Beto O’Rourke dodged a bullet. The Texas congressman came dangerously close to beating Ted Cruz on Tuesday.
Lest his groupies wallow for long in defeat, they should know there’s a lot for them to like about his loss: No getting bogged down in the drudge-work of a freshman senator in the minority or obligation to fulfill his duty to serve out his term.
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And, to O’Rourke’s credit, there was no blowout, a fate that would have extinguished his star. Indeed, he showed an unapologetic liberal could compete and almost win in Texas.
O’Rourke’s narrow loss to Cruz instead sets him up to run full time for president — and jump immediately into the top tier of Democratic contenders.
O’Rourke has not yet indicated his intentions, but he has built, in the course of a few short months, a national brand and a national fundraising base that few Democrats can match. Conveniently, the chief knock on O’Rourke’s campaign, that he embraced staunchly progressive positions that played poorly in Texas, only heightens his appeal in a national primary for a Democratic Party that has been tacking leftward.
Even after beating O’Rourke, Cruz’s chief strategist, Jeff Roe, stands impressed. “The Democrats don’t have anybody like him,” Roe said. “I’ve seen all of them. They don’t have anyone of his caliber on the national stage. I pray for the soul of anyone who has to run against him in Iowa in 453 days.”
As it happens, O’Rourke’s barnstorming campaign style, which took him to every county in Texas, is the same retail-intensive approach that has traditionally worked in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Rick Santorum famously won the 2012 Republican caucuses after visiting all 99 of Iowa’s counties in a pickup truck, a feat O’Rourke matched this year in Texas’ 254 counties with the aid of rented minivans.
“He’s been running the kind of campaign in Texas which is exactly what causes one to be successful in Iowa, which is going around to all of Iowa and sitting down and talking to folks,” said Bonnie Campbell, a former Iowa attorney general who remains active in the state’s Democratic politics.
“Beto has captured the imagination of Democrats in Iowa just as he has around the country,” said Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in the state. “The fact that he has spent so much time in rural Texas would bode well for him coming up here.”
O’Rourke ultimately performed poorly in rural Texas, a shortcoming that sealed his 2½ point defeat. But his loss came with enough silver linings for the state’s Democrats that pivoting from defeat to the national stage is unlikely to breed the sort of resentment among party members back home that can be a drag on a presidential candidacy. The voters O’Rourke drove to the polls helped Texas Democrats flip two House seats and make gains in the state Legislature.
Texas Democrats can keep going back to the new voters identified and mobilized by O’Rourke as they continue their efforts to turn the state purple, said Wendy Davis, a former Democratic state senator who ran for governor in 2014. “He’s now built upon an infrastructure that I’ve built, and he’s built on it dramatically,” she said.
Another tall and lanky politician, Abraham Lincoln, ran for president and won after losing two campaigns for Senate. More recently, Missouri Democrat Jason Kander pivoted from a 2016 Senate loss to the national stage, setting himself up as a leader on voting rights and laying the groundwork for a possible 2020 presidential campaign.
Before Kander, a former Army intelligence officer, announced last month he was taking a hiatus from politics to deal with PTSD, he had been generating enthusiasm in New Hampshire, the second state on the presidential nominating calendar, according to Jay Surdukowski, a Concord-based attorney and Democratic activist.
O’Rourke, whose term in the House expires at the end of the year, would also find a warm welcome in New Hampshire, Surdukowski said. “Beto is Jason Kander times a hundred in terms of his appeal and potential connection to New Hampshire voters,” he said.
Indeed, without having visited, O’Rourke has already captivated the state’s Democrats. On Tuesday night, at the results party for gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly and congressional candidate Chris Pappas at the Puritan Backroom in Manchester, O’Rourke stole the show.
“NH Dems may be here for Kelly and Pappas but they’ve got their eyes glued to ABC for returns in other states like Texas and Florida,” tweeted New Hampshire Public Radio reporter Lauren Chooljian from the event. “The loudest cheer of the night so far was when ABC showed Beto O’Rourke leading.”
On Wednesday morning, the first two emails to land in Surdukowski’s inbox, he said, were from his law partners lamenting O’Rourke’s loss.
Surdukowski added that the congressman already has at least one open invitation to visit the first primary state.
“I’d be thrilled to host Beto if he wants to come meet folks,” he said.