Election 2020

For 2020, Don't Bet on Beto

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

On the phoniness level, Robert Francis O’Rourke (Columbia University, 1995) easily scores a ten. Passing himself off as “Beto” (a childhood nickname that is also short for “Roberto” in heavily Mexican El Paso), he quickly became a Democrat Party darling during his run against Rafael E. Cruz (“Ted”) for the Senate last year. O’Rourke put a scare into Cruz, an easily beatable candidate anywhere outside of Texas — and perhaps not even in Texas should he decide to run again in 2024. While he lost by less than three points, Cruz’s close shave put Beto on the national map, in large part because the national media decided that, with his bushy hair and chipmunk overbite, he was “Kennedyesque.”

So, he’s sitting pretty heading into the Democrat free-for-all in 2020, right? Not so fast, amigo:

For a moment in August, an event hall in Texas teemed with hope, taquitos and unity. It was a border-town stop for Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, but another Democratic politician commanded particular attention: Gina Ortiz Jones, a history-making congressional candidate — gay, Filipina-American, an Iraq war veteran — hoping to turn a majority-Hispanic district blue. “Really special person,” Mr. O’Rourke said, as Ms. Jones stood and waved.

But soon, a county chairwoman posed an uncomfortable question. Mr. O’Rourke had not endorsed Ms. Jones. In fact, he had elevated her Republican opponent, Representative Will Hurd, with frequent praise and, most memorably, a live-streamed bipartisan road trip that helped jump-start their midterm campaigns. Would Mr. O’Rourke support the Democrat?

He would not. “This is a place where my politics and my job and my commitment to this country come into conflict,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “I’m going to put country over party.”

Some supporters of Ms. Jones saw it differently: Beto O’Rourke was once again putting Beto O’Rourke first.

In this era of media-informed ethnic, sexual, and racial taxonomy, in which some groups are far more equal than others, that was a cardinal sin — and one for which, if the Times has its editorial way, cannot easily be forgiven or forgotten. Despite his impressive showing against Cruz, O’Rourke is heading into some stiff headwinds: the Democrats are hell-bent on nominating another woman, perhaps even a woman “of color,” and an ordinary middle-aged white male (Beto is 46) would normally have no chance. But the allure of even a knockoff-brand Kennedy is still catnip to many Boomer reporters, who will maintain a soft spot in their hearts should Beto show any traction.

Mr. O’Rourke’s very presence as a would-be presidential contender for 2020 is an issue of heated debate within the party. He is a prolific fund-raiser who proved he can energize younger voters, and some early polls place him third behind Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders, well ahead of many more decorated politicians. But he is also a relatively inexperienced lawmaker who lost his Senate race against Ted Cruz.

For close watchers of Mr. O’Rourke’s rise, his approach to Ms. Jones’s contest captured the twin pillars of his political worldview: He has an instinct for performative campaigning, reaching for multiplatform connection to voters but often lurching toward extreme oversharing. (Mr. O’Rourke was widely mocked recently after turning the camera on his own dental appointment.)

And he has often defied the wishes of his fellow Democrats, especially traditional party leaders, who have eyed him warily since he challenged a Democratic incumbent in 2012 to reach Congress in the first place.

The Times piece bangs on and on, but its principal point is this: had Beto supported Jones she would have won, and the Democrats would have picked up another House seat.

In late June, Ronald Smith, a liberal activist in Mr. Hurd’s district, emailed Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign demanding to know: “Has Beto endorsed Gina Ortiz Jones? If not, when will he endorse her?” Mr. Smith said he wanted “a team player for my next Democratic senator.”

Beto did not, Jones narrowly lost, and now the progressives are furious.

“We know exactly what the Beto bump was and it was amazing,” said Mr. Smith, the liberal activist. “But my assessment was, for Democrats, as well as we did this last election cycle, we would have had one more seat if Beto had been on board with Gina Ortiz Jones.”

The fight for the Democrat nomination is going to be ugly. Have plenty of popcorn on hand.