In the days, weeks, and months following the 2018 midterm elections, whispers surrounding the impending 2020 Democratic Presidential primary will quickly engulf the political world like wildfire. In a stark reversal from the minuscule field in the 2016 primary, Democrats have a potentially colossal field of candidates from which to choose.
The exhaustive list of potential contenders includes former Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar, Governors Steve Bullock, Deval Patrick, and Andrew Cuomo, Mayors Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Mitch Landrieu, business leaders Howard Schultz, Mark Cuban, and Oprah Winfrey, and Obama administration alumni Julian Castro and Eric Holder. Already running are Representatives Eric Swalwell and John Delaney. The list goes on.
However, while all these folks have their individual strengths–and, of course, weaknesses–there is only one candidate guaranteed to relegate Donald Trump to a one-term presidency: Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke.
On its face, an O’Rourke nomination may not seem like an ideal scenario for Democrats. After all, his most recent development was losing the Texas Senate race to nationally reviled Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Nevertheless, when weighing his relatively minor weaknesses against his overwhelming strengths–which are unparalleled by any of the potential Democratic contenders–O’Rourke is, on balance, the clear choice to take on Trump.
Firstly, consider O’Rourke’s impressive electoral performance in that race. He was never expected to defeat Cruz. Had he done so, it would’ve easily been one of the most notable upsets of the night. He ultimately came within 2.5 points of an upset, which is right where the polls pegged him. While it could be argued that this is a result of Democrats winning the national popular vote by around 7 points, a closer look puts that assertion into doubt.
For all the Democratic bleating about “turning Texas blue,” the Lone Star State is still awfully red. Mitt Romney won it by 16 points. Granted, Hillary Clinton managed to get within 9 points of Donald Trump in Texas in 2016. In fact, hers was the best performance for a Democratic Presidential candidate in Texas since her husband lost it by 5 points in 1996, a year in which he won the electoral vote in a landslide. But the qualitative factors of that race mute the quantitative ones considerably.
Despite being a pretty clear Republican primary front-runner by March of 2016, Donald Trump lost Texas to native son Cruz by a resounding 17 points. Indeed, Trump, a New York City real estate developer, casino owner, and high profile philanderer, was not exactly the ideal Republican for Texas’s more traditional values.
Hillary Clinton, for her part, had unique appeal to upper crust, well educated suburban voters that comprise the core of Texas’s Republican electorate, allowing her to have a uniquely favorable performance there. Had a generic Republican like John Kasich or Marco Rubio been on the ballot that year, Texas would not have swung towards Democrats nearly as much as it did.
Now consider the results of recent statewide races in Texas, which are more apt for comparison with O’Rourke’s performance. In 2012, a year when the Democrats won the House popular vote by 1.2 points, Cruz won his initial election to Senate by 16 points. In 2018, with a projected Democratic House popular vote victory of 6.9 points, Cruz won by 14 points less than he did in 2012, despite having both incumbency advantage–which is not to be underestimated–and three times as much cash as he did in 2012. In other words, O’Rourke reduced Cruz’s margin of victory by 14 points despite Cruz having both an incumbency advantage and increased campaign cash. The 5.7 point popular vote increase between 2012 and 2018 does not explain that away.
Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that Beto, even considering the shifting demographics of Texas, probably did significantly better than most other Democrats would’ve in his place. This is further evidenced by the coattail effect he had on down-ballot races; Democrats had massive judicial victories, flipped two House seats, and won control of the state’s school board with Beto atop the ticket. He did all this while running as a firm progressive in a red state. In conclusion, he has a clear track record of electoral overperformance.
So, we’ve seen clear evidence of O’Rourke’s electoral potency. But what we’ve also seen is his ability to build a national, grassroots movement. Democrats across the country clambered to give O’Rourke fistful’s of cash–resulting in O’Rourke smashing previous Senate fundraising record with an eye-popping $69 million, all from grassroots donations–despite the fact that he was always an underdog. He filled stadiums and auditoriums, went viral several times and gave inspiration and hope to voters across the country. Even in England, the one question I always heard in the run-up to the election was, “will Beto win?” Just imagine what he could do with a national platform against a historically unpopular President.
Some will argue that as a three-term Congressman, O’Rourke is unqualified for the job, but his lack of qualification is often overstated. He has served in Congress two years longer than Barack Obama did when he became President (not to mention the fact that much of the second half of Obama’s 4 years in the Senate was spent campaigning for President). In that time, he has built a fairly robust legislative history chock full of bipartisan compromise.
In addition to serving on the House Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committee, O’Rourke was also ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. In 2017, he ranked third among all House Democrats in the most bipartisan co-sponsors for his bills, and 4th in the Texas Delegation for most bills co-sponsors, according to Govtrack. He introduced the 29th most bills of all 435 Representatives and was ranked 26th for getting influential co-sponsors on his bills.
While none of his bills managed to become law, that is primarily because his time in Congress has been spent in the minority. That makes it exceedingly difficult to even get a bill through both chambers of Congress, let alone passed and codified into law. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that Beto has experience and aptitude at working with colleagues in Washington, a crucial skill for any President when it comes to passing a domestic agenda.
Now, while the field of potential frontrunners for the Democratic nomination includes Governors, long-time Senators, cabinet secretaries, and a Vice President, I would be remiss if I didn’t question the actual value of traditional political experience.
Firstly, the 2016 campaign showed us that, electorally, experience is not a necessity to win, and may, in fact, be to a candidate’s detriment in such an anti-establishment political era. Candidates like Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders, who have both been in Congress for decades, would be vulnerable to Trump attacks of them being part of the swampy dysfunction of Washington. Moreover, many of the top frontrunners are Senators; one should ponder this reflexive notion among politicos that working for 20 years in one chamber of Congress somehow makes you significantly more qualified than working in the other chamber for 6 years. Congress is, at the end of the day, Congress.
In fact, the key reason why so few Congressmen become President, and the reason so many Governors and Senators have, is because they typically lack the national platforms often afforded to higher-profile statewide lawmakers and executives. With Beto, however, that concern can be squared away; he’s probably the most prominent politician on the national stage following his Senate campaign.
Moreover, the whole idea that an experienced executive is necessary for a solid presidency is far from the consensus view of Presidential scholars and political scientists. An analysis by FiveThirtyEight found no correlation between the years of prior legislative or executive experience of a President and his historical ranking. In fact, it found that some of our least experienced Presidents–Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Wilson–were in the top 10, while some of our most experienced Presidents–Nixon, Tyler, Johnson, Buchanan–were clustered at the bottom of the barrel.
Nonetheless, having experienced people in an administration is crucial, even if they’re not sitting in the oval office. That is why picking a 46-year-old like O’Rourke–relatively young on the national stage–may be preferable to picking an older candidate. O’Rourke would be free to pick an experienced statesman–say Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg, or even Joe Biden–for his vice president, and to fill his cabinet with older but qualified appointees to round him out.
Ideologically, Beto is also a perfect fit. At present, the Democratic party is seeing a crisis of identity between it’s populist progressive and moderate liberal branches. But it needn’t be that way. Beto was able to transcend the ideological, intra-party squabbles and appeal to all sides by taking common sense, progressive approaches on a wide range of issues from immigration to infrastructure. While he is certainly not an out-and-proud democratic socialist like his colleagues Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, he is a progressive nonetheless. That positions him well as a consensus choice between the two battling wings of the party.
There is a lot to be said for having a young, energizing, and inspirational candidate, who can build a national movement from the ground up, at the top of the Democratic ticket at a time when the President has his own fiercely dedicated base of supporters–to the tune of 35% of the national electorate–at his back. In order to take down Trump, Democrats will need to fight fire with fire. That means nominating someone who inspires the same loyalty and confidence in not only their supporters, but left-of-center voters across the country. The only person who truly fits that description is Beto O’Rourke.
Andrew Solender ’20 is a political science major and history correlate. He has worked as a political reporter for Chronogram Magazine, Inside Sources, and City & State NY.