Beto O'Rourke: A Democrat with a slim CV but an underdog no longer

Beto O'Rourke had an unremarkable three terms in Congress before he set his sights on a Senate seat in 2018. Suddenly, unexpectedly he went streaking like a shooting star across the national media's horizon. Now he is eyeing the presidency.

Boost from Vanity Fair sets expectations high for 2020 presidential nomination

Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke greets audience members during a stop at the Central Park Coffee Company on Friday in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. O'Rourke announced Thursday that he'll seek the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

Only a few months after Texas voters decided they didn't want to see him in the US Senate, Beto O'Rourke is asking America, "Well, how 'bout in the White House, then?"—and hardly anyone thinks the question impertinent

It's an unusual path he's chosen, though he's not the first to travel it. The most revered president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, launched his bid for the White House from the wreckage of a failed Senate campaign in Illinois

O'Rourke had an unremarkable three terms in Congress before he set his sights on Ted Cruz's Texas Senate seat in 2018. He campaigned tirelessly but unusually flush with money, and suddenly, unexpectedly he went streaking like a shooting star across the national media's horizon.

He lost the race, but wowed fellow Democrats with his mesmerizing eloquence and talent for reeling in bargefuls of cash from small donors across the country — $30 million more than Cruz had for what was the most expensive race of the midterms.

On Thursday O'Rourke simultaneously joined the burgeoning field of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2020 and had his rank among limousine liberals — star! — confirmed by A-list photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose portrait of him graces the latest cover of the glossy celebrity-culture magazine Vanity Fair.

A Vanity Fair cover is a heckuva springboard toward the White House for someone with O'Rourke's otherwise shortish resume. It indicates ineffable personal appeal that can touch people beyond the political class and suggests that even with his thin CV he might have the right stuff to check off the most important box of the Democratic primary: Can beat Donald Trump.
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up his veto of the congressional resolution to end his emergency declaration to get funds to build a border wall, in the Oval Office on Friday. The most important box for a Democrat to check off for the 2020 primary: Can beat Trump. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Still, O'Rourke seems like a product the sales and marketing division hasn't quite finished with yet.

There's a brand for him, but what is it? He's a moderate from a red state with entrepreneurship in his family. So he's sort of a capitalist. But he also believes in universal health care, so sort of a social democrat, too. But his universal health care idea is a vague end state and not necessarily a medicare-for-all thing though, some days, it sounds like it might be.

He's against border walls and for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but none of that separates him from the field.

Perhaps most of all he believes in himself.

"If I bring something to this," he told Vanity Fair, "I think it is my ability to listen to people, to help bring people together, to do something that is thought to be impossible."

Where have we heard that before? Barack Obama had similar thoughts before the reality of the country crushed his dream that one United States of America would supersede the polarized blue states and red.

O'Rourke's self-confidence can tend toward the mystical. Early in the Vanity Fair piece he looks back at the Texas Senate race as though it were his David-and-Goliath moment..

"Almost no one thought there was a path in Texas, and I just knew it. I just felt it. I knew it was there," he says.

But the thing about David and Goliath is that, at the end, David actually slays Goliath.

So we're to understand that he's talking about how his faith in a path drives him even when the path turns out not to be there, as happened in Texas. He put up a good fight against Goliath-sized odds and, notwithstanding the result, came out of Texas head high, looking like a winner.
The most revered president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, launched his bid for the White House from the wreckage of a failed Senate campaign in Illinois. (Reuters)

Since then he's made only the occasional  misstep. His enthusiasm for social media includes sharing an Instagram video of a routine cleaning at the dentist's, which caused some to worry whether he might have a colonoscopy on his schedule. 

He might be following the path of Lincoln but the vogue is to say O'Rourke is Kennedyesque, whatever that means. Maybe it's just that he's good looking, charming and graceful and he provokes nostalgia for the most admirable version of President John F. Kennedy — a youthful leader ready to take up the torch for a new generation of Americans.

What is undeniable about O'Rourke is that he's a white man from a red state who is decades younger than former vice-president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the other two white men contending at the top of early polling for the Democratic nomination. If you're convinced that it takes a white man to beat the white man in the White House, then his youth and appeal might make O'Rourke the right white man for the job.

But the women are the most exciting

But for many Democrats the most exciting thing about the primary is the women in the race. And it's a safe bet that none of them—not Sen. Kamala Harris, not Sen. Elizabeth Warren, not Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, not Sen. Amy Klobuchar — would dare launch a presidential bid from a resume as skimpy as O'Rourke's.

To listen to Warren talk about the failures of capitalism, for example, is to listen to someone who has put a lot of work into deeply understanding a complex issue. Her critique is thoughtful and coherent. That's what should be expected of everyone, of course.

The field is competitive, and expectations for O'Rourke will be high. That's an important difference between his Texas Senate campaign and what lies ahead for him in the primaries. His challenge to Sen. Cruz last year seemed quixotic from the start. And then the money came rolling in, the polls started to move his way and the media romanticized the race as an underdog upset fantasy.

That's not going to happen this time.

Beto O'Rourke kicked off his presidential campaign with a boost from Vanity Fair, for pity's sake. His underdog days are behind him. He better believe expectations for him will be through the roof this time. And he better be ready.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.