Beto O’Rourke, the most unconventional Senate candidate of 2018, is now winning one of the most conventional contests in presidential politics: The tease.
In a 2020 presidential primary field full of Democrats who’ve been essentially running for months, the Texas congressman titillated party loyalists Monday merely by acknowledging he isn’t ruling it out. The slow drip is re-shaping the early stages of the campaign, as many activists and donors await a decision from O’Rourke before jumping to another candidate.
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“I think having some kind of signal, like we got yesterday, is very useful, because now people can say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to hold off and see if he gets in,’” said Jay Surdukowski, a New Hampshire-based attorney and Democratic activist who co-chaired Martin O’Malley’s 2016 presidential campaign in the state. “It’s basically a tinder box up here. The second he gets here, he’s just going to be so in demand.”
O’Rourke is benefiting as a relative late-comer to a presidential contest that’s been ramping up for more than a year. More established contenders such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have been traveling to early primary states and courting donors and activists for months. But they’ve been campaigning so brazenly that their eventual announcements have been sapped of much of their intrigue.
O’Rourke, by contrast, vaulted ahead in the contest even as he demurred, telling MSBNC before the November elections that he “will not be a candidate for president in 2020.” Earlier this month — before acknowledging that he had changed his mind — O’Rourke ranked third in a POLITICO/Morning Consult presidential primary poll, behind only former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
On Monday, when O’Rourke said that he and his wife, Amy, had “talked a little bit about next steps,” the remark lit a spark again. Less than 24 hours after O’Rourke’s town hall meeting in El Paso, Texas, the Democratic congressman had been mentioned in more than 700 news articles and nearly 100,000 social media posts, according to data provided to POLITICO by the media intelligence company Meltwater.
“I have never seen a Senate candidate — including Obama in 2004 — inspire the sort of enthusiasm that Beto did in his race,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former communications director for President Barack Obama, wrote in an op-ed on Crooked Media on Monday.
The interest from Democratic donors and operatives appeared to answer an immediate question about the legitimacy of O’Rourke’s presidential prospects, after narrowly losing the Texas Senate race to Republican Ted Cruz.
But his appearance this week — his first public event since the election — also laid bare the precariousness of his timing. O’Rourke has yet to make overtures in critical primary states, while other Democrats are already courting operatives and activists there. And on Monday, O’Rourke suggested that after the rigors of the Senate campaign and a post-election vacation in Costa Rica, he won’t decide on a presidential campaign until after he leaves Congress in early January.
“I think what he said is true,” said Mario Porras, who worked in O’Rourke’s congressional office and helped informally on his Senate campaign. “It’s just been, what, three weeks, and like he mentioned, he just took a vacation with his family … He’s back in (congressional) session the next two weeks, starting today.”
On Monday, O’Rourke expressed reservations about the toll of a prolonged campaign on his family; his children are 8, 10 and 12 years old
But O’Rourke told The Texas Tribune when he entered the Senate race last year that it was at his wife’s urging. For now, at least, Amy O’Rourke appears as uncertain as her husband about a presidential run.
“That just seems like you have to give up so much of your private life, including time as a family in the ways that you have been a family up until then,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s a line that I or we necessarily want to cross.”
“To me, and I think to Beto, it is surreal that people are even having, or asking” about a presidential campaign, she said. “It’s just not something that we’ve spent a lot of time talking about. I mean, it is incredibly flattering, but I don’t know what that even looks like tangibly.”
In his closer-than-expected Senate campaign, O’Rourke eschewed political strategists and pollsters, trekking across deep-red Texas while raising more than $70 million, mostly from a national network of small donors. His massive fundraising list and aptitude for retail campaigning have both lent an air of credibility to his presidential prospects.
“The last 24 hours have been pretty interesting,” said Chris Lippincott, an Austin-based consultant who ran a super PAC opposing Cruz in the Senate campaign. “[O’Rourke] has sort of taken the time to say that he wouldn’t rule it out, and that’s gotten people’s attention. … It’s not so much that that was surprising, but we went from writing that in pencil to writing that in ink.”
Lippincott said O’Rourke capitalized in his Senate campaign on running against a deeply polarizing figure — a dynamic different than O’Rourke would encounter in a Democratic presidential primary.
Still, Lippincott said O’Rourke “is in so many respects built for Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s so good with small crowds, he does not mind interacting with people with whom he might have a legitimate disagreement. The energy and his personable characteristics are made for the sort of retail politics that have defined Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Still, O’Rourke’s lack of infrastructure in those states, as well as in South Carolina and Nevada, will force O’Rourke to immediately ramp up a national operation if he decides to run. Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, said that if O’Rourke “wants to be successful, he is going to have to date South Carolina very quickly, because the one thing about South Carolina voters is that while we love to date, we love to flirt, we also understand the importance of a long-term relationship.”
Democratic activists in Iowa, New Hampshire and California have said they’re unsure even how to reach out to O’Rourke. Surdukowski said he hears regularly from Democrats asking, “Hey, how can we get him invited here?”
In a sign of both the enthusiasm and uncertainty surrounding O’Rourke, Surdukowski said of his own approach to the 2020 candidate field, “I’m not going anywhere until I kind of see what he’s doing.”