Beto O’Rourke can raise tens of millions of dollars, fill concert venues with his supporters and motivate a group of voters whose help Democrats badly need to defeat President Donald Trump.
But can he do it from his couch in El Paso after getting defeated by Ted Cruz in one of the highest-profile races of 2018?
O’Rourke moved from unknown congressman to liberal sensation over the course of just a few months, and friends and allies interviewed by the Star-Telegram and McClatchy’s Ground Game Texas team say he has plenty of motivation to turn around another race — perhaps even for his party’s presidential nomination.
His staff has already begun discussing what it would take to put together another campaign.
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Plus, after swearing off money from political action committees, O’Rourke raised nearly $70 million as of the most recent reporting period — more than any Senate candidate in history.
“Beto ran a historic, authentic campaign that inspired [small dollar donors] in a way we’ve never seen,” said Adam Bozzi, spokesman for the liberal campaign finance reform group End Citizens United, which supported O’Rourke’s Senate race.
But veteran Democrats, even many who were enthusiastic about his Senate campaign, are warning he will need to adjust message and tactics if he wants a chance at even bigger office after losing to Cruz.
From the campaign’s lack of negative ads, to O’Rourke’s unwillingness to campaign with some Texas Democrats to his penchant for speaking his mind, they say O’Rourke needlessly rejected some of the basic campaign principles that could have helped Tuesday night end differently for a candidate that has plenty of political talent.
Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a senior Democrat who’s spent years pushing his party to invest in campaigns in Republican territory, last month said if O’Rourke wanted to win, he would need to reach beyond his Democratic base in a contest against an incumbent who is already disliked by some moderates in the Republican Party.
“I don’t care what you say on the stage with 55,000 people in a stadium,” Clyburn said while pointing to a photo of O’Rourke’s September concert in Austin with Texas music hero Willie Nelson. “Those people who need to hear, ain’t gonna hear.”
O’Rourke, a former El Paso councilman, found an audience of supporters looking for bipartisanship when he livestreamed a road trip to D.C. with neighboring Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican, in 2017.
He continued to livestream his travels when he embarked on his bid to unseat Cruz, building a following that pulled his race onto the national radar despite national Democrats’ best efforts to keep expectations low in an expensive red state.
That division grew quickly when he embraced the culture war President Donald Trump was so eager to wage in ways that made national Democrats uneasy.
While party leaders were urging Democrats to remain focused on healthcare, taxes and other pocketbook issues, O’Rourke was calling to impeach Trump and abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, putting him at odds with even would-be political allies.
“I know right now people think of ICE and they think of immigration and removal, but ICE also does things like enforcing human trafficking laws,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, another rising star in Texas’s Democratic circles, said in a recent interview. “We’re not going to just do away with all those other functions.”
O’Rourke’s eccentric campaign touts plenty of metrics Democrats would like to replicate in Texas and beyond.
As of Nov. 2, for example, Texas saw a more than 500 percent increase in participation from the 2014 election among voters under the age of 30 — a demographic national Democrats say is crucial to their efforts to unseating Trump in two years.
O’Rourke also took the unusual step of ignoring both Trump and Cruz to run only positive ads, a strategy that has shown some success with young voters, which Texas recorded more of turning out for the first time in early voting this year than every other state combined, according to the Democratic data firm TargetSmart.
But it’s exactly that kind of straying from the course that national Democrats warn needs to change if he wants to pursue office again. Democrats trying to help him say he missed an opportunity to peel support away from Cruz — a major setback in their efforts to flip Texas blue.
“I’ve said more than once that I wish that he had gone negative and sharpened his attacks earlier,” said Chris Lippincott, an Austin Democrat who formed a super PAC in late October to run ads saying Cruz would allow insurance companies to deny coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. National Democrats consider that ad their most effective attack on Republicans nationwide, one nearly every other GOP candidate was exposed to this cycle.
“Elections are about choices,” said Lippincott, who is a veteran Texas political strategist. Of the ads hitting Cruz on healthcare, he added, it was “the critical issue in the 2018 election cycle from coast to coast.”
Still, O’Rourke’s campaign drew increasing interest from out-of-state supporters in recent weeks who don’t want him to stop after Tuesday night’s loss.
After watching O’Rourke for several months, Eric Smith, a Chicago lawyer traveled to Houston to volunteer with the Democrat’s campaign. Praising O’Rourke’s attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, Smith said the Texan was a piece of what the Democratic Party should aspire to be more like on a national level.
“The goal shouldn’t just be getting to the next office,” Smith said of a potential 2020 bid for O’Rourke. Rattling off a list of candidates with longer political resumes than O’Rourke, Smith suggested O’Rourke “work with people like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and help them turn out people the way he has in Texas.”
Other Democrats who’ve tried to make a similar turnaround warn the excitement around a campaign dies down quickly without an opponent to run against.
“When you build a campaign from scratch that no one really thought could happen from the start, and it takes so much energy and effort to do it, it is hard to focus on anything but that when it’s going on,” said Abe Rakov, a Democrat who ran Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander’s close but unsuccessful race against Sen. Roy Blunt in 2016, R-Missouri.
O’Rourke says he has no interest in a presidential bid, and that he plans to return home to El Paso with his wife, Amy, and their three children who are under the age of 12 after finishing out his term this year. He has spent the past twenty months sprinting across the state, often logging multiple events per day.
Chants of “2020, 2020” from his supporters followed O’Rourke off the stage at Southwest University Ballpark in El Paso Tuesday night.
People around him say he’ll need to breathe before talking about a next step.
“[O’Rourke’s] not wired like that… We don’t ever talk about what’s next,” a close ally of the congressman said this week.
“We’ll live it that moment.”
Emma Dumain contributed to this report.