Against the Grain

Why Beto’s a Bad Bet for Democrats

If O’Rourke emerged as Trump’s opponent in 2020, the presidential election would be a huge culture war. That’s exactly the fight the president wants to have.

Beto O'Rourke
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Dec. 16, 2018, 6 a.m.

Beto O’Rourke’s growing chorus of Democratic Party cheerleaders is fond of comparing the outgoing Texas congressman to Robert Kennedy. He’s blessed with ample charisma, good looks, and an optimistic worldview that seems Kennedy-esque to the party’s idealists. Even the pragmatic wing of the party acknowledges his potential, impressed by his showing in red-state Texas and intrigued by how he generates infinite progressive enthusiasm without pledging fealty to a laundry list of liberal causes.

But in reality, he more closely resembles another retro Democratic politician who is now viewed as one of the least successful presidential nominees in the modern era: George McGovern.

History repeats itself, and the notion of a youth-inspired progressive candidacy toppling more-established challengers is nothing new. It happened in 1972, another major inflection point for the Democratic Party when old rules favoring the establishment were discarded in favor of aiding a progressive insurgency. At the time, the liberal echo chamber was insular enough that the late film reviewer Pauline Kael reportedly expressed shock at Richard Nixon’s 49-state reelection victory.

If Democrats nominate a candidate like O’Rourke eager to lean in on the polarizing culture wars, it would be the greatest gift Trump could receive. A Democratic bet on Beto would be a rebuke of the party’s carefully crafted and successful congressional strategy of 2018, with Democratic leaders advising their candidates to focus on bread-and-butter economic issues over polarizing cultural fights. O’Rourke’s viral moment defending the NFL players taking a knee during the anthem was a hit with his core supporters, but was critical fodder in motivating a disengaged Republican base. (The issue isn’t a hit with swing voters, either: 54 percent viewed such kneeling during the anthem as inappropriate in an August 2018 NBC/Wall Street Journal survey.)

In fact, the midterms demonstrated how turning the presidential election into an all-out generational fight is one of the clearest ways Trump could win a second term. The midterm results were dismal for Republicans, but they showcased a narrow pathway for Trump’s reelection. Despite a significant 8-point disadvantage in the national House vote, Republicans still dominated in Ohio and nearly swept the statewide offices in Florida. If the Democrats’ suburban gains aren’t enough to tip Arizona and Georgia into their column and Trump holds onto those GOP-resilient battlegrounds, he would just need to pick off one of the Midwestern blue-wall states he narrowly won in 2016.

That won’t be easy, but it’s doable. There was a good reason why low-key pragmatists won crucial governor races in Wisconsin and Michigan, while celebrity candidates aligned with the progressive movement fell short. O’Rourke’s own Senate campaign came impressively close in red-state Texas, but he was running against an awfully unpopular senator. Even if advocates believe the Beto model would energize progressives and young voters while still winning the suburbs comfortably, there remains a high risk of a backlash from older Americans. Relying on that backlash is how Republicans were able to narrowly hold the governorships in Florida and Georgia. It’s how Trump won the presidency in the first place.

Some political writers bullish on Beto, like Peter Hamby in Vanity Fair, have made strong points in O’Rourke’s favor. He’s one of the few Democratic contenders adept with social media, which gives him a marked advantage over his primary competition. But social-media savvy is a tactic, not a strategy. It’s a lot more important to hear his argument for why he wants to be president. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, another presidential prospect, talked relentlessly about the “dignity of work” in his successful reelection bid—a theme that would be reprised if he ran for president. O’Rourke’s implicit Senate slogan was: “I’m not Ted Cruz.”

Hamby also points to O’Rourke’s relative youth (he’s 46) as an asset in an primary field where the three most prominent contenders are all in their 70s. In a Democratic primary, that’s an advantage. In a general election, seniors are a more consequential constituency. According to the left-leaning data firm Catalist, under-40 voters made up only 22 percent of the midterm electorate, compared to 32 percent of those over 65. Younger voters showed up at higher levels in key races, but the gains weren’t dramatic. And a millennial-focused campaign would risk alienating older voters, who still turn out much more reliably than their millennial counterparts.

There’s also a risk that O’Rourke, a “wine-track” white progressive candidate, will struggle to inspire the African-American and Hispanic voters who are so crucial to Democratic successes. Already, there’s been grumbling from black Democratic operatives that O’Rourke is receiving outsized 2020 attention, while losing candidates Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum haven’t received comparable hype despite coming closer to winning. Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini noted, in an analysis of election returns, that O’Rourke didn’t boost turnout among nonwhite voters while Abrams’s narrow loss in Georgia reshaped the electorate in a historically conservative state.

And even in the primary realm, the endless hype that surrounded O’Rourke’s Senate run is bound to change under the klieg lights of a presidential campaign. Progressives will be grilling him on whether he supports single-payer health insurance and a Green New Deal, and what he’ll do to roll back Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His inevitable deviations from progressive dogma are bound to dent his support. Indeed, in an interview Friday, he said he “didn’t know” if he was a progressive, declining to embrace ideological labels. The laws of gravity apply to politics: The speed with which his Senate candidacy became a viral sensation could easily bring him down to Earth as he faces presidential-level scrutiny.

Beto is certainly the star of the moment, with early polls showing he’s a formidable primary candidate. If he emerged as the nominee, Democrats would be making a high-stakes bet on the power of youth and celebrity. But it would come at the expense of winning Midwestern moderates and turning off the party’s energized core of nonwhite voters. That’s a trade-off Trump should embrace.

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