Congressman Beto O’Rourke has risen to superstar status. He is now widely known by a single name—Beto—like Prince, or Cher, or Elvis. Enthused by Beto’s near miss against Cruz, Democrats in Texas and around the country are urging Beto to run for president in 2020, egged on by a news media hungry for ratings, sales, and social media clicks. Beto’s media presence is even eclipsing the one Texan poised to seek the Democratic presidential nomination: former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. Along with his congressman brother, Joaquin, Julian Castro not so long ago was touted as the youthful Hispanic future of Texas. Who better to lead the state’s Democrats out of the Republican wilderness of the past two decades than one of the Castro brothers? But in the afterglow of this year’s election, “The Castro Brothers” sounds more like a reality TV show about flipping houses than about flipping the partisan tilt of Texas. Beto now is the guy who can fill the arena.
During the election, Beto was adamant that he would not run for president. If he lost the Senate race, he said, he just wanted to go home and spend time with Amy and his children Ulysses, Molly, and Henry. Any decision on challenging Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn in 2020 would also have to wait. Then this week Beto cracked the door on a possible presidential run by no longer ruling it out.
When I first started contemplating this article, my idea was that if Beto wanted to help the Democrats retake the White House, he probably would better serve his party by running for Senate against Cornyn to put Texas into play. Texas has not gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976. In no small part, that’s because national Democrats have refused to spend money on Texas. If Texas with its 38 Electoral College votes had gone for Hillary Clinton in 2016, she would have won the presidency just with the states she actually carried. Her campaign spent $100,000 in Texas. On the other hand, Beto raised $70 million for his Senate race against Cruz. A viable Democrat challenging Cornyn easily could put the state’s electoral votes into the kill zone for a dynamic Democratic presidential candidate.
Then I thought: Why doesn’t Beto run for both the presidency AND the U.S. Senate?
Beto could do it under a provision known as the LBJ Law. (Sec. 141.033 of the Texas Election Code for the Legal Eagles amongst you.) The law was passed to give then-U.S. Senator Lyndon Johnson the opportunity to run for re-election at the same time he ran for the presidency in 1960. Had the Texas Legislature not enacted the law, LBJ would have had to choose to run for one office or the other since in Texas a person is only allowed to run for one office at a time. But the LBJ Law makes an exception if the second office being sought is president or vice president. LBJ lost the top race to John F. Kennedy, but won re-election to the Senate, a job he gave up for the vice presidency. Democratic U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen used the provision to seek re-election while running as Michael Dukakis’s running mate in 1988. The fact Dukakis only received 43 percent of the Texas vote in his unsuccessful presidential run did not stop Bentsen from raking in 59 percent of the state vote for his Senate re-election. Republican U.S. Senator Phil Gramm used the provision in 1996, and it allowed him to win re-election even though his presidential ambitions flamed out in Iowa in February.
A dual run like the one Gramm made would give Beto the chance to seek the top prize as he remains viable as a candidate for Senate from Texas. If Beto won the Democratic presidential nomination, he’d become a two-pronged threat to President Trump or whomever the Republicans nominate. If he lost in Iowa or New Hampshire to any of the array of Democrats running for president, Beto could come home to concentrate on challenging Cornyn.
In an appearance on the Hugh Hewitt radio show on Tuesday, Cornyn expressed concern about shifting Texas demographics and his own re-election.
HH: Now you know, I thought for a long time that Beto O’Rourke, Congressman O’Rourke, would just pick himself up and dust himself off and run against you. But he sounds like he’s running for president now. Did you get that signal as well?
JC: I did. I did. You know, he’s a national Democrat, which is the main reason why he lost in Texas. Texas is still a conservative state. And even though it is trending more purple than red, and that’s something we have to pay attention to, and I intend to in 2020, but I think Beto’s got stars in his eyes, and he’s going to go for the big one.
Cornyn went on to say that “the amount of money that was spent in the Cruz-Beto race is pretty daunting,” noting Beto raised far more money than Cruz. Cornyn said he will not underestimate a Democratic threat to his re-election. “Texas is no longer, I believe, a reliably red state. We are on the precipice of turning purple, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to keep it red, because we lost, we got blown out in the urban areas. We got beat in the suburbs, which used to be our traditional strongholds. And if it wasn’t for the rural areas of the state where Senator Cruz won handily, it might not have turned out the way it did.”
During the Senate race, Beto made a big deal out of having visited all 254 Texas counties; however, he won just 31. In those counties, though, Beto collected a million more votes than Cruz and picked up four counties that had been won by President Trump in 2016. And those pickups were not insignificant. Trump carried Hays county by 602 votes over Hillary Clinton. The vote for Cruz was just 657 fewer than that for Trump, but Beto received 12,000 more votes than Clinton. Beto out-paced Clinton in Tarrant County by 24,000 votes and by 21,000 votes in Williamson County. The final county that flipped and was carried by Beto was Nueces, where overall voter turnout was down for both parties.
In the rural, suburban, and small city counties that went Republican, Cruz won by a margin of 1.2 million votes. Even in losing, Beto improved on Clinton in some of these counties. Staunchly Republican Collin County north of Dallas gave Beto 20,000 more votes than Clinton received. In the neighboring Republican county of Denton, Beto improved on Clinton by 23,000 votes.
A lot of excuses can be made for why Cruz did not do better: The state reflected the national urban/rural divide; Cruz was tied up by a Senate that was in session until shortly before the election; Cruz’s campaign underestimated Beto; Cruz had baggage from his 2016 presidential run; and I could go on. In the end, Beto almost did the impossible and changed the self-image of Texas Democratic activists from being a bunch of losers to people who can win if they put their mind to it.
If Beto wants to stay home with Amy and the kids after two years on the road, it’s understandable. If he really has the bug to run again, there’s no reason he shouldn’t run for both offices. For the doughnut-loving congressman from El Paso, he can have his cake and eat his yeast-raised, too.