Ryan J. Rusak

Beto O’Rourke went far left and lost anyway. Now, his political future is dim.

Say this much for Beto O’Rourke — he’s always been full of surprises.

No one expected he’d end his presidential campaign this quickly and with so little fanfare. But late on Friday afternoon, with one last Medium post, the former El Paso congressman dropped out of the Democratic primary contest months before a single vote was cast.

There’s often little risk to running for president. So many try and so few win that a well-executed loss can elevate a politician’s status and set up future runs, even another White House try.

There will be none of that for O’Rourke any time soon, though. His campaign will be remembered as a series of cringe-worthy efforts — all failed — to recapture that ol’ 2018 magic, when he came closer to winning statewide in Texas than any Democrat in two decades.

Let’s run down the greatest hits. He started his presidential run with the baffling explanation that he was “just born to be in it,” which is the kind of profound-sounding but ultimately empty line you get in a middling Matthew McConaughey flick. He apologized for making a joke, at his own expense, about his family’s parenting arrangement.

Soon, he was declaring the country that he wanted to lead almost irredeemably racist. He tried to sound a Kennedyesque note of the conscience of the nation, but he came off sounding like an overprivileged scold who’d recently read a few books.

He flip-flopped on guns after an evil massacre in his hometown. The charitable explanation was that he was so affected by what happened, he changed his mind. The cynical version is that he saw the opportunity for a viral moment — which he got, in a debate in Houston, with his line: “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

He won lots of praise, but nothing showed up in the polls. So he tried again, declaring that churches that differ with him on gay rights should have their tax exemptions stripped away. It was the worst combination — pandering, ill-conceived and ineffective.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. He raised (and spent) quite a haul and, on occasion, set the agenda within the Democratic race, such as in the gun debate and when he stood up to fellow Texan Julián Castro’s call to decriminalize unauthorized immigration.

In the end, nothing took. O’Rourke couldn’t crack the top tier.

There’s an art form to losing a presidential campaign and coming out in better shape than before. O’Rourke did the opposite. By planting his flag as far to the left on social issues as possible, he now looks unelectable in Texas. There’s a reason he’s not jumping into a 2020 Democratic Senate race that is entirely up for grabs.

His brand was never as good as his press indicated. Years from now, we’ll clearly see that the close race in 2018 was driven by dislike of Cruz and backlash to Donald Trump, not love for O’Rourke.

That said, if Texas continues to change and he executes some skillful walk-backs, perhaps he could reemerge in 2022. He’s young, and he’s got one hell of an email fundraising list.

But he’ll have to change, too. The Beto O’Rourke who ran for president will never come close to winning statewide in Texas.

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Ryan J. Rusak is opinion editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He grew up in Benbrook and is a TCU graduate. He spent more than 12 years as a political journalist, overseeing coverage of four presidential elections and several sessions of the Texas Legislature. He lives in east Fort Worth.
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