Beto O’Rourke, the three-term congressman from El Paso trying to unseat Texas Senator Ted Cruz in next month’s midterms, may be the Democrats’ biggest rising star since Barack Obama. Over the last few months, he has gone viral in defending NFL players’ right to protest during the national anthem and air-drumming to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” He has broken fundraising records, raking in $38 million for his campaign against Cruz in only three months. Just about every national publication has devoted page upon page to profiling his quixotic quest to turn Texas—Texas!—blue. He even skateboarded on stage without looking like a complete dork.
But with just over two weeks to go until the election, O’Rourke’s momentum seems to have fizzled—in Texas, at least. After appearing to be within spitting distance (in a few polls, at least) earlier in the campaign, O’Rourke has consistently trailed Cruz by between seven and ten points in recent days. That outperforms Cruz’s last opponent, then-Congressman Paul Sadler, who lost by 16 points in 2012, but not by as much as you would expect, given O’Rourke’s fame.
But in recent weeks, it’s become increasingly clear that O’Rourke has a back-up plan: the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. From his discussions about “inspiration” and American greatness to his fierce rhetoric on climate change, O’Rourke is aiming at a national audience. While he’s certainly to the right of, say Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he’s unabashedly liberal in a state where Democrats are typically conservative. O’Rourke—much like, it should be said, Cruz—is running for two races simultaneously, senator and president.
O’Rourke’s national appeal was to an extent strategic and to an extent inevitable. It was strategic insofar as Texas is a very large state and therefore a very expensive one in which to run a statewide election. Democrats have lacked the stomach to invest heavily in smaller states they dream of converting, like Georgia, because so much of the political infrastructure candidates need has to be built from scratch. Given Texas’ size and population, even if that infrastructure did exist, it would be expensive to run a competitive race in the state. But nationwide appeal means O’Rourke (like Cruz) has done very well from out-of-state donors (though it’s unclear how well).
At the same time, O’Rourke can thank his opponent for much of the prominence he’s gained over the last several months. Democrats have been dreaming of winning back Texas for decades, and O’Rourke is their best chance in a while. Cruz is not only one of the most prominent Republicans in America, but one of the most reviled men in politics. Given his prominence, his complicated relationship with Trump, and the threat of a “blue wave” in the November elections, Cruz was always going to attract a certain level of attention. The national media loves an upset, and O’Rourke unseating Cruz would be an even bigger shock than Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise defeat of establishment Democrat Joe Crowley. The national media also loves hip, handsome politicians, and O’Rourke’s boyish charm and optimism is all the more appealing when the foil is Cruz, “the Skeletor of American politics,” as Jack Shafer argued earlier this month (even if Cruz is just a year older).
With O’Rourke now a distinct long shot, the media has moved on to wondering if he will be a presidential candidate. In August, Vanity Fair said that O’Rourke’s campaign was a lot like being in Iowa with Obama in 2007. This is an act of journalistic hedging—it doesn’t make sense to deploy resources to extensively cover a guy who’s going to lose by ten points, but it does if he can be construed as a potential 2020 frontrunner. But O’Rourke has, particularly down the stretch, run a campaign as if his next stops were Iowa and New Hampshire, rather than the Senate. At his recent debate against Cruz, O’Rourke pontificated about “walls, Muslim bans, the press as the enemies of the people, taking kids away from their parents” and America’s place in the world. These are things that matter in Texas more than many other places, to be sure. But this is also what one expects to hear at state fairs and town halls in states with early primaries and caucuses.
O’Rourke has downplayed the 2020 talk, saying that his focus on national issues (and the president) is just him keeping it real—something that Democrats in Texas just don’t do. “Democrats in Texas have been losing statewide elections for Senate for 30 years,” he told Vanity Fair in August. “So you can keep doing the same things, talk to the same consultants, run the same polls, focus-group drive the message. Or you can run like you’ve got nothing to lose. That’s what my wife, Amy, and I decided at the outset. What do we have to lose? Let’s do this the right way, the way that feels good to us. We don’t have a pollster. Let’s talk about the things that are important to us, regardless of how they poll. Let’s not even know how they poll.” Of course, running on authenticity is exactly how a consultant would tell you to run against the ever-calculating Cruz.
If O’Rourke’s bid somehow succeeds, he would immediately become a frontrunner—maybe, with the possibility of a blue Texas, the frontrunner. (The polls says he’s also a top ten contender.) But O’Rourke’s fate, two weeks out, seems close to sealed: Even $38 million only goes so far. It’s also unlikely that if O’Rourke gets walloped, he’ll be able to carry the same swagger into Iowa and New Hampshire. Missouri’s Jason Kander won over a lot of nationwide Democrats with his losing Senate bid in 2016. He’s been able to parlay that into a national profile, but isn’t exactly being whispered about as a presidential candidate.
But however this plays out, O’Rourke has already accomplished a lot: He has shown Democrats how to run brave, uncompromised campaigns in the Trump era. As The Ringer’s Justin Charity wrote earlier this week, O’Rourke’s supporters “have come to regard his campaign as a quixotic candidacy: doomed but nonetheless hopeful, if only because O’Rourke has run so shamelessly through Texas as a true-blue liberal.” This is what the Democratic base wants out of the 2020 primary—especially with well-heeled centrists like Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz kicking the tires. And O’Rourke isn’t just running the kind of campaign Democrats in Texas want to see. He’s running the kind of campaign Democrats around the country want to see.