THREE MONTHS AGO, I wrote in these pages that Beto O’Rourke should run for president. “If the wind is at your back,” I said then, “you need to go for it.”
Now, I’m not so sure.
If O’Rourke were to throw his hat in the ring, he’d likely find himself in the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates in what is a very winnable race. But for Democrats as a whole, he might be better off running for the US Senate again, against incumbent Texas Republican John Cornyn.
This is not an indictment of O’Rourke, even though there’s a growing perception in political circles that since his narrow Senate defeat last fall to Ted Cruz, his path to the White House has meandered, ever so slightly, off course.
As he showed at a rally in El Paso this month, O’Rourke possesses the kind of charisma — and following — that separates presidential candidates from run-of-the-mill politicians.
What’s changed is that the case for a Senator O’Rourke might be stronger than the case for a President O’Rourke.
For Democrats — and for the country — there is no more urgent political task than defeating Donald Trump in 2020. The midterm election results and Trump’s persistently mediocre polling numbers suggest that the odds are in the Democrats’ favor.
If Trump were to reach out to voters beyond his core base of support and stop saying offensive, racist, and untrue things, he could bring his poll numbers up. But we all know that’s not going to happen. When you factor in the trifecta of the Mueller investigation, an increasingly feisty group of congressional Democrats, and an economy that likely won’t stay this strong forever, Trump’s numbers seem destined to move in a negative direction.
Democrats don’t necessarily need O’Rourke to win back the White House, and with supporters of Bernie Sanders already sniping at O’Rourke for allegedly being a milquetoast centrist, his path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will hardly be a smooth one. If the past two months have shown us anything, it is that practically any member of the current Democratic field would be a formidable candidate against an incumbent as damaged as Trump.
The more uphill challenge for Democrats will be to win back the Senate. Republicans currently have a three-seat advantage in the upper chamber. But since Democrats will have a difficult time holding on to the Alabama Senate seat held by Doug Jones, they will likely need to pick up four seats in 2020. There are three winnable options, in Colorado, Maine, and Arizona (where former astronaut Mark Kelly recently announced his intention to challenge Republican Senator Martha McSally), but none will be easy. North Carolina, Iowa, and potentially Georgia, if Stacey Abrams takes on David Perdue, could all be in play. If O’Rourke challenges Cornyn, he would add Texas to that list — and he would enter the race from an enviable position. O’Rourke will be coming off a narrow defeat to Cruz, in which he rallied young voters, outperformed previous Texas Democrats, and raised more than $70 million.
Moreover, while Cornyn has relatively strong approval ratings, among Republicans they dipped to 46 percent in June, before rising in October after the Senate showdown over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Yet, even with that increase, they still stood 17 points below Cruz’s numbers.
Cornyn is not oblivious to the challenge, having already raised nearly $6 million for his reelection bid and currently assembling an elite campaign team. There’s certainly no guarantee that O’Rourke will defeat him. But merely by challenging Cornyn, he would force Republicans to spend millions defending the seat — and take resources away from other Senate battlegrounds.
However, if O’Rourke were to win — and Democrats were to take back the Senate and the White House — the party would have the rare opportunity to push through a raft of progressive legislation. That will not be the case if Mitch McConnell remains Senate majority leader.
I understand the appeal of being president, and O’Rourke is in the rare position of being able to enter the race as a top-tier candidate. But Democrats have a rare opportunity of their own: to remake America, legislatively, in a more progressive image.
O’Rourke could help them achieve that goal by aiming his sights just a bit lower.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.