Democrats across the country had a banner day on Nov. 6 — they won nearly 40 House seats and seven governorships and held their losses in the Senate to likely just two seats.
Yet it’s one of the losers who is now getting the most presidential buzz — Beto O’Rourke, who failed in his bid to unseat incumbent Ted Cruz in the Texas Senate race. As crazy as it might seem, O’Rourke’s loss notwithstanding, he has a significant number of advantages going into the 2020 presidential race.
Let’s start with name recognition. A presidential preference poll of Democrats conducted in the days after the midterms had him in third place, behind Joe Biden at 26 percent and Bernie Sanders at 19 percent. Granted, O’Rourke was only at 8 points, and these kinds of polls are generally not predictive, but that he is polling ahead of better-known candidates like senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, and Cory Booker of New Jersey is telling.
The stronger argument for O’Rourke is that he is one heck of a fund-raiser. In the third quarter of 2018, he raised a stunning $38 million. As of mid-October, he had brought in more than $70 million, which makes him one of the most effective fund-raisers in the Democratic Party today. And he did it without relying on corporate PAC donations.
Though O’Rourke lost the Senate race, he scored 48.3 percent of the vote, which for a Texas Democrat is impressive. That’s 830,000 votes more than fellow Democrat Paul Sadler got in 2012 when he faced off against Ted Cruz. Moreover, O’Rourke’s effectiveness at mobilizing Democratic voters helped the party flip two House seats in the suburbs around Dallas and Houston and several seats in the Texas Legislature.
If Democrats want to nominate a candidate in 2020 with a demonstrated ability to energize Democratic partisans, reach suburbanites, and mobilize young voters, O’Rourke fits the bill.
Then there is the generational issue. The three other candidates currently scoring well in Democratic polls are Sanders, Biden, and Warren. Their respective ages at their potential inauguration would be 79, 77, and 71. Beto would be 48. In a head-to-head competition with President Trump, that generational contrast would almost certainly work in his favor.
Finally, we have charisma. There’s an argument to be made that in an era when female candidates are over-performing in Democratic primaries, and with the party doing so well with college-educated women voters, Democrats would be wise to nominate a woman for president in 2020. Certainly many Democratic women feel that way — and resent the fact that O’Rourke, a white man, is being pushed to the front of the presidential line ahead of more experienced female and black candidates.
Race and gender is certainly a factor in O’Rourke’s rise. But the main reason he’s being talked up as a leading 2020 candidate is because he has charmed Democratic partisans in a way that is reminiscent of another successful Democratic politician who also had the initials B and O. Whether you like him or not, it’s fair to say that O’Rourke created a nascent political movement. And he did so by speaking in a political language less focused on parochial issues and more about inspiring his supporters.
This doesn’t mean O’Rourke should be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020. There are skeletons in his closet, including a drunk-driving arrest and his work with a real estate company tied to his father-in-law.
Critics will also note that his liberal positions on such issues as Medicare For All and the national anthem controversy will become fodder for Republican attacks — and may have turned off some GOP partisans in Texas.
But these are issues for the voters to consider. The question here is whether O’Rourke should join the dozen or more Democratic candidates planning to run in 2020. When you factor in O’Rourke’s name recognition, his fund-raising prowess, and his natural charisma, the man would be a fool not to.
As Barack Obama showed, there’s no point in waiting your turn to run for president. If the wind is at your back — and it certainly is right now for O’Rourke — you need to go for it.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.