Domestic Affairs

The Rise, Fall, and Legacy of the O’Rourke Campaign

While the timing of Beto’s announcement to drop out of the race for president was a shock for some, many had seen his campaign being finished for some time. How did we get here though? Thinking back to this time last year, Beto was a rising star in the Democratic party. Even though he ultimately lost his Senate race to Ted Cruz in 2018, he came closer to winning a statewide race than any Democrat had since 1994

Beto was initially considered to be a strong contender for the 2020 presidential race. He started the race polling in third ahead of veteran politicians Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris. Within the first 24 hours of his campaign, he had raised more money than any other candidate at a whopping $6.1 million. But these high expectations fell largely flat and had him returning to El Paso much sooner than anyone expected. What led to Beto’s rise and fall and what impact will he have on Texas politics? 

The Rise

In March of 2017, the Congressman from El Paso announced he was running for Senate against incumbent Ted Cruz. At that point, Beto O’Rourke had little name recognition, but tried to gain notoriety through his unorthodox campaigning. Ben Terris with The Washington Post said early on that Beto had, “mass delusions that the old rules of politics no longer apply.” 

To demonstrate just how little Beto cared about the old political rules, he went out to some of the most red districts in the state. He went on to visit all 254 counties in Texas. He did not shy away from controversial topics such as abortion and gun control. He talked about his pro-choice beliefs in places like King County, a county which voted 93.7% in favor of Trump. He was unafraid and straightforward with his convictions no matter what. 

The El Paso Congressman had offered unprecedented access to his campaign by using Facebook Live to communicate with voters and answer their questions while he drove between campaign events. From answering serious questions about race relations in America to skating in a Whataburger parking lot, Beto’s campaign showed it all.

These viral moments helped him gain attention and create a fundraising infrastructure that would shatter any record for Senate races set before. His team had raised over $80.3 million dollars that they used almost exclusively for advertising across the state, almost half of which was raised in the last quarter alone

One of Beto’s most viral moments was his response to a voter’s question about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, where he spoke eloquently about the patriotism of the Freedom Riders and how the fight for civil rights continues to this day. This response got him an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. People from out of state began to pay close attention to the race, including many celebrities. Even Lebron James was seen sporting a “Beto for Senate” hat before a game in San Antonio.

Beto’s strength had grown as he packed venues for his rallies across the state. People from all over would come watch El Paso’s son paint the picture of what a blue Texas could look like. He even had one of the largest crowds for a political rally in history here in Austin, with over 55,000 people in attendance. After addressing the excited crowd, he ended the night alongside Willie Nelson singing classics like “On the Road Again,” a reference to all the hours Beto had spent traveling around Texas. 

Finally, the election came and the results showed that Beto had lost the race. He was within 2.6 points of Ted Cruz, the closest anyone had gotten before. Democrats in the state, such as Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher, flipped districts that were once thought to be solid Republican for years and over a dozen more Democrats flipped State house districts. Beto himself had flipped traditionally red districts like Tarrant County. Democrats had won big in Texas even if many voters did not feel like winners.

After the hard hitting loss, the calls for Beto to run for president grew more insistent. People felt that if he could barely lose in a state as red as Texas, maybe he could win nationwide. He had a private meeting with Obama, who would later call Beto “an impressive young man.” He floated the idea while on a show with Oprah and on other news networks. With the momentum going for him and his appeal nationwide, Beto decided to enter the race. He would soon come to find out that a lot of things that made him popular in Texas would not translate to a national audience.

The Fall

Beto’s campaign was plagued with controversy from the outset. A Vanity Fair interview released on the eve of his 2020 announcement had him responding to comments from people viewing his “born to run” comment as invoking white privilege. Beto also responded to past articles he had written about running over children and his involvement in a hacking group. 

Another mistake that would plague his presidential run was that he announced his candidacy before hiring a campaign manager. It wasn’t until about two weeks later that he hired former Obama aide Jennifer O’Malley Dillon. This delay in the hiring of key staff positions included a national data director, a deputy political director, a national research director and more. All of these positions were filled in July, four months after he entered the race. 

While Texan Democrats were unified behind Beto, that level of support didn’t translate nationwide. Beto did start off as a top tier candidate, but by the third debate, he fell to third in his home state behind Biden and Warren. This drop in support, while a symptom of his campaign troubles, made his path to the presidency all the more unlikely. 

Most of these troubles can be summed up as just a lack of planning. Running for president is obviously no easy task. Beto’s method of local, grassroots campaigning and getting dirty might have almost worked on a state level, but he wasn’t structurally prepared to take on a presidential campaign. This lack of preparation could have been mitigated if his time had been spent preparing right after the election loss and hiring staff in key states and national positions, but this wasn’t done. All of these things happening individually is survivable; campaigns have had bad starts before or delayed hire key staff and survived, but all these factors combined made his campaign almost doomed for failure.

The Legacy 

Despite Beto’s loss in the Senate and his failed presidential campaign, he has transformed the Texas Democratic Party forever. His narrow loss has given new hope to Texans of a future as a purple or even a blue state. His success will inspire more Texans to not disregard their local elections, but instead be involved and maybe even run for office. And, his popularity has encouraged national Democrats to give Texas a second look. Moving forward, they are not going to write off the state as merely a conservative stronghold, but instead as an opportunity to show the country that Democrats can viably compete everywhere — and the extra 38 electoral votes certainly does not hurt either. At the end of the day, Texan Democrats should remember that this renewed hope and dream of a blue Texas would not have been possible without the work and inspiration Beto brought to this state.

Categories: Domestic Affairs

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