Bud Kennedy

Beto O’Rourke’s fizzled presidential campaign leaves Texas Democrats in limbo

It took El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke nearly three years to go from unknown to forgotten.

His once-buoyant message raised $80 million and lifted him to a U.S. Senate close call like no other.

But the helium went flat by May. That’s when U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, rocketed past him in Iowa on her way to an early lead in key Democratic primary polls.

By the time O’Rourke ended his presidential campaign Friday in a tepid blog post, it was only really relevant in Texas.

In the rest of the country, O’Rourke was running eighth in the polls and sinking. But in Texas, O’Rourke was still running second with 16% of the vote.

That’s a hefty chunk of support, probably mostly for Warren, but maybe for former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders or — a very long shot — Texas Democrat Julián Castro.

(No other candidate appears in position to reach the required 15% of the vote to qualify for delegates in Texas, and right now, Castro may not even make the next debate Nov. 20.)

O’Rourke’s voters are mostly Anglo and Hispanic Democrats, and the guess is that Warren will pick up most of those votes. If Castro’s still around, he also might get help he needs.

“Older moderates might vote for Biden, the ‘Bernie Bros’ turn out and progressive, higher-education-level Democrats [go] for Warren,” UT Arlington political science professor Rebecca Deen said Saturday.

O’Rourke ran into more experienced opponents, she said.

“There was just no time for someone without a previous appeal — Biden, Sanders — or who’s not tapping into Democrats’ frustration with the President [like] Warren — to gain momentum,” she said.

TCU political science associate professor Emily M. Farris, who endorsed Castro, said O’Rourke lacked broad support.

“Beto’s campaign attracted young, white, liberal to moderate voters,” she wrote by email.

“There’s just not enough voters of that demographic profile in the Democratic Party in 2019.”

For the other Texan in the race, time and money are running out.

Castro set an $800,000 fundraising hurdle last week just to stay on the campaign trail. He made it.

But he needs to start hitting 3 percent in national polls to stay on the debate stage, and he’s nowhere close to that.

If O’Rourke’s withdrawal helps Warren nationally, it might also help Biden in Texas. He’s led the early polls with strong support from older Democrats, and he’s the runaway choice of African American voters.

Right now, it looks like the most wide-open Texas presidential primary since 1988, when eventual Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis battled Al Gore, of Tennessee, and Dick Gephardt, of Missouri.

Even after he shouted, “Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15,” in a debate, O’Rourke remained near the top in Texas.

SMU professor Matthew Wilson, a scholar on conservative politics, said O’Rourke’s downfall was that both national reporters and voters put him under a “much higher level of scrutiny” against Democrats than against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“He started swinging for the fences with increasingly radical proposals like gun confiscation and taxing churches, in an attempt to excite the left-wing activist base,” Wilson wrote by email.

“It didn’t work.”

He mentioned Texas Democrats’ great hope: that O’Rourke will backtrack and file by Dec. 9 — five weeks away — to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

In an election where one Republican pollster warned last week that 33 Texas House districts might flip, O’Rourke would bring spirit to the Democratic ticket, but also intensify Republican attacks defending gun rights.

“I don’t think Cornyn fears an O’Rourke candidacy as much as he would have a year ago,” Wilson wrote.

After losing to Cruz, O’Rourke took four months off before launching his campaign for president.

This time, he has to decide in five weeks.

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Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.
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