What is Beto cooking up, besides dinner?

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
A screengrab from Beto O’Rourke’s cooking video on Facebook.

Beto O’Rourke just wanted to check in and say hello. That’s what the Texas congressman announced as he clicked on his Facebook live stream from his kitchen in El Paso last week, placing his iPhone on a counter as he began making dinner for his wife, Amy Sanders, and their three kids. But those who tuned in were quick to wonder if there was something more to it.

Just hours before, O’Rourke for the first time had publicly declared he was no longer ruling out a run for the presidency in 2020 — reversing statements he made in the run-up to Election Day in which he firmly and repeatedly insisted he would not be a candidate for the White House. And now amid wild speculation about his political future, viewers by the thousands quickly tuned in to his Facebook stream — 1,000 at first, then 5,000, then 10,000, to a video that ultimately drew more than 256,000 views.

But the only announcement O’Rourke made was about the menu. “Chicken piccata!” he said. And for the next 46 minutes, the soon-to-be-ex congressman who has been courted by Democrats nationwide to join an increasingly crowded field of 2020 hopefuls really did just cook dinner.

Ignoring a flood of streaming comments from supporters begging him to run for president, O’Rourke tossed raw chicken cutlets into flour before searing them in a hot iron skillet. He mixed white wine, capers and butter to make a sauce and threw pasta into a large pot of boiling water. “Don’t forget to salt the water,” his 10-year-old daughter, Molly, called out as she showed off her baby python, Monty, to her dad’s audience. “We already have a snake in the WH,” a commenter responded. “But this one is welcomed.”

It was the kind of mundane video that O’Rourke became known for during his unlikely quest to unseat Republican Ted Cruz in this year’s closely watched Texas Senate race. The three-term Democratic congressman spent much of his waking hours live-streaming a kind of Truman Show-type glimpse at the daily life of a political candidate, from his campaign rallies to his long drives across Texas to his frequent stops at the closest Whataburger. And though O’Rourke has kept a low public profile in the month since his surprisingly close 2.6 percentage loss to Cruz, he hasn’t been hiding on social media, where supporters have dissected every little moment for clues about his political future, trying to fill in the blanks for a potential candidate who so far isn’t saying so much.

A screengrab from Beto O’Rourke’s cooking video on Facebook.

On the morning after Election Day, O’Rourke showcased the blueberry scones he’d baked — joking that he had turned to cooking to deal with his loss. “Baking therapy,” he dryly explained. And in the weeks since, O’Rourke has continuously posted short snapshots of his post-campaign life on Facebook and Instagram — making slime with his daughter; going to son Henry’s soccer game; hiking in the mountains with his wife; marinating skirt steak; and, perhaps the buzziest of all, driving around El Paso dipping Fritos into a bowl of guacamole precariously positioned on his truck’s center console. “Look at this giant bowl of guacamole Beto O’Rourke ate while driving,” wrote New York Magazine in an analysis that included screenshots.

O’Rourke’s live videos draw comments by the thousands as they are happening, and he is often quick to engage, shouting out “happy birthdays” on request and expressing gratitude to those who backed him in a Senate run that he has repeatedly described as the “best experience of my life outside of family.” But O’Rourke regularly breezes past the comments that have anything to do with 2020, including supporters pressing him to say whether he will be a candidate.

But it’s clear that O’Rourke is thinking about it and sharing his thoughts with a small group of family, close friends and longtime staff. But that circle appears to be getting larger. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that he secretly met with Barack Obama at the former president’s office in Washington last month —  though it was not clear who requested the meeting or what exactly the men discussed. A spokesman for O’Rourke did not respond to a request for comment, and Obama’s office was also silent on the subject.

The meeting came as several former Obama aides have encouraged O’Rourke to run, including Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s former communications director, and former speechwriter Jon Favreau. They have likened O’Rourke’s inspirational message to the one espoused by their former boss back in the 2008 campaign, when the then junior senator from Illinois emerged from obscurity to win the nomination and ultimately the presidency.

Former President Barack Obama speaks at the second Obama Foundation summit in Chicago on Nov. 19. (Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Even Obama has floated the comparisons. Speaking to his former chief strategist David Axelrod at an event in Chicago last week, after his meeting with the congressman, the former president called O’Rourke “an impressive young man who ran a terrific race” and credited the candidate’s success to his authenticity. “What I liked most about his race was that it didn’t feel constantly poll-tested,” Obama said. “It felt as if he based his statements and his positions on what he believed.”

And that, Obama said, had been the key to his own rise to the White House. “The reason I was able to make a connection with a sizable portion of the country was because people had a sense that I said what I meant,” Obama said. “And that’s a quality that, as I look at what I’m sure will be a strong field of candidates in 2020, many of whom are friends of mine and whom I deeply respect — what I oftentimes am looking for first and foremost is, do you seem to mean it? Are you in this thing because you have a strong set of convictions that you are willing to risk things for?”

Despite the buzz, those close to O’Rourke say little has changed in the weeks since Election Day, other than his public acknowledgment that he is weighing his options. Another possibility would be a challenge to GOP Sen. John Cornyn in 2020, although that race might be tougher than running against Cruz, who isn’t personally popular even among Texas Republicans.

But whatever he does next, O’Rourke will consider his family’s wishes. In the final months of his Senate campaign, which took him on the road for the better part of two years, he repeatedly expressed concern about the campaign’s impact on his wife, Amy, and his three children: Ulysses, 11, Molly, 10, and Henry, 7. Although Amy had been supportive of his Senate run, O’Rourke missed her and felt guilty that his political ambitions had all but rendered her a single parent. The idea of doing that for another two years, an O’Rourke friend said, “was not appealing to him before Election Day, and it still isn’t.”

Another question is whether O’Rourke could run for president with the same kind of scrappy, gut-driven campaign that made him so popular with Democrats in Texas and beyond.

Though he ultimately raised more than $70 million for his campaign — more than almost any candidate in the 2018 election cycle and about half of it from small donors — O’Rourke ran a relatively small operation until the last weeks of the campaign. He refused to hire a pollster or high priced political consultants, though he did rely on fundraising and digital ad help from a group that advised Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid.

Instead, O’Rourke tapped his own inner circle to run things, hiring close friends he’d known for years, such as campaign manager Jody Casey, a former business executive who had little political experience. And while the campaign had some political aides on staff — including Rob Friedlander, a Democratic operative who previously helped run Obama’s 2008 ground operation in New Hampshire, and David Wysong, a longtime adviser who previously served as his congressional chief of staff – O’Rourke largely served as his own strategist, investing most of his money in his field operation and a flurry of last-minute advertising.

Beto O’Rourke and his wife, Amy Sanders, on election night, after he was defeated by Sen. Ted Cruz. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

O’Rourke’s confidantes are wondering if he could mount a modern presidential campaign without damaging his brand of authenticity — or if the hands-on candidate who insisted on driving himself all over Texas so he could better connect with voters would even want to.

O’Rourke has said he’s nowhere near making a decision about his political future. Over the next few weeks, he’ll continue packing up his office in Washington and hold his final town hall in El Paso ahead of leaving office in early January. And then, O’Rourke told reporters last week, he plans to take his wife and kids on a long vacation.

A source close to O’Rourke said that the former candidate, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Columbia and once dreamed of working in publishing, has entertained the idea of writing a book — one that might be based in part on a diary he kept during his Senate campaign. The move would likely fuel even more rumors about his political aspirations, given that past contenders like Obama and John McCain wrote books to establish their biography and beliefs to voters before their respective White House bids.

Right now, it seems, O’Rourke is not itching to get back on the trail.

In a Facebook broadcast last week, O’Rourke appeared with his two closest aides, who spent more than 20 months on the road with him, crammed in a rented Dodge Caravan, serving as co-stars to his social media reality show: Cynthia Cano, who operated as an unofficial road manager, and Chris Evans, his longtime spokesman. The three sat on the back porch of O’Rourke’s row house in D.C. reading letters from supporters and reminiscing about the campaign trail.

“I don’t miss it yet,” O’Rourke said. “I am enjoying sleeping in my bed. I am enjoying hanging with family. I am enjoying not being in a Dodge Grand Caravan for so much of the day. But, there will be a time.”

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