What Should Beto O’Rourke Do?

Longtime readers of this blog may know that I wasn’t too bullish on Beto O’Rourke in 2018. And I was mostly right — despite an energetic campaign, the former Representative out of Texas’s 16th Congressional district failed to unseat Ted Cruz in last November’s Senate race, losing by just under three points.

Despite his defeat, O’Rourke has become something of a rising star in the Democratic Party, and he’s now being touted as a top name in 2020…the only problem is, there isn’t much agreement on which race he should participate.

Obviously, there’s the presidential election. But Texas’s other Senate seat, held by Republican John Cornyn, will be up for reelection next year, and some Democratic officials are urging O’Rourke to focus there. This is all further complicated by the fact that he hasn’t announced his plans yet, instead opting for a grand road trip to do some soul-searching (?).

I’m here today to assess the upsides and downsides of both political paths. To be clear, this won’t be a laundry list of reasons why O’Rourke should or shouldn’t run for a certain office. Rather, the goal here is a sort of cost-benefit analysis, in hopes of determining which campaign would be most beneficial for him in 2020.

President > Senate

The biggest plus here is a pretty clear one: it’s the presidency! If O’Rourke launched any sort of campaign, he would likely see his name recognition numbers go through the roof, putting him in a good spot for a lasting career in national politics.

Indeed, from Thomas Jefferson to William Henry Harrison to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, there’s been a long history of eventual presidents running a first time, failing, and eventually winning later. Thus, O’Rourke could use 2020 as his springboard for 2024, 2028, or beyond.

Additionally, fundraising was a huge part of O’Rourke’s success in 2018; he brought in a record $80 million. In an age where the Democratic Party is putting increased attention on small donations, this could give him a fighting chance against other money-raising machines like Bernie Sanders. Choosing to campaign at the national level would almost certainly bring in more dollars for future political endeavors, if need be.

Finally, the presidency would allow O’Rourke to avoid some of the hurdles he saw in 2018. The problem with Texas is that it’s still a Republican state. Despite his best efforts, a boatload of national attention, and historic turnout, O’Rourke lost to Ted Cruz. Two years later, the same could happen, creating a few problems going forward:

  1. People who run for the Senate twice in two years rarely end up winning. While that wasn’t the case for candidates like current Ohio governor Mike DeWine in the early 1990s, almost everyone since has failed. That includes Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who quite literally became a meme because of her back-to-back losses. A loss here could brand O’Rourke as a repeat failure, putting a scourge on any future campaigns.
  2. The person against whom he would be running, John Cornyn, has both better net favorability and stronger incumbency than Ted Cruz. Two polls have been released of this potential matchup, and both show Cornyn ahead. You should of course take these with a grain of salt, but that still isn’t news O’Rourke wants to hear.

These factors would, in theory, make 2020 no easier than 2018 for O’Rourke, potentially nudging him toward a shot at the presidency. His relatively strong performance in polls (averaging at 4th, with ~7% of the vote) and comparisons to Barack Obama don’t hurt, either.

Senate > President

But running for president is extremely challenging. And, all things considered, O’Rourke is far from being the clear favorite.

Before I get deep in the weeds, I want to address the idea of  “lanes.”  Full disclosure on this one: I think it’s too early in the primary to give judgments on exactly what Democratic voters want in a candidate. Nevertheless, the ideology debate will probably matter in the future, so there remains value in assessing where O’Rourke currently stands.

Despite Texas’s status as a Republican-leaning state, O’Rourke used his Senate bid to run to the left, which happens to be the strategy of almost everyone else in the field.

To illustrate the candidates’ stances on the issues, I looked at the DW-NOMINATE scores of O’Rourke and others who are likely to make waves in 2020. For those who are unfamiliar, DW-NOMINATE is a scale that measures how liberal or conservative a member of Congress tends to vote. Though it’s not the be-all and end-all for determining the ideology of a politician, it’s helpful for getting a feel of who thinks what. Here’s what I found:

ideology

The above chart demonstrates that O’Rourke is less economically progressive than many other contenders, but on other issues, he’s about even with the pack. What’s this mean for 2020? Again, it will take time before we really know.

With that out of the way, let’s go to the polls. As mentioned above, O’Rourke is averaging about 4th, but surveys this early are far from reliable. The important thing to analyze here is the change we’ve seen so far, and it isn’t looking good for him.

polls

Although O’Rourke started out with an impressive 15% in Emerson College’s early December poll, he has since dropped to 4% in their most recent one. The same trend appears, albeit to a lesser extent, in consecutive surveys from the Morning Consult.

The cause behind these shifts isn’t so much O’Rourke’s doing as that of his opponents; Kamala Harris’s campaign rollout improved her numbers substantially, possibly eating away from O’Rourke.

Still, the fact that he’s dropping quickly could be enough to either compel O’Rourke to announce a presidential campaign soon, or convince him to look to greener pastures in his home state.

Another polling nugget worth mentioning is that O’Rourke isn’t very many voters’ second choice. When the Morning Consult asked respondents this question last week, he didn’t appear as one of the top three most popular second choices of supporters for Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren.

Thus, if O’Rourke were to make a deep run as one of the last 3 or 4 Democrats standing, it’s hard to figure out just how many voters would coalesce around him, instead of someone else.

The last major downside for O’Rourke comes from his relative lack of experience. Remember: his highest elected office is to the House of Representatives. Comparatively, his challengers include a bevy of Senators, possibly some governors, and perhaps a two-term vice president.

As FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich observed last week, this historically hasn’t augured well for presidential hopefuls. In fact, the last person to go from the House to the White House was James Garfield, and that was in 1880.

This could maybe the most compelling argument for O’Rourke to focus on the Senate: if he wins there, his résumé would be a lot stronger for another presidential bid down the line.

Conclusion

So, should Beto O’Rourke run against John Cornyn or Donald Trump in 2020? As always, the answer isn’t immediately obvious. What it comes down to, in my eyes, is an assessment of which he values more: being elected, or capitalizing on his meteoric rise.

If O’Rourke chose the former, the Senate is a no-brainer. His chances of winning are far from guaranteed, and that’s because of where he’d be running; still, though, he would not only likely make it to the general election, but be competitive when he gets there.

Compare that to the presidency, where O’Rourke has to first win the primary (an outcome that betting markets are currently rating at only 15%) and then put up a fight in the Electoral College.

On the other hand, choosing to stay in Texas harms his chances at becoming a household name across the US. After all, the prospects of a prominent career in national politics are incredibly enticing, and not far from realistic. In the end, the long-term glory from a presidential run may be enough to swing his ambitions in that direction.

And given that O’Rourke’s already starting to campaign in states that aren’t Texas, he may have already made up his mind.

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