On Tuesday, Beto O’Rourke ventured to New York City to answer questions from one of America’s foremost and beloved question-askers: Oprah Winfrey, who had him—along with Michael B. Jordan, Bradley Cooper, Melinda Gates, and Time’s Up president Lisa Borders—on stage as part of her “SuperSoul Sessions” series. The full interview will run in mid-February on the mogul’s OWN Network and appear as a podcast later in the year—but unlike a chat with a movie star or philanthropist, the answers O’Rourke had to give are a bit more timely.
They’re timely because the Democratic primary field for the 2020 presidential race is filling up, and the question that’s been on the minds of people likely to vote in that race since O’Rourke catapulted to unlikely national stardom in the fall of 2018, during his close race against Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate, is whether he will be in it.
O’Rourke stopped short of answering that question with a definitive yes or no at Manhattan’s PlayStation Theater, but he explored the topic much more fully, with more direct answers, than he’s ever given before. Yes, he’s thinking about it. When asked if he was “leaning toward” the decision, he told Winfrey that he was. Expounding on it further, he said he was “so excited at the prospect of being able to play that role,” and told her that the decision—as he’s said since his bid to unseat Cruz ended in a defeat that seemed closer than anyone might have guessed a year earlier—came down to his family, and the three young kids that his wife has had to take primary care of while he’s been in government.
Winfrey seems excited at the prospect of O’Rourke entering the race. As a response to his hesitation, she pointed out that Obama, who raised the same concerns, got to spend more time with his children after winning the presidency than he did when he was in the Senate—being a full-time resident of the White House is easier than commuting between Washington, D.C. and El Paso, after all—and urged Amy O’Rourke to give her husband her blessing to run.
Those expecting O’Rourke to declare his candidacy during his conversation with Winfrey were probably expecting too much. Presidential campaigns are rolled out carefully—witness the way that frontrunners in the current Democratic field like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris managed their announcements—and announcing at an event that won’t be televised for nearly another two weeks would have been a bizarre tactical move, even for someone like O’Rourke, who prides himself on eschewing political consultants. Still, he did offer something concrete to Winfrey and others who want to see him enter the race—he told her that the decision would be coming before the end of the month.
That’s important. As Texas Monthly‘s Eric Benson noted this morning, the longer O’Rourke hangs out in limbo, the more of a ripple effect that has on other Texas politicians trying to decide what roles they want to play in 2020—especially for those who might be considering a run for the Senate seat currently held by John Cornyn and who don’t want to find themselves competing with a politician as beloved by Texans in the Democratic party as O’Rourke is, should he attempt to enter the national fray through a second run at the Upper Chamber. If O’Rourke declares for president, that question will be answered, and any Texas Democrat who wants to try to make gains on O’Rourke’s showing last November will have a much better sense of what the field looks like.
As for O’Rourke’s prospects in a presidential primary, there are already observers wondering if he’s missed his window. It’s still early—Donald Trump didn’t declare himself a candidate for the 2016 GOP nomination until June 2015, nearly three months after the first candidates started getting in the race—but the strong Democratic field has already seen supporters line up behind candidates like Warren and Harris, and O’Rourke lacks the name recognition and built-in base of other as-yet-undeclared potential candidates like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. It’s possible that O’Rourke, by playing hard to get, has dampened the national enthusiasm that accompanied his Senate bid. But then it’s also possible that a lot of supporters have just been waiting for him to make a move. When it comes to figuring out what Americans want, after all, watching to see what Oprah’s excited about has rarely been the wrong move.