Beto's Chances

One purported top contender for the Democrats’ presidential nomination so far has stayed on the sidelines: former Representative Robert Francis O’Rourke of Texas, better known as “Beto” O’Rourke.  A rising star in the Democratic Party, even after his unsuccessful attempt to win Ted Cruz’s Senate seat last year, he has been the subject of numerous media puff pieces, and liberals are going gaga over him the same way they did over Barack Obama in 2008.

O’Rourke is a polarizing figure.  To some, he is an optimistic, clean-cut, inspirational politician at a dark and foreboding time.  To others, he is a living embodiment of the “how do you do, fellow kids?” meme; a 46-year old man trying a bit too hard to seem cool and appeal to youngsters, skateboarding onto stage and live-streaming his dental appointment on Instagram. 

Though they laugh and roll their eyes as him, Republicans should not underestimate O’Rourke.  He is a formidable campaigner, having visited all of Texas’s 254 counties during his bid for Cruz’s Senate seat.  He has a dedicated and passionate base of supporters in Texas and the rest of the country.  He raised an enormous amount of money, more than any Senate candidate in history.  He came close to winning a Senate race in a solid red state, losing to Cruz by a mere 3 points.  And that is another reason Democrats are so excited about O’Rourke: they have their eyes on Texas. 

The state is slowly turning purple, thanks to immigration and residents of California and other blue states moving there.  Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by only 9 points in 2016, while George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by 23 points in 2004.  Texas voted for Trump by a smaller margin than did Iowa and by only a slightly larger margin than did Ohio.  Republicans can no longer take Texas for granted, and Democrats believe they can win Texas if they run the right candidate. 

Another reason he could win the nomination: Democrats are nostalgic for Obama, and O’Rourke reminds them of him.  There are many parallels between “Betomania” and “Obamamania,” and O’Rourke has been called the “white Obama.”  O’Rourke also reminds Democrats of a Kennedy, another reason for his appeal.  He even has the same first and middle names as John F. Kennedy’s younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy. 

Liberals want to forget that Trump ever existed.  They want it to be the Obama years forever, and they think if the right candidate is elected, the country can get back to business as usual and the enormous rifts that have been growing in our country will simply disappear.  O’Rourke often laments the divided state of America and talks about how he wants to unite the country.  O’Rourke and his supporters don’t realize that uniting the country is a forlorn hope.  We can’t “bridge the divide” when half the country thinks MAGA hats are equivalent to KKK hoods. 

Twenty years ago, O’Rourke might have been a shoe-in for the nomination.  But times have changed.  He is a white male in a party increasingly hostile to white males and which seeks and celebrates greater diversity in its leadership.  John Kerry may be the last white male Democrats ever nominate for president. 

Aside from hatred of white males, there is another reason Democrats prefer their nominee be nonwhite and/or a woman.  As president, any criticism of Obama from the Right was dismissed as rooted in racism, and likewise any criticism of Clinton during her presidential bid was dismissed as rooted in misogyny.  So long as Democrats run candidates not white males, they can dismiss any criticism of them as rooted in some form of bigotry. 

If O’Rourke runs for president, Democrats lose this perceived opportunity.  Even if he isn’t nominated for president, O’Rourke could be chosen as vice president to keep his supporters behind the ticket.  In keeping with tradition, O’Rourke is an Irish Catholic -- for some reason, all recent vice-presidential nominees have been Irish Catholics: Joe Biden, Paul Ryan, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence (although Pence converted to Evangelical Christianity). 

Discounting his race and gender, O’Rourke still faces obstacles to getting the Democratic nomination.  He is very much an establishment Democrat in an increasingly progressive party, although he has publicly taken progressive positions, such as defending the NFL protesters and advocating for the impeachment of Trump.  He is married to the daughter of a billionaire, so if nominated, Democrats would have a hard time attacking Republicans for supporting a billionaire president without being accused of hypocrisy. 

Perhaps most importantly, O’Rourke has twice been arrested.  In 1995, he was arrested for attempted burglary for breaking into the University of Texas at El Paso, but the charges were dropped.  Three years later, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated, after crashing into a truck and attempting to flee the scene.  In an op-ed, O’Rourke acknowledged the incident, calling it a “serious mistake for which there is no excuse.”  However, during a debate with Cruz, he falsely claimed, “I did not try to leave the scene of the accident.” 

But a controversial past doesn’t always rub off on a candidate.  Obama associated with a communist professor who planted bombs and a pastor who said, “God damn America,” and it didn’t seem to hurt his candidacy.  The Gore campaign revealed close to election day in 2000 that Bush had a DUI, yet he still won.  And up until his death in 2009, Democrats still admired the “Lion of the Senate” Ted Kennedy, despite the Chappaquiddick incident. 

O’Rourke has many weaknesses, and his popularity may be less than we are led to believe.  Last Monday, Trump and O’Rourke held dueling rallies in El Paso. 

Video screen grab via RCP

Trump’s rally was attended by more people than O’Rourke’s rally, despite El Paso being his home town.  If O’Rourke can’t get more people to attend his rally than the president’s in the city where he was born and lived his whole life, is he really much of a threat to Trump?  Perhaps he’ll run for John Cornyn’s Senate seat instead and lose that race as well. 

There is also the question of his preparedness for the office of President of the United States.  In January, O’Rourke gave a lengthy interview to the Washington Post.  Aside from being totally opposed to a border wall, he had little to say on the issues aside from “I don’t know” and “I don’t necessarily understand.”  He also questioned whether the Constitution was still relevant, which makes one wonder how seriously he would take the oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” should he be sworn in as president. 

Last month, a website called, which wants to do just that, released a short video in support of a Beto candidacy.

Much like O’Rourke himself, the video is full of meaningless platitudes and contains no concrete policy proposals. 

But what if that’s what the American people want?  What if voters don’t want someone with concrete policy proposals, but someone who makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside?  Did Obama win because of the issues, or because he promised Americans “hope and change?”  Did Trump win because of the issues, or because he promised to “make America great again?”  Elections have been decided by whichever side can best sell their candidate since at least the “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” campaign in 1840. 

O’Rourke is an empty suit that parrots liberal talking points, and supporters project their views onto him.  He is popular because of this, not in spite of it.  In his 2006 autobiography The Audacity of Hope, then-Senator Obama wrote, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”  That is why Obama won the presidency, and should O’Rourke win too, that is why he will have won. 

Thomas OMalley can be contacted at

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