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The Beto O’Rourke 2020 buzz, explained

Hey, losing a high-profile Senate race was good enough for Abraham Lincoln.

Beto O’Rourke waves to a crowd from onstage with his wife Amy Sanders.
Senate candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and his wife Amy Sanders says goodbye to supporters while addressing a party on Election Day on November 6, 2018, in El Paso, Texas. O’Rourke lost to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beto O’Rourke for president?

Had he pulled off a stunning upset and unseated Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) earlier this month, the speculation would have been both unavoidable and warranted. In defeat, by contrast, it seems vaguely absurd. But that didn’t stop David Siders from floating the idea in Politico. And, perhaps more importantly, it didn’t stop Siders’s article from drifting to the top of the site’s most-read list.

Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar — O’Rourke’s successor in the House district that includes El Paso — says he should run, as does comedian Jim Carrey and one major Texas bundler Siders quotes.

Those three, plus Alyssa Milano’s tweet, are basically all the ingredients for a successful presidential campaign.

Well, okay, the ingredients aren’t necessarily in place in a traditional sense. But politics is changing. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) 2016 protest campaign ended up changing the ideological trajectory of the Democratic Party, and Donald Trump got himself elected president.

It didn’t really make sense, in a traditional analysis, for a little-known House member from El Paso to run for Senate in Texas, and it certainly didn’t make sense for small donors to pour huge sums of money into a long-shot Senate campaign.

But pour the money they did, and while O’Rourke lost, the Texas Democratic Party made enough gains down the ballot that most of the people who pitched in seem to feel pretty good about themselves. And they feel good about Beto, a candidate who inspires an unusual degree of enthusiasm among the Democratic Party faithful.

The template would, obviously, be Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, in which a young, good-looking, charismatic politician known for his compelling speeches and pretty blah normal Democratic Party ideology set aside questions about what he’d actually accomplished as a senator and set his sights on the White House. Except O’Rourke doesn’t even have modest senatorial achievements to inflate because he’s not a senator at all. Which makes the whole thing vaguely ridiculous.

Except, again, the fact that it doesn’t quite seem totally ridiculous tells us a lot about the state of politics as we enter the 2020 presidential cycle. It’s a moment when it seems like anything is possible, but where Democrats are frustrated by the simultaneous emergence of a huge field of potential candidates and the absence of a true political superstar.

Democrats’ wide but shallow field

Heading into 2020, the basic issue is that Democrats don’t have a strong, Hillary Clinton-esque frontrunner whose presence defines and structures the race.

Normally, someone like runner-up Sanders or former Vice President Joe Biden might fill that role, but for a whole variety of reasons, old white men are not incredibly in fashion at the moment in Democratic Party circles, so neither of them dominates. That creates an opening in which a wide range of vaguely plausible senators and governors can reasonably ask themselves, “Why not me?” which in turn sets off a cascading series of calculations.

It’s essentially impossible to imagine an outsider candidate like attorney Michael Avenatti triumphing one on one against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), but in a field that has her and Sens. Kamala Harris (CA) and Cory Booker (NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Sanders and former VP Biden and maybe more, anything is at least possible.

And the more plausible an implausible-sounding campaign becomes, the bigger the prospective field gets. The bigger the prospect field gets, the more plausible it sounds for more hats to be thrown in the ring.

Under ordinary circumstances, the idea of Rep. Eric Swalwell (CA) running for president would be absurd. But Swalwell is using his position on the House Intelligence Committee to talk about media-friendly issues like Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination in Saudi Arabia and Russian hacking, so who knows — anything’s possible.

The somewhat peculiar outcome of the 2018 midterms gives a further boost to Beto speculation.

On the one hand, Democrats did quite well overall, beating the GOP nationally by about 8 points. In reality, the 2018 outcome doesn’t tell us much about 2020, but it’s left many Democrats feeling very optimistic about beating Trump.

At the same time, the three Democratic midterm candidates who were the subject of most national media attention — O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum in Florida — all lost. Winning candidates like Tony Evers, Michelle Lujan Grisham, and Gretchen Whitmer (the governors-elect of Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Michigan, respectively) didn’t get nearly as much attention before the election and thus don’t have the level of rising-star buzz that the objective facts would ordinarily warrant.

The general sense in national circles, meanwhile, is that O’Rourke ran a strong campaign. Coming close to winning a statewide election in Texas is an impressive political achievement for a Democrat in a way that narrowly losing in Florida is not.

Democrats did about average in Texas

Beto-mania might be somewhat tempered by a more sober assessment of what actually happened in Texas.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost Texas by 9 points even while winning the national popular vote by 2. In other words, she ran about 11 points behind her national average in the Lone Star State.

Flash forward to 2018, and House Democrats won the national popular vote by 8 points while O’Rourke lost Texas by 3. In other words, he ran about 11 points behind the national average Democrat.

Both of these results were very different from 2012, when Obama lost Texas by 16 points while winning the national popular vote by 4. Texas went from being about 20 points more Republican than the country as a whole in the Obama era to 10 to 11 points in the Trump era. This happened as the suburbs of big Southern cities like Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta started to vote more like the suburbs of big Northern cities.

In 2016, that effect was largely limited to the presidential race. But by 2018, everything was Trumpified, and consequently Texas Democrats did relatively well all up and down the ballot.

O’Rourke lost by 3, but so did Justin Nelson in the Texas race for state attorney general. Democrats picked up a bunch of seats in the Texas state legislature, swept a bunch of judicial elections, and picked up a House seat in the Dallas suburbs and another in the Houston suburbs.

One could credit this to O’Rourke’s showing at the top of the ticket. But Democrats also won House seats in the suburbs of Atlanta and Oklahoma City (to say nothing of Chicago, Minneapolis, and Orange County). So while the Texas election results were certainly noteworthy — a lot of people live in Texas, after all — it’s far from clear that anything genuinely unusual happened there.

That said, O’Rourke clearly captured people’s imagination. Charisma is difficult to define but easy to see when it’s present. Virtually nobody knew who Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was until she won her New York primary against Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley, but she’s been a star ever since.

O’Rourke, similarly, was unknown not just nationally but statewide until he started running. (El Paso is hundreds of miles away from Texas’s main population centers.) But by the end of the race, he was attracting huge crowds to rallies and shattering grassroots fundraising records.

And part of charisma is that people tend to judge you generously. A lot of people were inspired to pitch in on O’Rourke’s campaign, his campaign did unusually well for a Democratic campaign in Texas, and Democrats generally did well in Texas. Maybe he’s a political genius?

The case for Beto 2020

Even if you don’t think O’Rourke is a political genius, you have to admit that as long as you ignore the fact that he’s a former House member who just lost a Senate race, it’s actually a pretty compelling proposition.

One big thing O’Rourke has going for him as a nominee is that he’s very ideologically generic. He didn’t tack to the center to try to win in Texas, and he has solid and normal Democrat position on basically every issue. At the same time, he’s not a self-identified “socialist” or anything too weird.

He’s a candidate that people who are proud to be Democrats — i.e., most Democratic Party primary voters — can be proud of. But he’s also not an “insider” or part of the “establishment.” He won his House seat thanks to a primary challenge to an entrenched incumbent, he was never in congressional leadership, his campaign eschewed corporate PAC money, and he has appealing normal-person interests like music and skateboarding.

Meanwhile, precisely because he lost his race, there’s nothing stopping him from getting on the next flight to Iowa, while Grisham and Whitmer have to do boring things like govern their states.

Can a former House member who’s known nationally for having lost a high-profile Senate race really be elected president? Almost certainly not. But it was good enough for Abraham Lincoln. So why not Beto O’Rourke?