There are two good reasons to run for president of the United States. The first is that you want to be, and could reasonably expect to be, elected president. The second is that you think you might run for some lower political office in the near future, and running for president is a good way to up your name recognition and create some fundraising momentum.
It’s a little tacky, but it’s a time-honored practice and often gets the job done. See: former nonentity Andrew Yang, whose long shot campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination got enough buzz to make him the front-runner for most of the Democratic primary for New York City mayor.
This week, amid reports that Beto O’Rourke is getting ready to announce a bid for governor of Texas, that strategy looks less reliable. The former three-term congressman from El Paso built up a lot of goodwill in his impressive 2018 run for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat. He squandered much of it in an ill-fated campaign for president the very next year. Now that he’s seemingly right-sized his ambitions to challenge Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022, the question remains: Did he screw himself out of a real shot at the governor’s mansion by making a long shot run at the White House first?
When O’Rourke decided to run for president in 2019, he was on a roll. Though he’d recently lost his Senate campaign, he’d come within 3 percentage points of victory in the closest Texas Senate race in decades. He’d set a new Senate fundraising record, too, pulling in $38 million in a single quarter. Liberals were gaga over him, and moderates were happy to claim him as their own. So his campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination started out strong-ish in March 2019, with a few polls placing him above a 10 percent vote share. But his buzz didn’t last. Within two months, O’Rourke’s polling averages dipped below 5 percent and never recovered. He spent five months grasping for a toehold before suspending his campaign in November 2019. His final debate, in October 2019, was a bloodbath: In its post-debate poll, FiveThirtyEight found that O’Rourke’s net favorability fell more than that of any other candidate.
There were two main reasons for the rapid unpopularizing of O’Rourke on his journey from beloved almost-senator to clearly-out-of-his-depth presidential candidate. One was political. Loosed from the constraints of appealing to the entire (still-red!) state of Texas, O’Rourke seemed relieved to be in a Democratic primary with a bona fide progressive flank. When his polls tanked, his attempt to stand out from the other white moderates in the race led him to get a little wild, which is to say that he veered left. He said things that would never fly back home in Texas. He argued that churches and nonprofits that oppose gay marriage should lose their tax-exempt status—a truly radical and likely unconstitutional position that no mainstream politicians, let alone the entire Democratic Party, are rushing to take. (O’Rourke later claimed that he only meant to implicate churches that would fire an employee for being gay-married, but the initial sound bite remains.)
O’Rourke also trumpeted his idea for a mandatory assault rifle buyback program by saying, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” His campaign printed shirts with the statement on it. The right-wing bogeyman of a liberal president seizing the contents of American gun safes suddenly became real. As my Slate colleague Jordan Weissmann wrote at the time, O’Rourke turned himself into “a human straw man for conservatives,” making the other candidates look reasonable and moderate by comparison.
The other reason for O’Rourke’s depletion of personal capital over the course of his presidential campaign had more to do with his image. Without the foil of Ted Cruz, Beto’s brooding good looks and personality traits—his Obama-lite speaking style, his earnestness, his love of standing on top of things—felt less endearing and more hollow, even a bit cheesy. He took a road trip, posting melancholy missives on Medium about the slices of America he observed along the way (while leaving his wife at home to care for his kids). He appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in a photo by Annie Leibovitz, styled in a belabored country-boy aesthetic with the following pull quote: “Man, I’m just born to be in it.” Later, he insinuated that those words had been taken out of context: that he’d meant he was born for public service, not the presidency. Either way, through a mix of his own campaign’s decisions and the way he was framed in the salivating media, O’Rourke’s premature treatment as a rising star seemed to backfire. In November 2019, when he finally faced facts and suspended his presidential campaign, the New York Times declared it “the end of Betomania.”
But O’Rourke has spent the ensuing two years rebuilding whatever goodwill he’d lost. He founded Powered By People, an organization that has gotten more than 200,000 Texans registered to vote and recently launched a program that will send volunteers directly to unregistered voters’ homes to get them on the rolls. During the vast power outages that left Texans freezing and without basic necessities in February, while Cruz jetted to Cancun and other Texas elected officials stayed quiet, O’Rourke ran a phone banking session that made nearly 800,000 calls to senior citizens, helping connect them with resources for transportation and food. He also raised more than $700,000 to help support the state legislators who fled to D.C. in an ultimately futile attempt to forestall a crackdown on voting rights in Texas. After his unsuccessful attempt to ride fame straight to the presidency, O’Rourke is trying to strike a better balance: embracing the fame that continues to make him a strong fundraiser and down-ballot turnout machine in Texas, while taking care to deemphasize any of the ego-related desire for celebrity and acclaim. In other words, O’Rourke is trying to get that national money without the accusations of disconnected elitism that come with a national profile.
Would O’Rourke stand a better chance against Abbott if he’d been doing all this stuff for the past four years, instead of spending one of them running for president? What if he’d used the political capital he accumulated in his run against Cruz in a long ramp-up to the 2022 governor’s race? Or what if he’d stayed in Texas and tried to unseat Sen. John Cornyn instead? Who can say! As it stands, poll respondents are saying they prefer Abbott to O’Rourke, even though the governor’s approval rating stands at 45 percent, with 44 percent disapproving of his job performance. Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey, a possible contender in this race if you can believe it, is crushing Abbott in the polls. Clearly, celebrity isn’t a political liability for everyone.
Independent voters, who went for O’Rourke in 2018, and a substantial number of whom O’Rourke must win over in 2022, seem to be souring on him: In a recent poll, 41 percent of independents registered a “very or somewhat unfavorable” opinion of O’Rourke—33 percent of those were “very unfavorable”—while only 27 percent fell into the “very or somewhat favorable” camp. “There was always a certain fuzziness about what O’Rourke stood for, and what kind of leader he’d be,” wrote Christopher Hooks in Texas Monthly last week, of O’Rourke’s advantage in his Senate campaign. “That was a big asset in a state that has never had a cohesive Democratic opposition.” But Texas moderates who were simply sick of Cruz in 2018 got a much better taste of O’Rourke during his presidential run. Some of them decided they didn’t like the flavor.
Then again, there’s a lot of time left for O’Rourke to win over Texans before the next election. There’s also a lot of time for Texans to forget why they’re currently displeased with Abbott. By next November, voters who lost power for a week last winter will find their toes have thawed. The COVID-19 pandemic, a major reason for Abbott’s sinking popularity, will probably (??) have subsided a bit. And the current outrage over the state’s extreme abortion ban may have simmered down too. It doesn’t seem to have affected Abbott’s approval rating, anyway—maybe because nearly half of voters like the idea of restricting abortion care to the first six weeks of pregnancy, and more voters support the bounty hunter aspect than oppose it.
Wanting a Democrat to win a statewide office in Texas has long been a recipe for disappointment, despite the cyclical surges of hope that accompany each election cycle. If O’Rourke has a chance to win next year, it will be by distinguishing his campaign strategy from those that came before him. He knows it: In an interview with the New York Times’ Kara Swisher last week, O’Rourke said the good stuff that came out of the 2018 election—Dems picking up 12 seats in the Texas House, for instance—“wasn’t because of the Democratic Party,” but because of campaign volunteers. He accused Democrats of committing a “great sin” by taking Black and Latino voters for granted and “talking to them in the language of victimhood or grievance” instead of discussing “the aspirational things that matter most to us,” like getting a better job. When asked what he’s been doing since the demise of his presidential campaign, O’Rourke leaned into humility: “Just trying to be helpful.”
Last week, O’Rourke published an op-ed criticizing the Biden administration for its cruel treatment and forced repatriation of Haitian migrants. He exhibited the most concern for the refugees, but because it’s Texas, he spared a thought for the Border Patrol agents who were “[left] … to their own devices.” It’s clear that O’Rourke is trying to distance himself from Democrats in Washington. It remains to be seen whether it’ll help voters forget the time he spent jockeying for a place among them.