Last Saturday, 729 days after announcing his campaign for U.S. Senate in front of a small crowd on a rooftop plaza in downtown El Paso, Beto O’Rourke officially launched his 2020 presidential bid with three rallies across the state, shutting down streets, speaking to thousands, and attracting nationwide headlines.
Much has changed for O’Rourke over the past two years, of course. Back in March 2017, the Texas Tribune’s Abby Livingston wrote that it was “hard to overstate how unknown this third-term Democrat is in both Texas and Washington.” Now, O’Rourke is the biggest celebrity in Democratic politics, the subject of HBO documentaries and Vanity Fair covers and endorsements from LeBron James and Beyoncé. But O’Rourke’s nascent presidential campaign is looking almost identical to the effort he launched in El Paso two years ago, with the same message and branding and personnel. The question is how many of O’Rourke’s Senate supporters will be along for the sequel.
O’Rourke’s rally in Austin last Saturday night was an unmistakable display of strength. Like boxers at a weigh-in, the Democratic presidential field is going through its pre-fight ritual of flexing and preening and bragging about fundraising dollars, crowd sizes, staff acquisitions, and polling numbers. The punches have yet to be thrown. And O’Rourke’s rollout had been intimidating. He raised $6.1 million on the first official day of his campaign, kept up a torrid pace as he traveled through the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, and now was rolling out his campaign with three rallies in three cities separated by hundreds of miles, all on the same day.
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In Austin, his final stop, many of the same staffers and volunteers who worked on his Senate campaign were back, trying to wrangle the throngs into some kind of order. Many of the same reporters and cameramen who followed O’Rourke over the final months of his 2018 race were standing on risers to get an unimpeded view of the action. Supporters from the Senate campaign were back too, with a few carrying their old “Beto for Senate” campaign signs, slightly altered with a piece of tape that covered the word “Senate” and replaced it with the word “America.” (“Beto for America” with the same color scheme and typeface as O’Rourke’s “Beto for Senate” signs was also on official campaign merchandise.) Warming up the crowd and sounding like she was back at Auditorium Shores for O’Rourke’s rally in front of 55,000 supporters was the Austin R&B singer Tameca Jones. “We are woke, that’s why we’re here for Beto,” she exclaimed into the microphone. Betomania seemed undiminished.
When O’Rourke finally made it onstage, the Texas state capitol glowing behind him, he too sounded like he’d never left the trail. He made his familiar pledge not to take PAC money. He rattled off a familiar laundry list of liberal policy priorities, sometimes within the same sentence: confront climate change, reform the criminal justice system, push through universal healthcare, give Dreamers citizenship. He couched his statements in a familiar post-partisan rhetoric: “Let’s decide that we’re Americans first.” And he telegraphed his familiar physical exuberance: Halfway into his speech, with the temperature barely above 50 degrees, O’Rourke stripped off his fleece jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves like he was addressing a gathering on a balmy August afternoon.
The crowd loved all of this, drowning out O’Rourke several times with cheers, just as crowds did in the final month of his Senate campaign, when the polls were narrowing and Texas Democrats were beginning to believe they had a shot at winning their first statewide race in two decades. Back then, O’Rourke had been easy for the entire Democratic coalition to get behind. He was more than qualified for his Senate run, having served three terms as a member of Congress after two terms on the El Paso City Council. He ran on an uncompromisingly progressive platform, championing national Democratic priorities like universal healthcare while refusing to pivot to the middle on social and fiscal issues, as past statewide Democratic candidates had done. In the Texas context, his campaign itself had seemed an act of political bravery. For years, the state’s top Democrats had shied away from taking on Republicans statewide, preferring to bide their time until demographics and political winds seemed more favorable. O’Rourke didn’t equivocate. When no one in the Democratic establishment was pushing him to run, he hurtled into the race against Cruz, giving up his congressional seat and risking his political future on what most saw as a kamikaze mission. Backstage in McAllen in the campaign’s final weeks, I saw a supporter hand O’Rourke a toy light saber and tell him that he was Luke Skywalker taking on the Empire.
The rationale for O’Rourke’s presidential bid has been murkier so far. The strengths of his Senate candidacy have been cast in a harsher light now that he’s a presidential contender. O’Rourke had the most political experience of a Texas Senate aspirant in a generation, but in the Democratic primary field, he’s up against sitting U.S. senators and perhaps soon a former vice-president. His six years as a back-bench U.S. representative don’t stand out. His progressive policy stances—which seemed remarkable in the context of a statewide race in Texas where Democrats have run as deficit hawks and open-carry backers—have been questioned from the left as insufficiently committed and from the wonkish center as insufficiently detailed. (Listen to podcasts like Vox’s The Weeds or the FiveThirtyEight Politics show, and you’ll practically hear the eye-rolling at O’Rourke’s penchant for platitudes instead of white papers.) The story line of O’Rourke’s candidacy is less compelling too. Instead of running as the one Democrat with enough cojones to take on a Republican (Ted Cruz, no less) in big red Texas and attempt to end a 24-year political losing streak, O’Rourke’s presidential bid began with a very public bout of Hamlet-like indecision, and launched with a Vanity Fair profile with the quote “Man, I’m just born to be in it” gracing the magazine’s cover. Instead of O’Rourke’s candidacy seeming “woke,” headlines have called out O’Rourke’s “white male privilege” and his attempt to “fail upward” into the presidency.
Much of the O’Rourke backlash has been confined to the national journalists and activists on Twitter, but some of O’Rourke’s most committed grassroots supporters in 2018 have their doubts too. “A lot of folks got politically engaged as a result of Bernie’s candidacy and threw that energy into the Beto campaign. Now that both are running there’s a split in where people want to invest their energy,” Abel Prado, the executive director of Cambio Texas, a McAllen-based grassroots organization dedicated to increasing Latinx voter turnout in South Texas, told me. “Bernie undeniably influenced the conversation around a lot of the issues that are dominating the presidential race, like healthcare, money in politics, and prison reform, so that’s not lost on a lot of people.”
Thousands of supporters still showed up at all three of O’Rourke’s rallies, and in Austin, the enthusiasm of many seemed undiminished. O’Rourke’s appeals to our better angels, derided by some on the left as naive at best, are clearly still part of the attraction for many supporters. A group of three UT students who had arrived at the rally two and a half hours before O’Rourke began to speak told me they were eager to vote for O’Rourke again. They liked his stances on immigration and marijuana, but also bought into his rhetoric. “He’s more willing to compromise, he’s more of a people person,” Cassandra Villarreal, a 21-year-old undergraduate, told me. “There’s a problem with polarization.” A second grade teacher named Maria McPhail who had come to the rally with her high-school-aged daughter told me she liked O’Rourke because he was “willing to talk to Republicans” and “willing to go across the aisle.” O’Rourke, she felt, was “middle-of-the-road,” and McPhail liked that. She was worried about more leftist candidates like Bernie Sanders. “Middle of America would go for Beto, but not Bernie,” she said. “America’s not ready for a socialist.”
But it was also clear that some of O’Rourke’s 2018 supporters were going to need more time before coming aboard for his 2020 bid. An Austin librarian name Chris Cregeen had shown up to the rally early too, just like the UT students. He’d told me he was interested in O’Rourke. He’d voted for him in 2018, and he’d consider doing so again. But he felt the Democratic primary field was “an embarrassment of riches,” and while he was eager to hear what O’Rourke had to say that night, he’d also recently been to Houston to hear California senator Kamala Harris speak. He’d come away impressed by her charisma and command of the issues. He was going to take a few more months before making up his mind.