Beto O’Rourke’s Shaky Case For A Presidential Run

Oscar Kim Bauman, Scarlet Staff

 Last November, I was all in for Beto O’Rourke. That is, Beto O’Rourke for Senate. As Democratic fervor over the chance of a “Blue Wave” midterm election rose, I found myself excited for many of the candidates running to unseat pro-Trump congressional Republicans, of which O’Rourke was perhaps the most prominent.

As he fought to win a nail-biting race against the profoundly unlikable Ted Cruz, the relative magnetic charisma of O’Rourke made him a sort of Democratic folk hero. Even after his narrow loss to Cruz, the former El Paso congressman remained highly popular among Democratic voters.

Five months later, O’Rourke hopes to transform that popularity into a bid to unseat President Trump in the 2020 presidential election. However, the new context of the 2020 Democratic primaries makes O’Rourke a far less appealing choice than he was in the Texas Senate race.

           O’Rourke’s quality as a political candidate, or for that matter, that of anyone running for higher office, must be viewed in context of their competition. While O’Rourke did in fact face primary challengers in the 2018 Senate race, progressive activist Sema Hernandez and businessman Edward Kimbrough, his campaign was not the focus of national attention until his position as the Democratic candidate for the Texas Senate was already secured.

Thus, the only competition for O’Rourke was the highly conservative Cruz, presenting O’Rourke as the clear choice for all Democratic voters, from moderate liberals to socialists.

Of course, O’Rourke’s candidacy was boosted by his personal qualities: his compelling public speaking ability, his charming affect, and his laid-back nature, all of which helped to further differentiate him from the more awkward, less likable Cruz, already branded “Lyin’ Ted” by the president.

Going into the 2020 primary, O’Rourke still has all of these positive attributes on his side, making him a strong campaigner, and the recency of his campaign against Cruz gives him name recognition higher than many of his Democratic primary competitors.

However, O’Rourke’s credentials look far less strong when compared to his primary competitors, making him a much less certain choice for many Democrats. While O’Rourke was clearly more progressive than Cruz, he falls closer to the political center among the field of highly progressive candidates seeking the Democratic nomination.

Several of the Democratic frontrunners, including Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, have backed a single-payer universal healthcare plan, known as Medicare for All. While O’Rourke praised Sanders’ Medicare for All bill during his campaign against Cruz, he has since changed his position, moving to instead back a more moderate proposal known as Medicare for America, which would expand Medicare, without eliminating private insurers.

Climate change is another issue which looks to be central to the 2020 campaign, with many candidates backing the Green New Deal’s proposals to move towards renewable energy and away from oil and gas. One candidate, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, has even centered his campaign around combating climate change.

O’Rourke again has a more mixed record on this crucial issue. During his 2018 Senate campaign, he signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge; a promise to not take donations exceeding $200 from fossil fuel industry PACs or individuals in the industry.

However, publicly available data from Open Secrets reveals that O’Rourke’s campaign ended up raising $430,000 from the fossil fuel industry, 75% of which was made up of donations over $200, and included large donations from 24 oil executives.

Looking beyond these specific issues, O’Rourke lacks a broader policy vision. While he has endorsed progressive positions, he has declined to identify himself as progressive, telling Politico “I’m not big on labels.” One of O’Rourke’s first endorsements was from Representative Stephanie Murphy, the co-chair of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition.

In the end, it is difficult to see what position O’Rourke fills in the Democratic primaries that isn’t already occupied. If voters are looking for an innovative policy-driven progressive, they have Warren and Sanders. If they seek a pragmatic centrist from a non-coastal state, they could vote for former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper or Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.

If voters want a younger man, a compelling campaigner who could have the star power of a young Obama, they could back New Jersey Senator Cory Booker or South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigeig. Even if voters are specifically looking for a Texan in his mid-40s with a track record of both progressive and moderate policy, they could support former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

In short, O’Rourke’s vague, ill-defined vision leaves his candidacy without a compelling reason to exist. Any of the qualities which he can be said to embody may be found in other Democratic candidates, all of whom present more coherent, specific policy platforms.

While O’Rourke was far and away the best candidate for last year’s Senate race in Texas, he needs to make a stronger case before he can be considered a strong option in the Democratic presidential primary.