sitting Republican Senator, but fell just short. Will his brand translate to the national stage? His fundraising numbers are fantastic, he knows how to woo donors and get people to open their checkbooks, but money will only take you so far, just ask Hillary Clinton.
Beto does have many positive attributes to tout as a candidate despite his challenges:
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.
Motivating minorities and pushing progressive boundaries without alienating moderate and independent suburban voters is easier said than done, but it can be done. Just look at Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns where he did exactly that. It takes the right kind of candidate with the right kind of messaging, background, and ability to deliver the message to make it happen. Whether Beto can follow Obama’s path is another question, but there is certainly a precedent.
In fact, to continue with the Obama parallels, Beto has raised some big celebrity eyebrows, and sometimes that’s what is necessary to build and grow a national profile, as the Associated Press reports:
The sports and entertainment world already had its eye on O’Rourke during the Senate campaign: NBA star LeBron James wore an O’Rourke hat after video of the Texan defending NFL players’ right to protest during the national anthem went viral. Beyonce, a Houston native, endorsed O’Rourke.
And he was the only presidential prospect interviewed in February by Oprah Winfrey, who appeared genuinely excited about the prospect of an O’Rourke White House run. [Emphasis added]
Never underestimate the Oprah effect in pushing a candidate. President Obama rode the same Oprah wave in 2008 which helped him push past the Clinton machine in difficult primary states. FiveThirtyEight noted above that Beto lacks experience, but does that matter? Democrats will have a choice between experience, in candidates like Joe Biden, and an entirely fresh face, in candidates like Beto.
He’s got no worse a shot that just about everyone else in the field, and no reason to sit on the sidelines and let his time in the spotlight pass him by.
After all, even if he falls short of the nomination, he would absolutely be on the shortlist for a Vice Presidential pick regardless of which candidate wins the nomination.