As skeptics said from the beginning, Beto O’Rourke was never going to win Texas. If the state that hasn’t gone blue since 1988 (and that gave Trump a solid 52.2 percent of their votes in 2016) elected a Democrat as their new Senator, it would have been an indicator that the political landscape of this country had changed more drastically than most extreme estimates. But O’Rourke, for all his Kennedy-esque charm and Obama-style oratory skills, was indeed running a doomed race.
However, in spite of his slim chances, he still managed what had been deemed impossible. He made Texas a de facto two-party system yet again, reviving the desiccated Texas Democratic Party. He drew the nation’s attention, even snagging a last-minute endorsement from Beyoncé, who blasted a picture of her “Beto for Senate” hat to her 120 million Instagram followers. Within hours of O’Rourke’s Senate loss, the hashtag #Beto2020 trended, and supporters were encouraged to keep and recycle their signs for a potential presidential campaign.
There’s no doubt that O’Rourke has star power. But in order to explore how O’Rourke could carry out a successful campaign and win the presidency, it is crucial to understand what exactly went wrong in Texas.
Essentially, it appears O’Rourke fell victim to the cultural differences between the rural and urban areas of America. A study from the Pew Research Center did an extensive examination of these differences. According to the study, people in urban areas tend to be Democrats who believe in a strong national government, and think racial discrimination is a major issue. People in rural areas tend to be Republicans who support Trump, and typically do not support immigration.
In keeping with this trend, the liberal O’Rourke won all the districts with large cities, like Dallas, Houston, and Austin. Conversely, he lost most of the rural districts, which ultimately cost him the election. This is not surprising to anyone who followed the 2016 election. But the optimism surrounding O’Rourke sprung from the hope that after two years of Trump, traditional Republicans would finally be pushed away from what he represents. In hindsight, that optimism seems a bit unfounded, as 46 percent of Americans think Trump will win in 2020.
So O’Rourke lost his first fight to win the hearts of rural voters. But he lost by a much smaller margin than anyone expected, taking 48.3 percent of the vote compared to Cruz’s 50.9 percent. Moreover, Texas is an extremely red state that historically has experienced low voter turnout in its midterm elections, but this year’s turnout approached that of a presidential election. The significance of O’Rourke’s close loss should not be understated: he may not be a Senator, but the massive support and record-breaking amount of donations his campaign received brought excitement back to Democrats who have had a rough two years. He lost exactly where he was expected to, but in the areas where he had a chance, he excelled.
Now it is up to O’Rourke to answer the call of liberal Americans, including widely-followed celebrities like Olivia Wilde, Josh Gad, and Busy Phillips, and make his bid for the presidency. His team will have no shortage of opportunities when planning the campaign. O’Rourke can capitalize on Hollywood support, a sphere which Trump’s own victory in 2016 has shown us is quite enmeshed with the sphere of politics. Moreover, early voting data from Texas showed a 500 percent increase in young voters, most of which voted for O’Rourke. The Texan politician could certainly run a Bernie-esque campaign fueled by the energy of young people, and given that he is not as far left as Sanders, Beto 2020 could actually achieve what many believe Bernie 2016 could not.
It is possible that O’Rourke can enjoy substantial leeway in deciding how to run a potential presidential campaign. As long as he doesn’t alienate his devoted fan base, he has already proven that he can bring in donations at unprecedented levels. Looking to the primaries, O’Rourke already has a platform that would play well to Democrats on a national level, one that includes an emphasis on accessible and inclusive healthcare. Looking even further to the national election, the fact that he did so well in Texas shows that he has potential as a candidate who can draw voters from historically red states: the battleground states that Democratic nominees fight for have less challenging demographics than the ones O’Rourke faced in his Texas Senatorial campaign.
To be fair, O’Rourke is not a perfect candidate for the Democrats in 2020. He frustrated some Democrats by not sharing his enormous donations with other Democrats running for office, and some questioned if his Senatorial campaign was a ploy to set him on track for the Oval Office. Moreover, despite the fact that he speaks fluent Spanish and is called “Beto,” a traditionally Hispanic nickname, O’Rourke is a white man. This may discourage voters who are seeking new kinds of representation. New polls show that Democrats want their next presidential nominee to be a woman, particularly a woman of color, to fight against the racism and misogyny that the Trump era has incited.
That does not mean that we should count O’Rourke out. At the end of the day, he is authentic and inspiring, something many politicians can only dream of being. Moreover, he is currently without scandal and has the sympathy of many for losing a well-fought election. If O’Rourke can keep his momentum until the country starts gearing up for the primaries, he could be the powerhouse candidate that the Democrats need to take back the White House.
Lucy Ritzmann is a first year prospective Political Science major interested in political media and law. Last summer, she interned at the Manhattan Borough President's Office. For winter quarter, she is a Fellow's Ambassador at the IOP. In her free time, she enjoys being with her friends and zumba.