O'Rourke faces sharp backlash from left

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) has faced sharp backlash from progressives in the days since his presidential campaign launched to great fanfare last week. 

Left-leaning Democrats have criticized O’Rourke for a string of comments made in a Vanity Fair story preceding the opening of his campaign and in his subsequent days on the trail. 

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Some of the remarks — such as O’Rourke’s statement to Vanity Fair, referring to the presidential race, that he was “just born to be in it” — have fanned complaints that the Texan is blinded by “white privilege.” 

Others have brought charges of sexism or male privilege.

O’Rourke’s nonchalant quip that his wife cares for the couple’s three children “sometimes with my help” irked a number of the former Texas congressman’s critics, who saw it as belittling.

Separately, O’Rourke was forced to apologize for a “really hateful” murder fantasy he penned as a teenager in which he wrote about running down children in a street. 

On the bright side, O’Rourke reported raising $6.1 million in his campaign’s first 24 hours, a remarkable number that suggests he can be in the Democratic battle for the long haul.

But that good news has been overshadowed by the stumbles, which have signaled the enmity in some quarters of the Democratic Party for O’Rourke, while underlining questions about his readiness. 

“Fundraising aside, I can’t think of a worse start for a presidential candidate,” said one Democratic strategist who has worked for recent presidential campaigns and is currently unaffiliated with a campaign. 

The criticism is somewhat surprising given that O’Rourke last summer and fall was seen as a liberal hero as he ran against Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzPresenting the 2020 Democratic bracket The Memo: Trump's media dominance challenged by 2020 Dems Evidence contradicts right-wing narrative of tech censorship and bias MORE (R) in Texas. 

O’Rourke became a national figure during that campaign, and when he narrowly lost to Cruz, it immediately sparked calls for him to enter the presidential race. 

But that fight was in Texas, and it gave the former punk rocker an opponent in Cruz who is widely detested on the left. 

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In the presidential primary, O'Rourke is entering a crowded race that includes progressive heroes with their own deep wells of support, from Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersPresenting the 2020 Democratic bracket Trump: 'I am a young, vibrant man' The Hill's Morning Report — Biden takes aim at Trump, early battlegrounds MORE (I-Vt.) to Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenPresenting the 2020 Democratic bracket The Memo: Trump's media dominance challenged by 2020 Dems Biden to face pressure on Medicare for All MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisPresenting the 2020 Democratic bracket Biden to face pressure on Medicare for All Trump criticizes 2020 Democratic candidates MORE (D-Calif.). 

Much of the criticism of O’Rourke, while specific to the comments he has made, also revolve around his status as a 40-something white male running in a party increasingly leaning on minorities and women for support. 

There are other white male candidates in the race, but O’Rourke is the newer-to-the-scene figure in that lane along with two of the race’s heavyweights: Sanders, who lost the Democratic primary in 2016, and former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenTrump defends Charlottesville comments Trump: 'I am a young, vibrant man' The Hill's Morning Report — Biden takes aim at Trump, early battlegrounds MORE, who is widely expected to enter the race in April. 

“In the heart of 'Me Too,' how is this guy anything this party represents?” said the Democratic strategist critical of O’Rourke. “He’s the opposite of progressive.” 

Tracy Sefl, a Democratic consultant who served as a surrogate to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe time has come for the Democrats to act, finally Mueller report may result in Russian sanctions but not better behavior Dem race shows signs it could get nasty MORE’s 2016 campaign, summed it up by calling it “the tyranny of bro culture.” 

“A seasoned campaign professional — a woman— asked me, ‘Is he running for president in this century?’ A question worth asking based on what voters saw over the past several days,” Sefl said. 

O’Rourke has sought to both explain his remarks and push back at the criticism. 

“My ham-handed attempt to try to highlight the fact that Amy has the lion’s share of the burden in our family — that she actually works but is the primary parent in our family, especially when I served in Congress, especially when I was on the campaign trail — should have also been a moment for me to acknowledge that that is far too often the case, not just in politics but just life in general,” O’Rourke explained on the Political Party Live podcast.

“I will be much more thoughtful in the ways that I talk about my marriage,” he added.  

Behind the scenes, Democrats have also grumbled about O’Rourke’s progressive values, saying it remains to be seen if the former congressman is as progressive as he'd like to portray himself. They highlight O’Rourke’s family wealth and the financial contribution his previous campaigns received from the oil and gas industry. 

While he’s signaled support for the Green New Deal, for example, Democrats say that O’Rourke needs to fill in the blanks on where he stands on other issues. 

“We haven’t heard a lot of substance yet,” the Democratic strategist added.

Democratic strategist Eddie Vale said it’s still an “open question” on whether O’Rourke hurt himself with progressives this week. 

“I think that there is no way he got these crowds, donations, if there weren't a lot of progressives who were supporting him,” Vale said. “There were definitely some questions raised with how he answered things on issues [and] his family situation."

“But none of that is fatal, or even a very serious issue yet,” Vale said, adding “the key is what's next? Do his next trips, next round of answers, staff hires, start to address these topics or do they keep hanging out there as open questions.”

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle also added that, “None of his policy positions at this moment are disqualifying in a crowded primary.” 

“As long as he keeps raising money, he’ll have the resources to persuade voters on his positions and convince them of his viability,” Smikle said. 

But fundraising aside and grass-roots efforts aside, O’Rourke is going to have to “fill in the meat on the bones to show he has what it takes to be a candidate in an incredibly diverse and successful field," Vale said.

“It's critical that he starts filling out his policy views both so that people know what he believes and can keep up with the big and innovative ideas other candidates are already rolling out,” he said. 

But other than being a fresh face the Democratic Party has craved, the strategist put it this way: “He’s going to have to show he’s a candidate for this particular moment and so far I can’t say he’s passed the test.”