Beto could give Biden and Bernie a run for their money

Beto could give Biden and Bernie a run for their money

We know him as “Beto” but his real name, befitting a fourth-generation Irish American on St. Patrick’s Day is Robert Francis O’Rourke. He is so cool that — like Bernie, Lebron and Kanye — he has become one of America’s few single-name icons, known to pundits and voters alike simply as "Beto." 

The anticipation over former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s decision to enter or sit out the presidential campaign hung over the Democratic Party as heavily as Bryce Harper’s destination clouded the fortunes of Major League Baseball teams in the National League East. Now that we know their decisions, the question is whether the anticipation was all hype or whether their decisions will have a lasting impact on both races.


Beto’s decision to run for president arrived in a blaze of glory including a cover story in Vanity Fair complete with pictures by the famous photographer, Annie Leibovitz. The cover photo of the candidate resplendent in jeans and standing by his truck was all over the internet. Is his campaign just an internet and media frenzy or will it last through the dog days of the long nomination marathon?

Millennial makeover

The time had has come for someone like O’Rourke to run for president. He’s only 46 and he only spent six years in the U.S. House representing the El Paso, Texas area. The two Democratic frontrunners, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP Susan Rice: Trump picks Putin over troops 'even when it comes to the blood of American service members' Does Donald Trump even want a second term? MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: Unhappy voters could deliver political shocks beyond Trump Democratic senator will introduce bill mandating social distancing on flights after flying on packed plane Neil Young opposes use of his music at Trump Mount Rushmore event: 'I stand in solidarity with the Lakota Sioux' MORE (I-Vt.) are both in their 70s and have served in Washington for 38 and 28 years respectively.

A generational war is being waged in American politics, particularly within the Democratic Party. A battle rages between the boomers who run the party and the millennials who are the strongest Democratic partisans. The defeats of Reps. Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyBowman declares victory over Engel in New York primary as votes still counted Progressives riding high as votes tabulated in NY, Kentucky The Hill's Campaign Report: Primary night in Kentucky and New York MORE in New York City and Mike Capuano in Boston by the victories of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocratic strategist Andrew Feldman says Biden is moving left Hispanic Caucus asks Trump to rescind invitation to Mexican president Nadler wins Democratic primary MORE and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressives zero in on another House chairman in primary Ocasio-Cortez pitches interns to work for her instead of McConnell MORE were as much generational than they were ideological. Both incumbents had very good liberal voting records that were no match for younger and more energetic challengers.

O'Rourke’s youth and energy would be an effective contrast against the two frontrunners. The outcome of the fight is vital for the future of the Democratic Party.

Cult of personality?

Beto has charisma to burn. He runs the risk of appearing shallow, but he projects leadership which is what many voters look for in a president. Many of the other Democratic candidates are very smart and very earnest. Some of the Democratic presidential candidates come across as policy wonks and are almost totally policy-oriented when most voters are personality driven especially independent voters. These indy voters are key to beating Trump. Candidates can talk about issues until the cows come home but most people vote for people not programs.

If the Democratic candidates were in high school, Biden would be the popular senior class president on his way to bigger and better things. Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSusan Rice sees stock rise in Biden VP race The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden chips away at Trump's fundraising advantage Warnock raises almost M in Georgia Senate race in second quarter MORE (D-Mass.) would be the school nerds well on their way to Ivy League colleges. Beto O’Rourke? He would be the popular and cool freshman who the other newbies would gravitate towards.

The social media reaction to Beto’s entry into the Democratic nomination sweepstakes from Sanders supporters was especially harsh. I saw tweets from Sanders supporters describing O’Rourke as a “pretty boy” and “vapid.’ When I saw those comments, I thought of Felix Frankfurter’s reaction to Franklin Delano Roosevelt after their first meeting. The future Supreme Court justice said FDR “had a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” Well Roosevelt used that temperament to lead a nation out of a devastating economic depression and through a horrific world war.

Ideological throwdown

O’Rourke isn’t all personality. Recently he threw down against Sanders in the ideological war waging within the Democratic Party.  O’Rourke drew a line in the sand between himself and Sanders in remarks to reporters in his hometown of El Paso Texas in February. “I’m a capitalist. I don’t see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges that we have as a country without in part harnessing the power of the market.”

That makes it clear the candidate O’Rourke doesn’t shy away from the issues. His statement reflects his plan to run a slightly left of center campaign. The Texan believes that Democrats and Americans generally are more pragmatic than ideological.

Socialism? Capitalism? It doesn’t matter to most Americans as long as it works. Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the People’s Republic of China endured harsh attacks from hard core Communists when he transformed the nation’s economy into a quasi-capitalist system. His response to his critics was “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” That’s how most Americans feel.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said that “Compassion is not a weakness and compassion for the unfortunate is not socialism.” These could be words for the O’Rourke campaign to live by.


O’Rourke’s position won’t win him any friends among the Democratic Socialists in the party. But it doesn’t matter because Beto’s real target is Biden not Bernie. A lot of Biden’s support is soft and O’Rourke hopes his just-left-of-center campaign might be the home for some of that support if the former vice president’s campaign falters.

Besides his personality, his strength as a candidate is his ability to organize and raise money with social media. Beto's may be the anti-Bernie in the race but his reach on the internet rivals Sanders’ clout on social media. You can't spit on social media without hitting a Beto friend, follower or connection. Biden doesn’t have much presence on the world wide web which poses a grave danger in this day and age. 

O’Rourke is a great addition to an impressive field of Democratic candidates. I am convinced that one of the dark-horse candidates will come out of the dust to be a serious player and maybe even win the nomination. Why not Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeColorado GOP Rep. Scott Tipton defeated in primary upset Clinton, Buttigieg among Democrats set to hold virtual events for Biden Redistricting: 'The next decade of our democracy is on the ballot' in November MORE?

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also the host of a radio podcast “Dateline D.C. With Brad Bannon” that airs on the Progressive Voices Network.

This is the sixth piece in a series of profiles by Bannon on 2020 Democratic hopefuls. Read his analysis on former Govs. Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper, former Vice President Joe BidenSen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former HUD Secretary Julian CastroSen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)