Some Texas Democrats want Beto O'Rourke to run in 2020, but for Senate, not president

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic former Texas congressman, addresses supporters following an anti-Trump march in El Paso, Texas, on Feb. 11. (Photo: Loren Elliott/Reuters)

Facing a self-imposed end-of-the-month deadline to determine his political future, Beto O’Rourke has increasingly looked and sounded like a candidate for president. He has recently ticked off a series of national headline-making appearances — including his interview earlier in February with Oprah Winfrey, his massive rally last week to counter President Trump’s El Paso campaign stop, and a surprise visit on Friday to Wisconsin, a pivotal 2020 battleground, where he met with college students.

But back in Texas, where O’Rourke lost his bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz by less than 3 percentage points last fall, some Texas Democrats are privately hoping the former congressman will skip the increasingly crowded Democratic presidential primary in favor of what they believe is a more winnable race: a challenge to Sen. John Cornyn, who is up for reelection in 2020.

While no one is publicly waving O’Rourke away from a White House bid, several Democratic strategists and activists in the state said in interviews in recent days they believe the ex-congressman has a proven ground operation and fundraising ability that would instantly make him a formidable challenger to Cornyn, a Texas Republican who has been perceived as a stronger candidate for reelection than Cruz was in 2018, in part because he is less controversial and better liked than his GOP colleague.

But last week, Jeff Dalton, a Dallas-based Democratic strategist, released the results of a Public Policy Polling survey he commissioned that found O’Rourke trailing Cornyn by just 2 points among registered voters in the state, 45 percent to 47 percent — a result that was within the poll’s 3.6 percent margin of error.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, at a rally for President Trump in El Paso, Texas, on Feb. 11. (Photo: Adria Malcolm/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“It's very early days, but one compelling result is how well Beto O'Rourke performs against John Cornyn in a theoretical Senate race,” Dalton said in a statement accompanying the poll. “O'Rourke may run for president. But many people have assumed Cornyn is a stronger opponent than Cruz. In fact, Cornyn looks quite vulnerable if a strong Democrat takes the plunge.”

The impromptu poll was viewed by some Texas Democrats as a less-than-subtle message to O’Rourke, who has famously eschewed political consultants, including pollsters, and relied heavily on public polling during his previous Senate run. The poll came weeks after O’Rourke met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has encouraged the former congressman to run against Cornyn.

While no one discounts O’Rourke’s presidential chances — and several Democrats interviewed declined to be named in this story because they did not want to be perceived as critical of a possible O’Rourke White House run — some Lone Star strategists have made the case that the former congressman could have a greater political impact on the 2020 election as a Senate candidate.

Among other things, they pointed to the scores of down-ballot Democrats across Texas who were elected in 2018 in part because of the massive turnout for O’Rourke’s campaign. Party insiders say O’Rourke, if he runs against Cornyn, could have a potentially greater impact in 2020 — not just in electing Texas Democrats but also putting the state in play for the Democratic challenger to Trump. And with the state’s 38 electoral votes at stake, that could be a potential game changer for the Democratic ticket. “I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that having Beto on the ballot, and if he ran for Senate he would be guaranteed to be on the ballot, that could flip Texas,” one Democratic strategist said.

Though Texas has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Trump won the state by just 9 points in 2016 — a far smaller margin than Mitt Romney’s 16-point victory in 2012. While Texas is still a strongly conservative state, Democrats say the state’s increasing diversification — including the growing number of Latino voters and new residents who have relocated from more liberal states like California and New York — is increasingly shifting the political pendulum their way.

Beto O'Rourke with Oprah Winfrey at "Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations From Times Square," on Feb. 5, in New York City. (Photo: Kathy Willens/AP)

While O’Rourke came up short in his race against Cruz, his narrow loss gave new life to Texas Democrats, who have struggled to gain attention and money from the national party, which believed investing in the red state was a waste of time.

“Now I’m the most popular person here,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said last week on the phone from Washington, D.C., where he was attending the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting.

Among the topics du jour: What will Beto do? Hinojosa said most Texas Democrats he has talked to in recent weeks are eager to see O’Rourke run for president, but he said he is fine with whatever the former congressman decides to do, as long as he runs for something. “If he wants to run for president, he should,” Hinojosa said. “If he wants to run for the U.S. Senate, he should.”

On Tuesday, O’Rourke kept the political mystery going. Back in his hometown and speaking after a luncheon where he was honored as “El Pasoan of the Year,” he told reporters he still hasn’t decided on his future plans. He repeated that he hoped to come to a decision by the end of February — a little over a week away — though he allowed that his decision-making process might not be “limited by the end of this month.”

"I'm trying to figure out how I can best serve this country, where I can do the greatest good for the United States of America, so yeah, I’m thinking through that, and it, you know, may involve running for the presidency, it may involve something else," O'Rourke said.

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