We gather today to say a hearty RIP to the Beto O’Rourke political project, helmed by one Beto O’Rourke, who ran one of the most remarkable Senate campaigns and one of the most underwhelming presidential campaigns in modern American history—all in the space of about 31 months.
Late on a Friday afternoon, O’Rourke and his loved ones made the decision to pull the plug, releasing a Medium post explaining why. “Though it is difficult to accept, it is clear to me now that this campaign does not have the means to move forward successfully,” he wrote. “My service to the country will not be as a candidate or as the nominee.”
This had an undeniable logic to it, but it still came as a surprise to O’Rourke’s fans, like the ones gathered to support him at a Lincoln-Jefferson fundraising dinner in Iowa. Dave Weigel of the Washington Post was there for it: passionate Beto-heads consoling each other under a dismal grey sky with their homemade signs along the Des Moines waterfront. Politics is rough.
As his presidential campaign spiraled down, Beto became something of a punchline for many national Democrats. It became increasingly easy to lose sight of what he had managed to do in Texas. His Senate campaign—he pledges now he’ll never make another—was one of the most unexpectedly vibrant Democratic efforts in decades.
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Before the glossy magazine profiles and pro-Beto signs as far afield as Boston, Seattle, and Chicago, he just got in his truck and started driving around, talking to people in small rooms with earnest, occasionally corny speeches about the Constitution and our obligations to each other, and a complicated theory about his plan for the campaign based on his experiences in the El Paso punk scene of the early 1990s. It was charming in a way few things in Texas politics are charming. On election night 2018, despite his 2.6-point loss to Ted Cruz, it felt as if he had somehow conquered the place.
And then he went looking for a bigger record label. His style didn’t translate. He could have learned from his old nemesis Ted Cruz, spending every waking hour meeting every possible voter in Iowa, as he did in Texas. He instead launched his race with Vanity Fair, the very opposite of punk, complete with an Annie Leibovitz spread and some pull quotes that didn’t make O’Rourke sound especially serious. I’m just born to be in it, man! The stuff that made him sound like an appealingly goofy Gen X dad made him sound unprepared when it was soundbited and snippeted in the media, and it didn’t help that, on the basis of his thin résumé, he seemed seriously unprepared to wield the terrible power of the presidency.
On March 17, a CNN reporter caught an exchange between a Wisconsin voter and O’Rourke that provided a fun through-line to the campaign. In Texas, O’Rourke had been pretty free with his use of language. A voter in Madison asked: “Can you promise during your campaign to not use the F-word, particularly in front of kids, like last weekend?” O’Rourke said he understood that circumstances had changed. “Great point. And I don’t intend to use the F-word going forward, thank you.”
But some of the few moments his campaign won attention for after that came when he cursed. Arguably the best moment of his campaign came when he turned on the media, who had asked if Donald Trump could reconcile with El Paso after what he’d said about Hispanics in the past. Beto responded with a passionate “no” that included one F-bomb and one S-word. It was a response that won national acclaim. But then he just kept doing it, like he was cursing for effect, in a manner that become a joke in itself. “This is f—– up,” he said, about gun violence. “This is f*cked up,” said the shirt he sold afterward.
As the campaign tried to pick up traction, O’Rourke started taking much stronger positions than he’d taken in Texas. Where once he pledged no one’s AR-15 would be taken away, now he said “hell yes” they would. Then he offered a kind of confused declaration that he would take away the tax-exempt status of any church that refused to perform same-sex marriages. Both are things you don’t want to say if you ever plan to run in Texas again. Texas Democrats finally came to accept that he wouldn’t be challenging John Cornyn in 2020.
And, in recent statements, O’Rourke has claimed to slam shut the door on running in Texas this year—and, indeed, on running in any race ever again. To be sure, he was recently saying he wouldn’t drop out, either. But it now looks like O’Rourke the gladiator exchanged an arena in which he was well-suited for one in which he was not, and in the process of attempting to move up damaged himself in a way that leaves him well-suited for neither one. Politics is rough, man.