Beto O’Rourke may have lost to Ted Cruz last week, but conjecture about his future is now fueling nearly as much breathless speculation in the political press as did his 2018 campaign. Even in defeat, his name has been appearing on almost all of the (numerous) lists of possible Democratic presidential candidates. Back in Texas, the depth of the disappointment among his supporters is nearly matched by the volume of speculation seeking to answer the big question: What will Beto do next?
A sober assessment points to the best move for O’Rourke, for Texas, and maybe for the Democratic party writ large: The most likely path for most successful statewide Texas Democrat of the 21st century to win his next election is to rejoin the fray as soon as possible by running for the other U.S. Senate seat in 2020.
The rampant speculation about a Beto for President campaign in 2020 is a fantasy borne of various combinations of Texas-centric thinking, viral Betomania, and media group think. The idea that O’Rourke is already a top-tier candidate in a very crowded and more experienced Democratic field has been, since its pre-election inception, at best far-fetched and at worst a transparent attempt at generating web traffic. Bluntly put, losing hasn’t made it any more plausible. A version of this argument appeared last week in a short op-ed in The Washington Post , but this post takes a deeper dive into the existing evidence to parse the case for another O'Rourke Senate run in more detail. It may feel a little too soon to consider the alternatives before O’Rourke – the wound is too fresh for Democrats, the political near-death experience too recent for Republicans, O’Rourke’s deserved return to the solace of his family too well-earned to be disturbed by politics so quickly. But O’Rourke's return to the statewide arena for the 2020 campaign could hasten the arrival of something genuinely new to Texas politics: A more competitive political system in which neither party monopolizes politics and policy. A competitive Texas would also have serious implications for the presidential race, more signficant than were he to join the Democratic presidential nomination fight. The stakes are high.
Texans’ attitudes toward O’Rourke put him in a very favorable position to mount another Texas campaign. Cornyn, who will turn 68* in 2020, announced in September that he intends to run for reelection. O’Rourke would face either him or a far less known alternative (unless Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick chooses to jump into the race, which seems unlikely, though isn't completely out of the question). In either case, thanks to his 2018 campaign, O’Rourke wouldn’t face one of the primary, natural disadvantages hobbling almost every other likely Democratic candidate in Texas, statewide name recognition. In October 2018 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling, voters’ final, pre-election opinions of O’Rourke were essentially split, with 43 percent holding a favorable opinion and 44 percent holding an unfavorable one. O’Rourke is a known commodity to the Texas electorate, and more importantly, won’t be easy to define, or redefine, compared to his less known, and less well-financed, potential competitors.
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||7%|
|Don't know/no opinion||6%|
While we didn’t ask favorability ratings of either Cornyn or Patrick in that poll, we did ask for job approval assessments. Among Texas voters, Cornyn’s job performance was rated positively by 39 percent and negatively by 34 percent. For Patrick, the positive ratings outweighed the negative ones 44 percent to 32 percent.
|Neither approve nor disapprove||15%|
|Neither approve nor disapprove||14%|
Historically, Senator Cornyn’s approval numbers among Republicans in Texas have not been as strong as GOP elites and political insiders seem to assume – or try to claim without evidence. More important for a bid against Cornyn in what is sure to be another mobilization election, his job approval rating among Republican voters has been historically weak relative to other well-known Texas officeholders. Senator Cruz has regularly received approval ratings in the mid-70s among Republicans throughout much of his tenure, Governor Abbott has frequently crossed into the 80s, and even Lt. Governor Patrick has regularly enjoyed approval ratings in the upper 60s. Cornyn has rarely cracked 50 percent. To be fair, in this tough election season, partisans of both sides came home (something we should expect to see in 2020), resulting in within-party approval ratings for Cornyn of 70 percent. But it will be interesting to watch whether these assessments hold given how far off the trend line they are, and also because there has always been some skepticism towards Cornyn from the base of his party, with about a third of Tea Party Republicans regularly disapproving of his job performance.
The likely composition of the Texas electorate in 2020 might actually favor Democrats, particularly one who has now demonstrated the ability to turn out low-propensity Democratic leaning voters in 2018. After record breaking turnout in this most recent midterm election, handicapping 2020 turnout is something of a guessing game, but none of the fundamental factors listed above should dissuade a Democratic candidate with a well-spring of supporters from running against either Cornyn or Patrick (let alone someone with far less name recognition). We regularly explain the relationship between electoral size and composition in terms of smallness, and conservatism. As in: the pool of registered voters in Texas is more conservative and Republican than the pool of all eligible voters; the pool of presidential election voters tend to be more conservative and Republican than all registered voters; the pool of midterm election voters more conservative and Republican than in the presidential election; and most conservative in the low-turnout GOP primaries. In short, the statewide electorate gets more conservative as it gets smaller.
But the inverse is also almost certain to be true: larger Texas electorates are, at least, less conservative, and potentially more moderate or even more liberal than the habitually small turnout affairs that have marked Texas elections for decades. High turnout in 2020 (compared to 2016) would likely benefit a strong Democratic challenger to Cornyn, Patrick, or whomever emerges from the Republican primary – certainly compared to recent history. And Beto running for Senate would help ensure this higher turnout.
O’Rourke’s odds in the presidential nominating contest in a crowded field are long, given that he did lose to Cruz. Losing a Senate election in Texas is not a springboard to the presidency (and yes, we know about Abraham Lincoln). The national media conversation has been notably favorable to O’Rourke throughout his rise, and, not surprisingly, was also bullish on his unstated and unknown presidential ambitions even before the 2018 election results were in. Had O’Rourke done the unthinkable and beaten Cruz in ruby red Texas, the chatter would be more justifiable, if gauche. Yet as widely noted, the Democratic presidential field at this point looks at least as crowded as the unpredictable 2016 GOP primary. A post-election story by NPR’s Scott Detrow lists 22 potential candidates in what he considers a non-exhaustive list; The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake ranks O’Rourke in 8th place among his top 15, which isn’t terrible – but he also mentions 19 other candidates not in his top tier. Politico’s Brent Griffiths provides a list of 40 possible candidates. O’Rourke just gained the valuable experience of running statewide in Texas, building a successful fundraising network, managing a turnout operation, and establishing statewide name recognition – all fundamental assets that would retain their value in the next statewide election. Why dilute their value in a wildly unpredictable and crowded presidential field?
Even though he lost, O’Rourke’s 2018 performance makes him the best positioned Democratic candidate to challenge Cornyn. This seems obvious, but Democratic Party politics can be unexpectedly obtuse. There are other semi-prominent Democrats who have spent a lot of time and effort out of state or in the private sector during the period of GOP hegemony positioning themselves to swoop back into state politics at the right time as some mixture of prodigal son (or daughter) and avenging angel. O’Rourke has disrupted this tactic, and while the base of support he has attracted might prove to be transferable (at least to some degree), any other candidate starts way behind where he is positioned right now. A 2020 Texas ticket without O’Rourke looks a lot like starting over from scratch – the losing strategy Democrats have embraced with verve for two decades.
O’Rourke running for Senate would expand the field of competition for Democrats nationally by exerting real pressure on GOP efforts to hold both the White House and the Senate. A Beto for Senate sequel in 2020 would make Texas a competitive and expensive battleground in the national election. President Trump and others in the GOP would be forced to play defense in what has heretofore been their own backyard, with O’Rourke working for his own election, contributing to the eventual Democratic Presidential candidate’s effort to win Texas’ electoral votes. If Texas were to elect O’Rourke to the Senate, the chances of the Democratic Presidential candidate also prevailing here would be higher. Republicans’ Electoral College math begins to look prohibitive without their Texas bedrock, a point underlined in Axios earlier this week.
The caveat section: There are reasons to discount the chances of another O’Rourke Senate campaign succeeding in 2020. Neither the overall surge in turnout by voters in both parties nor the significant Democratic success in chipping away at Republican hegemony in Texas in the 2018 election was solely about O’Rourke. If bipartisan antipathy toward Cruz was a bigger driver of Democratic turnout and independent support than generally recognized – and there is some evidence to this effect – the differences between Cruz and Cornyn could work to Republicans’ advantage. Texans’ milder views of Cornyn might in fact be an asset, if the effects are lower Democratic intensity and fewer crossover and independent votes for Demcratic candidates.
|Neither approve nor disapprove||6%||25%||5%|
|Neither approve nor disapprove||13%||23%||14%|
At the same time, in the ever-difficult world of predicting voter reactions to President Trump and absent work with the voter file, which won’t be available for at least a few more weeks, it remains difficult to judge the effects of Trump’s name literally being on the ballot. On one hand, there’s nothing like the real thing, as the song goes, and the GOP’s national figurehead at the top of the ticket could help Cornyn or another Republican facing a more seasoned O’Rourke in 2020. Despite the President’s effort to make the election about him, some Trump voters appear to have sat out 2018. Preliminary post-election analysis by Republican consultant Derek Ryan suggests localized weak turnout by 2016 Trump voters may have been partly to blame for some Republican incumbents' losses in the Texas House. Of course, there will likely be a Trump effect on the Democratic side at work, too: Democrats already energized by O’Rourke might be even more energized to cast their votes against the president that many of them revile.
The emergence of a consistently competitive party system for the first time in Texas history doesn’t hinge on O’Rourke’s choice alone. If organizational stakeholders can find the resources and strategy to build upon the successes of 2018, the insertion of new voters and the fresh experience of a large scale voter mobilization effort help the Texas Democratic Party moving forward. A larger and better array of Democratic candidates for Congressional and state legislative offices have also gained experience, and several that came close to defeating Republican incumbents now face the same decision O’Rourke does: Do they go back to their non-candidate lives, or do they rest up and begin preparing to press their case again in 2020? In most cases, their answers probably don’t hinge directly on what O’Rourke decides. But their chances of success are certainly higher if he seizes the opportunity to challenge a candidate who is very likely more vulnerable in 2020 than Ted Cruz was in 2018. Contesting the state's other U.S. Senate seat has the potential to change Texas and, with it, the national political map – changes O’Rourke is far less likely to effect if he follows the Siren calls of presidential politics.
*Correction: an earlier vertion of this post cited Cornyn's age as 78. Apologies for the error and thanks to Jonathan Tilove for the catch.