Four million votes in conservative Texas are a terrible thing for Democrats to waste. And that’s how many were cast Tuesday for Beto O’Rourke, the party’s candidate for the US Senate.
Though O’Rourke lost to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz, he did so by a surprisingly narrow margin in a state where Republicans regularly trounce Democrats: less than three percentage points. Now, speculation has begun on how Democrats could redeploy the US congressman’s nationwide popularity and fundraising prowess.
Some are already calling for a “Beto 2020” presidential campaign, a possibility which O’Rourke previously dismissed. So how can O’Rourke and his party channel Beto-mania?
O’Rourke himself has not provided any clues of what may be next. During his concession speech, he said he will continue to work to connect polarized Americans, a major campaign theme. “I want to make sure that… we offer our experience, perspective, courage on the issues we know best,” he said about his hometown of El Paso. “We will form something powerful, magical.”
He signed off with, “We will see you down the road.”
Some pundits say supporters should give O’Rourke a break before he decides his next stop. “He’s earned some Mexican food and tequila for a day or two, to relax a little bit and remind his family who he is,” says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
But he, too, says O’Rourke should eventually figure out a way to continue his political career.
The first opportunity to run for office would be in 2020. He could run for president, as the likes of actress and activist Alyssa Milano, Golden States Warriors coach Steve Kerr, and media pundits are suggesting.
But that would be ill-advised, says Jillson, who points out that no presidential candidate has gone from a US House seat to the White House since the late 1840s. The roster of potential Democratic nominees is already deep, and despite his nationwide fandom, O’Rourke is a relative newbie to national politics. After serving in El Paso’s city council for six years, he was first elected to Congress in 2012.
But others say political experience is no longer a requirement for the top government job after Donald Trump and Barack Obama. “Beto has been someone who dreams big,” says Mark P. Jones, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute of Public Policy. “If you had asked people if he would get less than 3 points of Ted Cruz a year and a half ago, they would have said no. But he thought big and achieved big.”
If he wants to stay in Texas, Beto could take on the state’s other US Senator, Republican John Cornyn, who is up for reelection in 2020. The other major Texas office he could run for, governor, isn’t up for grabs until 2022.
Regardless of what position he chooses to run for, if he does at all, his odds might not be as good as in 2018. Beto’s campaign this year was buoyed by Americans repelled by both Cruz and Trump not only in Texas; the enormous amount of money from donors across the country—$70 million in total—helped make O’Rourke a contender.
Next time around, voters might not be as desperate to go to the polls, and O’Rourke might not seem as captivating next to a better-liked politician than Cruz. Then again, it’s hard to predict how Americans will feel after two more years of the Trump administration.
Even if he’s not on the ballot, O’Rourke could boost Democrats in Texas and elsewhere. The once unknown El Pasoan is now a household name across the country, having made the talk-show rounds in Los Angeles and New York.
He could use that notoriety to put the spotlight on other candidates running in 2020, particularly in places that look like the conservative suburban communities where he made big gains in Texas.
He could also help the Texas Democratic party get its act together so they can help sponsor Beto-like campaigns for candidates with less money. His team has a trove of useful information on the voters Democrats need to get, and how to get them. Texan Democrats running after him will also start with new hope: “Beto demonstrated that when you have a strong candidate with a strong message, a Democrat can be competitive in Texas,” says Jones.
Ultimately, though, other prominent Democrats in the state like Joaquín and Julián Castro, have to pitch in as well, says Jillson. If Democrats want to win Texas—and other red areas—they can’t pin all their hopes on Beto.