Rep. Beto O’Rourke has caught fire with the Democratic base and media pundits, but not everyone is sure he’d be the best candidate to take on President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE in 2020.
Skeptics of the Texas lawmaker include those who think his politics run too far to the left for a general election, to those who want a Democratic standard-bearer who is not a white male, to those who think it’s just a bit early for someone who lost a Senate race in Texas to run for president.
Several of the most prominent would-be contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are senators, and as a result, Democratic senators are understandably leery to handicap the 2020 field.
In addition, lawmakers don’t want to draw fire from the base by openly criticizing a rising star who has generated so much enthusiasm among donors and activists.
But lawmakers aren’t jumping on the O’Rourke bandwagon, cautioning that a lot can change in politics over the course of a few weeks, let alone over the span of a year until the Iowa caucuses.
One Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to comment frankly on O’Rourke’s political stock, said that while he is popular with activists and the Democratic base, he may be too liberal to win a general election.
“I think he’s charismatic,” the senator said. “But the interesting thing to me is that when you look at Arizona and Texas, Trump won the two states by the same amount. Both states have gone about 30 years without electing a Democrat to the Senate. In Arizona, [Democratic Rep. Kyrsten] Sinema ran [for Senate] as a moderate. In Texas, Beto ran as a progressive. She won, he lost."
“Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHow a biased filibuster hurts Democrats more than Republicans Stephen Sondheim, legendary Broadway songwriter, dies at 91 With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one MORE did better in rural Texas than Beto did,” the lawmaker added. “He’s a shiny new object.”
O’Rourke won a scant 26.6 percent of the vote in the state’s 172 rural counties while his opponent, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress Republicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall GOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions MORE (R), won 73 percent of the vote in those counties — 3 points better than GOP nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead China draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai MORE did against Obama in 2012.
But O’Rourke outperformed Obama statewide by 7 points by turning out more votes in urban areas.
O’Rourke’s loss, in itself, is one reason cited by Democrats skeptical he is their best candidate for 2020.
“If Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke seizes on Texas power grid in bid against Abbott McConaughey on Texas run: 'I will let you know shortly' O'Rourke raises M in first 24 hours of Texas governor campaign MORE wants to go and run for president, God bless him, he should put his hat in and make his case. But he lost. You don't usually promote a loser to the top of party,” former Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told MSNBC last month.
O’Rourke scored a coup by winning over Louis Susman, a major fundraiser for Obama, to his camp, but other Democratic power brokers question whether the young political star has enough heft.
Democratic fundraiser Gary Hirshberg told CNN, “I don't just need someone who can rock a rally ... I'm looking for somebody who demonstrates executive prowess and deep substance.”
Many admire O’Rourke’s charisma and political skill. The Texan has drawn quick comparisons to Obama, who won a Senate race in 2004 and then the Democratic presidential nomination four years later.
In O’Rourke’s case, however, some want to make sure he’s not going to flame out.
“Remember that Barack launched at the national convention in Boston, went back to win the Senate seat in Illinois [and] served two years here,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks 91 House Dems call on Senate to expand immigration protections in Biden spending bill Bipartisan senators press FBI, inspector general for changes following Nassar case MORE (Ill.), one of Obama’s earliest supporters, said of Obama’s rise to power from 2004 to the start of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Durbin said O’Rourke “brings a lot of charisma to the quest, as did Barack,” but added he still has a lot to prove.
“The jury is out,” he said.
If he does run for the White House, O’Rourke will first have to beat a number of Democrats in the primary, including several of Durbin’s colleagues.
Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPoll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Biden eyes new path for Fed despite Powell pick Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Storms a growing danger for East Coast MORE (D-Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Bernie Sanders' ex-spokesperson apprehensive over effectiveness of SALT deductions MORE (I-Vt.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden renominates Powell as Fed chair Senate Democrats look to fix ugly polling numbers MORE (D-Minn.), Cory BookerCory BookerPoll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE (D-N.J.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownBiden faces new pressure from climate groups after Powell pick Five Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee Senate Democrats call on Biden to push for COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers at WTO MORE (D-Ohio), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami A sad reality: In a season of giving, most will ignore America's poor Republicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall MORE (D-Calif.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Lobbying world MORE (D-N.Y.) are all contemplating White House bids. Many of them have strong relationships with lawmakers and other political heavyweights in Washington.
Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Five Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee Dark money group spent 0M on voter turnout in 2020 MORE (D), who last month won a tough reelection in Montana, a state Trump carried by 20 points, said his friend Booker would be a formidable candidate.
O’Rourke will have to win over some members of that political class to capture the nomination over not only the members of the Senate expected to run for the White House, but also other possible candidates such as former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips Five House members meet with Taiwanese president despite Chinese objections Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist MORE and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
O’Rourke, who is in his third term in the House, has less political experience than a figure such as Biden, who last week said he was the most qualified person to be president. But Democrats aren’t sure that is really a hindrance.
“The field is wide open. I don’t know that the electorate is looking for 30 years of federal experience. People asked the same questions of Barack Obama,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyRepublicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall Senate Democrats call on Biden to push for COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers at WTO Israel signals confidence in its relationship with Biden MORE (D-Conn.).
O’Rourke served for six years on the El Paso City Council before being elected to the House in 2012. Before then he co-founded an internet services company and worked as a community activist.
Murphy doesn’t think it’s a problem that O’Rourke is a white man seeking his party’s nomination, but he also doesn’t think Democrats have to pick a man just because a woman, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future Popping the progressive bubble MORE, lost to Trump.
“Donald Trump is a force of personality. You need to have the right personality profile to go up against Donald Trump,” he said. “I don’t think it matters what race or gender you are. It matters whether you’re a good enough pugilist, it matters whether you’re authentic, it matters whether you have a restorative capacity.”
O’Rourke wins kudos for his ability to connect with voters and raise tens of millions of dollars.
“He has transitioned from a candidate to a cause and in many ways he’s a reflection of the causes and ideals and enthusiasm people want to feel,” said Robert Zimmerman, a top Democratic fundraiser, who called the Beto phenomenon “very real.”
“His team doesn’t have to work too hard because he’s captivated the imagination of so many people. He’s authentic, and that’s the qualifying standard,” he said.
“His greatest danger is to catch too much fire too quickly,” Zimmerman added, reflecting another recurring worry Democrats cite about O’Rourke.
Some veteran Democrats think voters will be clamoring for a candidate who provides a sharp contrast in gravitas with Trump, and there are questions about whether O’Rourke fits that bill.
“Many people now require an experience and temperament test for support,” said former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.). “Realize how shallow the scrutiny on Trump was and we are now paying a huge price.”
The people touting O’Rourke often speak of a special something that Obama had and that, to their eyes, seems to be missing from some likely candidates.
O’Rourke is 46, a year younger that Obama when he ran for president.
“Democrats respond to magic,” MSNBC host Chris Matthews declared Wednesday in a commentary urging O’Rourke to run for president. He noted the buzz created during a college campus event hosted by “Hardball” that O’Rourke attended.
“There was magic in that room like when we hosted a 'Hardball' college tour at West Chester University up in Pennsylvania in 2008 for Sen. Obama,” he said. “I believe elections should be about the future.”
O’Rourke met with Obama last month in Washington, and former Obama aides have encouraged him to launch a White House campaign.
“If he's anything like Obama, his competitors are toast,” said one strategist. “The way he's taken the country by storm has been nothing short of spectacular.”