BY Alex Samuels
Beto O’Rourke is days away from making a big decision about his political future.
If he wants to capitalize on the political superstardom he accumulated after barely losing to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s midterms, two obvious paths lie before him: He could run for president or pursue another Senate bid, this time against John Cornyn.
The former congressman has kept up the suspense in recent days, keeping his options open amid intense speculation as to what his final decision may be. O’Rourke, an El Paso Democrat, said he’ll decide before the end of February whether he’ll throw his hat in the ring to challenge Republican Donald Trump for the presidency.
Here are six questions that loom over O’Rourke as he makes up his mind.
O’Rourke rose to national prominence in part because of his eye-popping fundraising against Cruz. Gathered largely through small-dollar donations, the money he easily raked in totaled over $80 million — without a dime of PAC money — compared to the Republican incumbent’s $39 million.
Putting together money for a presidential campaign — especially in an already crowded primary — is a different story.
For starters, he’d be competing against a handful of Democrats, including one from the same state, Julián Castro, all trying to collect cash. (For example, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, raised $6 million within 24 hours of announcing his run). If O’Rourke won the Democratic nomination, he’d then be up against Trump, who already has more than $106 million on hand for his re-election campaign.
Then there’s the question of whether O’Rourke will again crusade against taking money from wealthy donors and PACs — a move that would mirror what other Democratic candidates have done. Castro disavowed PAC money before he even entered the race. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also said she won’t take PAC money of any kind.
Compared to Democrats already campaigning, O’Rourke is behind in the money race since he stopped fundraising after Election Day and left little in his Senate campaign coffers. What’s working in his favor is that he and Sanders have the most small-dollar contributors — which could tee up the El Pasoan to be a force to be reckoned with should he choose to run.
While occupying the Oval Office obviously comes with its own set of perks, some top Democrats are encouraging the El Pasoan to take a more measured approach: skip the White House and challenge Cornyn.
Politico reported last week that O’Rourke met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to talk about another Senate campaign. And a new poll conducted by the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling shows O’Rourke could pose a threat to Cornyn if he goes that route. The former Democratic congressman trails Cornyn by 2 percentage points, 45 percent to 47 percent, in a hypothetical matchup, according to the survey. Eight percent of respondents were unsure.
Some political pundits predict that having O’Rourke’s name at the top of the ticket could elevate down-ballot candidates in the state and make Texas a competitive grab for whichever Democrat faces Trump — a move that could put the state in play for the first time in decades.
“One would be hard-pressed to look at the crowded field of reasonably formidable contenders that are looking to get the Democratic nomination, and then look at what the field will look like from Cornyn’s position and not think that the odds are much higher of winning the Senate seat than winning the Democratic primary nomination and then the presidency,” said Jim Henson, one of the pollsters behind the University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls.
To be sure, Cornyn is aware that O’Rourke may be a competitor in 2020. In a fundraising email where he announced a “STOP BETO FUND,” the senator told supporters Wednesday, “We need to be ready for anything.”
“I don’t know if you’ve heard the news, but 2018 Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke is talking about another run in 2020 — and this time he’s collaborating with Chuck Schumer to paint a target on my back,” the email reads. “It’s still early, but we CAN NOT afford to let Beto carry this momentum into 2020.”
O’Rourke’s Senate bid was unconventional. He did not rely on pollsters or consultants to shape his message, he eschewed all PAC money, he livestreamed constantly and he traveled everywhere, going to all 254 Texas counties. Some of those strategies may be easier than others to replicate in a far more demanding national campaign.
Asked Tuesday if he’d do anything different as a White House hopeful — such as hire a pollster — O’Rourke said he didn’t know.
“I haven’t really gotten to thinking through those kinds of issues,” O’Rourke told reporters after an event in El Paso. “I think any campaign I run … I would want to run in the same way that I run every race — just as grassroots as possible, powered by people, directly connected to the people I want to serve and represent.
“You would see much the same style of campaign, whatever we do next,” O’Rourke said, quickly adding, “if we do anything next.”
O’Rourke stood out in Texas last year, but standing out nationally could prove to be a challenge for him. He hasn’t held many elected offices and doesn’t have many major legislative or policy accomplishments to point to. Aside from that, he lost the race he’s most well known for.
The Democrats who have committed to running in 2020, meanwhile, may look a bit more impressive on paper. Among them are current U.S. senators and the runner-up for the 2016 Democratic nomination. Other well-known Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, are still deliberating runs.
What might work in O’Rourke’s favor is not running on his resume but highlighting his rock-star status that allowed him to energize voters and grassroots in what turned out to be a nail-biter election against Cruz.
During his Senate campaign, O’Rourke often mentioned his wife, Amy, and three young children, Ulysses, Molly and Henry. When the race concluded and the former congressman first announced he wasn’t ruling out a presidential run, he made clear his family would factor into his decision.
“Now that that is no longer possible, we’re thinking through a number of things, and Amy and I made a decision not to rule anything out,” O’Rourke said at the time. “The best advice I received from people who’ve run for and won — and run for and lost — elections like this is: Don’t make any decisions about anything until you’ve had some time to hang with your family and just be human. And so I am following that advice.”
During a February interview with media mogul Oprah Winfrey, the El Pasoan said that he and former President Barack Obama discussed the toll a White House bid can put on a family — something O’Rourke is seemingly still coming to terms with as he mulls a 2020 presidential run.
“For me, it will really be family” that makes the final decision, O’Rourke told Winfrey.
O’Rourke’s family has appeared with him at events within the the state as he ponders entering the crowded Democratic presidential primary. A recent example was during a march and rally in El Paso that was steps away from a campaign rally Trump held in the border city at around the same time.
The 2020 Democratic primary is already the most diverse one ever: Two black candidates — U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — have entered the race, several women are looking to secure their party’s nomination and some presidential hopefuls are running to the left of their party’s base.
With multiple unconventional candidates in the ring, traditional campaign tactics might get thrown out the window, meaning the Democrats will have to look for unique ways to capture the attention of a growing voter base that’s seeing more black Americans and Hispanics enter the fray.
The changing demographics of the Democratic party also have some wondering if O’Rourke — a white male — will be the best representative for the party in 2020.
Aside from the changing racial demographics of the party, Democrats across the nation are grappling with a potentially burgeoning leftist shift in the party, especially as prominent figures like U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Sanders accumulate national acclaim for energizing grassroots and pushing policies that align with Democratic socialism.
As the Ocasio-Cortezes of the party and ideas like #AbolishICE excite the left, there’s a question of who will motivate more voters in 2020, a progressive candidate or a centrist one.
If voters opt for the former, that could spell trouble for O’Rourke. The former congressman hasn’t been shy in rejecting a socialist label for himself, often voted against a majority of House Democrats and in favor of bills supported by the GOP, and has publicly declared himself a capitalist.
O’Rourke told reporters in El Paso this week that he doesn’t “see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges we have as a country without in part harnessing the power of the market.”
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.