The Slatest

It’s Not All About the Money

Beto O’Rourke may have set a first-day fundraising record, but his $6.1 million haul only brings the debate about his candidacy into starker relief.

Beto O’Rourke tries to listen.
Beto O’Rourke leans in to hear a comment after speaking to diners at the Pig & Porter restaurant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Fine, maybe Beto O’Rourke does have a reason to run for president. The former congressman and current White House hopeful, whom I am very skeptical of, announced Monday that he had raised $6,136,763 in the first 24 hours following the official launch of his presidential campaign. That total tops the previous first-day champ, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

O’Rourke’s haul is remarkable for two reasons, which run at least somewhat counter to the undercurrent of backlash from political journalists that greeted Beto’s entrance into the race. The first reason is that the Texan initially opted against sharing his first-day numbers, which most observers took as a sign that he’d underperformed out of the gates, but that now looks like proof that O’Rourke knows how to play the expectations-managing game. The second is that, expectations and assumptions aside, that’s a lot of money!

While there’s no authoritative record book for these things—candidates don’t always announce their first-day hauls and politicos haven’t always paid close attention to such totals in the past—we now know that Beto pulled more cash than the two declared Democratic candidates with the best early polling numbers: Sanders, who brought in $5.9 million to start his 2020 campaign, and Sen. Kamala Harris, who brought in $1.5 million. The Great 24-Hour Fundraising Primary does not award any delegates, but it does confirm Beto has the potential to be the top-tier presidential candidate many saw him as while he was still running for Senate.

And yet, as impressive as Beto’s show of fundraising force was, it doesn’t change the assessment that he brings nothing of gravity to a deep, diverse, and experienced Democratic field. As I argued on the eve of the O’Rourke entrance, he is a man without a clear political ideology, a signature legislative achievement, a major policy issue, or a concrete agenda for the country. All the fundraising in the world won’t change the substance of Beto’s campaign; it simply confirms that a sizable slice of the Democratic Party likes the style of it. New York’s Jonathan Chait argues that being a “highly charismatic and inspirational campaigner” is in and of itself a good enough reason to run. I disagree, and I definitely don’t think it’s a good enough reason to back Beto. His fundraising prowess simply brings the two sides of that debate into starker relief.

One other important thing to keep in mind when considering Beto’s big haul: He started this race with a huge advantage, otherwise known as his email list from the Senate race. When the New York Times looked at six years of federal election filings from ActBlue, the Democratic Party’s dominant donation-processing platform, they found that Sanders and O’Rourke had by far the top two small-donor networks of any potential Democratic hopeful—2.1 million and 743,000, respectively—and each was, in the paper’s words, “poised to be a fund-raising phenom.” Past donations don’t guarantee future ones, but Sanders and O’Rourke didn’t have to work nearly as hard as their rivals to find people who are friendly to their cause and willing to prove it with a few bucks. It’s no surprise, then, that their first-day totals dwarfed the field. We know support for each of their candidacies runs deep, but we’ll have to wait until next month to see their first FEC filings to know how wide it is beyond those fans who were waiting around to donate on day one.

(One note: Beto’s team has not disclosed the number of individual donations he received in the first 24 hours, so they’ve effectively chosen the metric by which their man is being compared to Bernie, who says he had roughly 225,000 individual donations in his first 24 hours, which was believed to be a record.)

Still, Beto’s fast fundraising start isn’t of no consequence. It implies many of his 2018 donors were cutting checks at least as much out of their love for him as for their hatred of Cruz, which up until now had been an open question. It proves O’Rourke can go toe-to-toe with Sanders in the fundraising department, despite the latter’s two-year head start building a network of small donors. More immediately, it suggests Beto’s biggest fans weren’t turned off by the initial wave of criticism voiced by journalists and commentators of all stripes. And more broadly, the fact that both Beto and Bernie could so quickly attract such large boatloads of cash is a good sign that Democrats will be willing to open their wallets for whoever ends up taking it to Trump in the end.