GOP operatives dig for dirt against rising star O’Rourke

Republicans are feverishly digging into Beto O’Rourke’s past, a sign they view the former Texas congressman as a potential threat if he wins the Democratic presidential nomination.

GOP organizations and political action committees have spent recent weeks delving into multiple areas of O’Rourke’s life, from his voting record to a drunken driving arrest in 1998.

ADVERTISEMENT

Super PAC America Rising, for example, is zeroing in on O’Rourke’s votes during his six years in Congress, which they see as more conservative compared to those of other potential candidates, according to sources familiar with the research.

O’Rourke’s family money and his family’s influence on his past campaigns are also being studied, as are his ties to fossil fuel interests important in Texas.

An official at the Republican National Committee said they’ve already compiled a “hefty” book on O’Rourke as part of their extensive 2020 opposition research “and will continue to add to it.”

The research undoubtedly will surface during the Democratic primary as Republicans look to cause trouble for the former congressman.

O’Rourke, who has not announced a run for the White House, is seen as a potentially strong candidate after losing a close race for the Senate to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape O'Rourke says he will not 'in any scenario' run for Senate MORE (R-Texas). He soared in recent 2020 polls, bypassing nearly the entire potential Democratic field save for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPossible GOP challenger says Trump doesn't doesn't deserve reelection, but would vote for him over Democrat Joe Biden faces an uncertain path The Memo: Trump pushes back amid signs of economic slowdown MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden faces an uncertain path Bernie Sanders vows to go to 'war with white nationalism and racism' as president Biden: 'There's an awful lot of really good Republicans out there' MORE (I-Vt.), who lost the 2016 Democratic primary to former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' Fighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate Progressive Democrats' turnout plans simply don't add up MORE.

The Texan has already come under attack from some on the left, who have cast him as a political newcomer who isn’t progressive enough for the party. O’Rourke and allies of Sanders have sparred, and the rising star’s more centrist brand is seen as a threat to Biden, who also is considering a run.

“Everyone is feeling a little threatened by him,” said one Democratic strategist. “Republicans think they see another Obama coming and I think Democrats see the same thing.”

A spokesman for O’Rourke did not respond to requests for comment.

O’Rourke’s ties to the oil and gas industry, among the issues being scrutinized by GOP operatives, are sure to be an issue in the primary.

In the 2017–2018 cycle, he received nearly half a million dollars in contributions from the industry. He pulled in the second highest amount of both Republicans and Democrats, trailing only Cruz, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Strategists in both parties are studying O’Rourke’s voting record for lines of attack. They are finding ammunition in votes he took that would be supportive of the oil industry in Texas.

O’Rourke voted against Democratic legislation that would have prevented drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. He also supported Republican legislation introduced late last year aimed at cutting the delay on natural gas exports.

“He’s very different from all the other progressives who are running for office, and I think he’s going to learn that the hard way,” said one Democratic strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns. “It’s going to be so much worse than what he experienced in the midterms.”

Over the last two years, O’Rourke had a voting record that was more conservative than 77 percent of his Democratic colleagues, according to VoteView.com. House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiObjections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated Latest pro-democracy rally draws tens of thousands in Hong Kong Lewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' MORE (D-Calif.), in comparison, was more liberal than 92 percent of the House.

The website FiveThirtyEight concluded that O’Rourke voted for Trump administration policies roughly 30 percent of the time. O’Rourke, for example, was one of a few Democrats who voted alongside Republicans twice on GOP bills to lift a 40-year-old oil export ban.

Some Democrats argue the votes simply show O’Rourke was voting for his district, an argument Sanders used in the 2016 Democratic primary as Clinton and her allies attacked him for votes on gun control. At the time, Sanders argued his voting record reflected the fact that he represented a largely rural state.

“He was who he was to win elections in Texas,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Dallas’s Southern Methodist University who has followed O’Rourke’s career.

“If the goal was to win an election on a broader platform, he would adjust to the platform, as every politician would.”

On financial issues, the former congressman supported Republican bills aimed at reducing the number of third-party audits of corporations and another bill that pushed to eliminate financial disclosures to consumers concerning their privacy rights.

On health care, O’Rourke voted alongside Republican colleagues on GOP legislation providing special tax credits for COBRA benefits. At the time, Rep. Richard NealRichard Edmund NealNY files motion to keep Trump tax returns lawsuit out of DC court Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax Senate Dems urge Mnuchin not to cut capital gains taxes MORE (D-Mass.) called the legislation “simply a backdoor way for states to discriminate against existing conditions.”

Several other candidates thinking about running for the White House will have to defend votes or actions to liberal primary voters.

Biden voted for legislation authorizing the Iraq War and a crime bill that many Democrats now believe led to unfair incarcerations for African-Americans.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policing policies would surely be an issue if he chooses to run.

With Democrats looking for a candidate who can defeat Trump, Democratic strategist Basil Smikle predicted many will be willing to look past individual votes.

“Winning over Sanders supporters will be difficult,” he said, while adding that Democrats “can overlook his more conservative-leaning votes if O’Rourke can speak in unifying and aspirational tones about what his vision is for the country.”

David Wade, who served as a senior adviser to John KerryJohn Forbes KerryTrump's winning weapon: Time The Memo: O'Rourke looks to hit reset button #FreeAustinTice trending on anniversary of kidnapping in Syria MORE, likewise said that O’Rourke’s voting record wouldn’t be an “Achilles’ heel.”

“His legislative record is relatively short,” he said. “His problematic votes are mostly home-state votes that could be managed if his larger narrative proves durable.”

But Wade said O’Rourke’s team would be wise to prepare for the coming attacks, regardless of who is behind them.

The team “needs to know their record and assess their vulnerabilities and the need to be prepared for a proctological primary season,” he said.

“Voting records are never without vulnerabilities,” Wade said. “There’s an ironic reason why master legislators like Bob Dole have found their biggest strengths become weaknesses under the light of a presidential campaign.”