El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s next campaign will be tougher than his last.
That is, if anything can be tougher than trying to win as a Democrat in Texas.
If there is an Achilles’ heel in O’Rourke’s campaign, it might lie in the El Paso suburb of Anthony, where he faced a DWI charge after he crashed into a truck in 1998 and a witness told police he started to leave the scene.
O’Rourke, then 26, has denied he tried to flee. Breathalyzer tests measured his blood-alcohol content at .136 and .134, according to the police report. The case was dismissed after he completed a diversion program for first-time offenders.
But the officer’s written narrative says: “The driver attempted to leave the accident.”
“I can’t see that being a problem in the Democratic primary, but [President] Trump will bash the nominee with anything that’s close at hand,” Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson said Thursday after O’Rourke formally announced his campaign.
O’Rourke has consistently called for an end to personal barbs in campaigning.
In his campaign speech Thursday in Keokuk, Iowa, O’Rourke went out of his way to say that Democrats shoud not “denigrate or demean” each other, because “any single Democrat running today” would be better than Trump.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz never used the arrest against O’Rourke in the 2018 campaign.
In a debate, Cruz notably sidestepped a question about the case and diverted to discussing O’Rourke’s support for legalized adult use of marijuana.
In a Texas Tribune interview after the election, Cruz strategist Jeff Roe said Cruz refused to even bring up the arrest.
“He killed it every time we tried,” Roe told the Tribune. “he would never do it.”
From O’Rourke’s side, even when he launched attack ads criticizing Cruz’s votes, O’Rourke said he was trying to do it “in the most positive way, defining ourselves by ambitions, not by fears.”
In 2012, former U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes used the arrest in an ad days begfore the Democratic runoff. O’Rourke won and went on to Congress. (Reyes also used a 1995 burglary arrest at the University of Texas at El Paso. That case involved jumping a fence, O’Rourke has said. It was dropped.)
The ad was named “Character Counts.”
UT Arlington political science professor Rebecca Deen said the DWI arrest will get more scrutiny in the primary, “but everything will get more scrutiny.”
The biggest challenge for O’Rourke will be to recalibrate his campaign to focus on early states instead of 254 Texas counties, she said.
“That same energy needs to be distributed strategically,” she said.
“With this huge a field, he has to manage expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire. … In Iowa, his retail politics will likely resonate. His centrism might work in New Hampshire, but you have local superstars in Sens. [Elizabeth] Warren and [Bernie] Sanders.”
Jillson described O’Rourke as “very articulate and very telegenic.”
“If you notice, Beto’s announcement was in a little restaurant in Iowa — he specifically didn’t try to generate a rollout with thousands of people. He tried to generate a more affable atmosphere.”