To Beto or Not to Beto

Beto O'Rourke
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
August 1, 2022

Among the greatest sources of frustration among elite Democratic strategists are the whims and caprices of bright shiny object-style candidates—you know, the types that have mastered the fine art of whipping enthusiasm on Twitter or Maddow into seven- or eight-figure windfalls but have nothing to gain from the cash. Often enough, these candidates are not electoral wizards, but rather charismatic small-dollar fundraising machines. And while donors may be satisfied with feeling like they’ve done something meaningful, D.C. political operatives will tell you that much of their money is wasted on effectively unwinnable races. Many secretly wish that the party’s most enthusiastic voters, especially in New York and California, would fall in love with candidates a little more wisely.

The Democrats have been scarred, after all, by candidates like Amy McGrath, who spent more than $90 million in a pointless attempt to unseat Mitch McConnell, or Jaime Harrison, who raised $130 million to challenge Lindsay Graham in 2020. Harrison’s race, in particular, became a national obsession among the political elite. But more than 90 percent of the money he raised came from donors who lived outside South Carolina, and he ended up losing the race by double digits. 

Back then, Harrison was often compared to Beto O’Rourke, the quixotic former punk rocker Flaming Lips-liberal Texas congressman, who had admirably challenged Ted Cruz in a tight Senate race in 2018, at one point raising nearly $40 million in a quarter before losing the contest by only a few points. O’Rourke licked his chops, became a proto-Obama style national hero, graced the cover of Vanity Fair, and ran a too-soon presidential campaign a few years later. Now, of course, he is running for governor of Texas against incumbent Greg Abbott, and quietly being referenced by top Democratic operatives as “Jaime Harrison redux.” 

Why all the animus toward Beto, who raised more than $27 million, via some 511,000 individual contributions (99 percent of which came via online sources), in just four months? Alas, the brightest minds of the Beltway point out that about half of O’Rourke’s donors live out of state, and are unlikely to make an impact in the race. Democrats are also still unsure whether the Supreme Court’s demolition of Roe v. Wade will have a real impact on voter turnout in Texas, where turnout and registration is miserably low, and where it still feels impossible to break that 49 percent glass ceiling. And while O’Rourke has been buoyed by outrage over the massacre in Uvalde, issues with the Texas power grid, and skyrocketing utility bills, FiveThirtyEight still gives Abbott a 95 percent chance of winning. Abbott has never been less popular and his unfavorables have never been higher (his favorability is underwater at 43 approval to 46 disapproval), but Beto faces strong headwinds from Biden’s unpopularity and a perception that Democrats have mishandled inflation.

Many are impressed with O’Rourke’s dogged campaigning, earning him roadwarrior status, but he’s also made some serious mistakes in Texas. He’s particularly haunted by saying, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15” and some rhetorical support—later exaggerated with some creative editing—for efforts to defund the police. All in all, according to the majority of D.C. operatives I talk to, the R.O.I. on his fundraising seems low, and the mindshare he attracts can be distracting. “It’s throwing good money after bad, he’s not going to win,” said a prominent Democratic strategist.

Even though O’Rourke has successfully narrowed Abbott’s lead to only 5 points, according to a University of Houston/YouGov poll, these strategists say the numbers just aren’t there in Texas. The last Democrat to win the governor’s mansion was Ann Richards, who served one term in 1991. They wish that more attention and dollars flowed toward Senate races where Democrats have a fighting chance, like in Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman is running ahead of Dr. Oz; or Wisconsin, where Mandela Barnes will take on incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson, who has raised more than all four primary candidates combined; or Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is facing a tough reelection. 

“I think Beto is the worst waste of money this cycle and it drives me nuts that Democrats are donating to him,” said another top Democratic strategist, who did not want to be named. “It’s a lost cause and we can spend the millions that could be spent literally anywhere else, like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, and we can actually put a point on the scoreboard and win.” 

“Chops Into the Tree”

But there is another emerging school of thought, perhaps the Pyrrhic victory school, which suggests that Beto’s ability to run and lose and run again has longer term positive outcomes that these cynical insiders miss. Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist who has advised party leaders and major donors, put it more succinctly: “Look, he was the shiniest of shiny objects—he was the big thing in 2018, he took a big nosedive with his ill-fated presidential race. I would have told donors, ‘don’t put money in Beto O’Rourke,’ I would have said ‘wait and see,’ but he’s done a better job this time around. He’s proven himself.”

California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who ran against O’Rourke in the 2020 Democratic primary, swatted aside the notion that small-donor fundraising was having any sub-optimal impact on the party. “If I know anything about the small dollar donor, that dollar is only going to Beto, it’s not like they’re sending it to someone else,” Swalwell told me. “That’s the only contribution they’re making, because they believe in him. I don’t think it’s one at the expense of others.” 

Swalwell also best articulated the most cogent argument for the candidate—the notion that he isn’t running in 2022 so much as he is running for what happens in 2026 and beyond, as Texas’s demographics shift. Swalwell, like others, thinks that even if Beto doesn’t win this cycle, he’s laying the groundwork for future Democrats to occupy the governor’s mansion—a coveted prize in the eyes of the Democratic party, and something they have long believed is attainable even as Hispanic voters tilt towards the Republican party at a somewhat surprising rate. “Clearly what he’s doing, going back to 2018 taking on Cruz, he’s building a Democratic turnout model in Texas. He’s putting chops into the tree. Eventually that tree is going to fall and there will be a state-wide elected Democrat,” Swalwell said. “I hope he’s the one, [but] if it’s not him or a cycle or two later, they better give credit to Beto, because he’s the one who laid the groundwork.” 

This more optimistic view of O’Rourke, the candidate, acknowledges that he has the guts to do what other Democrats are too afraid to: criss-cross the state, get heckled in Trump terrority, and crash Abbott’s press conference.  According to the Swalwellian view of the world, maybe the money isn’t being thrown away in Texas. Perhaps O’Rourke’s tide will raise some boats like it did in 2018 when twelve statehouse races flipped from Republican to Democrat, including two state senate seats and two Congressional seats in counties where O’Rourke won.

This time around, Beto is funding a coordinating campaign for down-ballot Democrats by paying the salaries of the committee’s three staffers and presumably filling its coffers (although the campaign did not have the details on how much he has donated). The team consists of two data gurus, to keep track of voter outreach efforts and ensure that they are efficient, and director Lauren Harper, who supported Harrison’s campaign through an outside PAC called “Lindsey Must Go.” O’Rourke has an enviable donor list and currently has the largest organizing program in Texas history with 80,000 volunteers on the ground. He needs the money. Abbot’s team told reporters that he plans to spend $100 million to beat O’Rourke, including $20 million on ads for the fall in a state that has 20 different media markets. 

But what about if O’Rourke doesn’t win? Will one of the Democrats’ most promising young stars just go away? How many times can he run before he’s just deemed a loser? Some say because O’Rourke is running in Texas he may be given a pass, and still have political viability, whereas he wouldn’t be granted that somewhere else. Either way, as many congresspeople figure out their exit strategies and paths towards national prominence (and money), Beto is actually doing a lot better than many of the most cynical operatives realize.