A rare blend of personal magnetism and fund-raising might makes Beto O’Rourke immediately formidable in the crowded Democratic presidential race.
But O’Rourke faces circumstances and competition radically different from those that made him a political sensation. He can’t skateboard past them as easily as in his 2018 U.S. Senate campaign.
His strengths sparkle in plain sight. After three unremarkable terms as a House member from El Paso, O’Rourke lit a fire among Democrats nationally in his bid to knock off incumbent Texas Republican Ted Cruz.
He did it by traveling indefatigably, meeting voters in red and blue precincts alike. Iowans reward that kind of campaigning in the caucuses that kick off the nominating process next February.
He did it by attracting massive crowds with youthful insouciance and a hopeful, unifying message amid bitter partisan divisions. Barack Obama emerged the same way in his 2004 Democratic convention speech declaring, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America.”
And he did it by speaking fluently on behalf of immigration and racial justice, powerful themes for the key Democratic constituencies of Latinos, African-Americans and white liberals. O’Rourke’s impassioned defense of black athletes who kneeled during the national anthem made him a viral video phenom.
Deepened by Democratic antipathy toward Cruz, all that created a spectacular small-donor fund-raising machine. It raked in $79-million – more than Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont raised in 2015 as his primary challenge to Hillary Clinton took off.
That was then. Now O’Rourke confronts more challenging terrain for the Democratic nomination race.
Sanders, who has galvanized the sorts of young liberals O’Rourke inspired in Texas, has bolstered his fund-raising prowess for a second White House bid. The self-described Democratic socialist from Vermont raised $10-million in just a week after his 2020 announcement last month.
Instead of Cruz, O’Rourke faces multiple rivals commanding respect and affection within the party. That list starts with Obama’s former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads Democratic polls as he considers entering the contest.
Like a gifted athlete reaching the highest level of competition, O’Rourke finds opponents with their own ample gifts. Sen. Kamala Harris of California displayed star power when she entered the race; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota showed off Midwestern grit by smiling through her announcement speech in a snowstorm.
Torching Vice President Mike Pence on CNN, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg made clear O’Rourke has company in the ability to thrill fellow Democrats with viral moments. Buttigieg’s resume – including Naval intelligence service in Afghanistan and executive experience in government – contrasts sharply with O’Rourke’s stints as a nanny, punk-rock musician and House backbencher.
And Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, after decades of scholarship and work in consumer protection, has the ability to challenge O’Rourke on how his soft-focus appeals for unity can deliver concrete economic gains for struggling families. Televised debates begin in three months.
The Democrats’ attitudinal divide poses its own test. His call to “not allow our differences to divide us” made sense in conservative Texas, where Democrats can only compete by broadening their base of support.
Democrats hold higher ground nationally, with popular vote victories in six of the last seven presidential elections.
Having seen how the “conservative America” that Obama refused to recognize was able to frustrate even broadly-popular elements of his agenda, Warren now calls on Democrats to “fight” President Trump and the GOP.
Battle-scarred liberals mocked Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper when he entered the Democratic contest with a promise to win over Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell with earnest persuasion. O’Rourke invites the same reality check.
Obama’s robust self-confidence opened him to charges of arrogance. O’Rourke risks conveying the hipster cheekiness reflected on the website of Stanton Street, the El Paso tech services firm he co-founded: “We have lots of friends that have been with us for a long, long time. Mostly cause we’re cool. And smart.”
By cooperating with the magazine profile published in tandem with his announcement, O’Rourke betrayed no fear of the “celebrity” label Republicans once used to deride Obama. It appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair.