The question of whether Beto O’Rourke can raise vast sums of money in a national race has been answered by his first-day fundraising haul of $6.1 million. But a larger question still looms: Can the persona that propelled O’Rourke in Texas power a successful presidential candidacy?
Having stepped up to a significantly different political environment, O’Rourke will have to rely on more than “Being Beto” and add to the fundamental assets that fueled his 2018 campaign if he is to have a chance at victory in 2020.
The challenges facing him in the Democratic presidential primary campaign differ significantly from the Texas Senate race.
With Sen. Ted Cruz, he faced a candidate well-known but deeply disliked by Democrats in a nationalized off-year election defined by a first-term president who was even more reviled by the Democratic electorate.
His free-wheeling, post-partisan brand provided the right contrast with both Democratic bêtes noires, and Texas Democrats exerted little pressure on O’Rourke to articulate extensive policy positions. This enabled the kind of ideological fuzziness that has emerged as one of the chief points of criticism against O’Rourke among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
In his new incarnation as a presidential candidate, O’Rourke continues to offer himself up as something of a Democratic cypher — reflecting back the ideological wishes of his supporters in the name of rising above Democrats’ shared horror at our current politics. Although this worked in the shadow of the twin towers of Cruz and President Donald Trump, the primary campaign requires him to differentiate himself in a crowded and more accomplished field of fellow partisans.
However, O’Rourke’s reliance on personality and presence coupled with vague policy positions makes him vulnerable to the assaults on his personal story that we are already seeing. The reality is that these criticisms over personal failings, real, perceived, or otherwise, seem all the more valid for a candidate who has relied so much on his personal brand. Successful attacks on that persona potentially exact a higher cost than they do on candidates whose assets include not only themselves, but fleshed-out appeals based on policy and ideology.
To be fair, O’Rourke associates himself with some substantive issues, though the two most prominent ones lead back to who he is rather than to a broader policy agenda. His opposition to Trump’s determination to build a wall on the southern border is clear but ultimately rooted in his origin story as an El Paso native. Similarly, his rejection of campaign contributions from political action committees carves out a position, but again, one rooted in his pose as a candidate rather than a clear agenda on campaign finance reform. These stances seem as much about “Being Beto” as they are about where the country should go.
All of this would be a simple diagnosis of a midlevel candidate’s need to develop while on the campaign trail were it not for the Texan’s potentially powerful effect on the Electoral College.
O’Rourke is certainly not the only, nor perhaps even the best, Democratic candidate with the potential to unseat Trump should he become the presidential nominee. But the evidence strongly suggests that he has the best chance of making the presidential race in Texas competitive, which would fundamentally change the Electoral College map. It is still early, but Trump has a looser grip on Texas than any Republican candidate in recent memory.
The February University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found that 45 percent of registered voters plan to “Definitely vote for someone else” compared with only 39 percent intending to “Definitely vote to re-elect Donald Trump.” And while 88 percent of Democrats definitely intend to vote against the president, only 3 in 4 Republicans definitely intend to support him.
Although it is too early to make broad claims, a competitive Texas is much more likely with O’Rourke on the ballot given his superior name recognition and recent experience campaigning in the state. He lost by only 2.6 percentage points in a state where Democrats regularly lose by double-digit margins. But, if he’s to get the chance to be the democratic nominee, he first needs to do more than offering an attractively vague choice in a field of increasingly sharply defined alternatives to Donald Trump.
Jim Henson is the director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.
Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in USA Today.