AUSTIN, Texas – If elections were decided by viral videos and fawning media profiles, Democrat Beto O’Rourke would win Texas’ Senate race in a landslide.
Video of the candidate defending NFL players’ right to protest during the national anthem had been viewed by millions even before NBA star LeBron James called it a “must-watch.” Another of O’Rourke, a three-term congressman, thrashing through a Whataburger parking lot on a skateboard is almost as popular, increasing the onetime punk rocker’s already considerable street cred.
National magazines are suggesting he could be a Democratic vice-presidential pick in 2020 – or even a White House contender, ala a young Barack Obama. Sure, O’Rourke may lose to incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, the argument goes, but just staying competitive in Texas, which hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in nearly a quarter century, would still further boost his political star.
The White House is taking notice. President Donald Trump tweeted that he plans to stage “a major rally” for Cruz in October. Help from the president was long unthinkable in a race that for months looked like a Cruz cakewalk.
The hype machine powering O’Rourke has brought in piles of campaign cash and generated excitement nationally. But it also risks eventual backlash. Voters have often punished candidates for getting too big for their political britches – especially if they haven’t won anything yet. O’Rourke need only look to his opponent for an example of a politician whose ambitions irked voters he needed.
Still, the Democrat seems eager to test a Trump-era theory that, with such an outsized personality in the White House, voters may no longer want their politicians to stay humble.
O’Rourke has largely welcomed the spotlight. His stance on anthem protests landed him an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ TV show this week. O’Rourke also hasn’t disavowed descriptions of himself as “Kennedy-esque,” given his boyish good looks. He livestreams constantly and, in March, when he appeared on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the crowd in Los Angeles cheered so much that the host crowed, “It’s like when The Beatles came to America.”
“You can’t control it,” O’Rourke spokesman Chris Evans said of the attention. He disputed the idea that national praise could hurt back home, saying it’s “hard to say we’re not focused on Texas” since O’Rourke just spent 34 days of the congressional summer recess campaigning without leaving the state.
O’Rourke himself has shrugged off questions about whether too much attention could create unrealistic expectations. “The whole thing is not something he’s talked about, really,” Evans said.
Some Texans think the campaign might want to, though.
“Most voters in Texas still don’t know who Beto O’Rourke is. If the first thing they know about him is he’s like Obama, then that’s going to turn off more voters than it attracts,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
Ironically, O’Rourke could ask Cruz about this problem. He arrived in the Senate and immediately laid the groundwork for a presidential campaign that saw him finish second to Trump in the 2016 primary.
Cruz then alienated much of his base by refusing to endorse Trump at that year’s Republican National Convention, and though he’s since embraced the president, some Texas conservatives say they’re still wary, seeing what happened at the convention as putting personal ambition over party.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has also run into issues with political ambition clashing with his day job, and just ask former North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards, who was already fading before word of his affair and a child with his mistress broke, about how well being dubbed the second coming of Bill Clinton went.
Texas Democrats, meanwhile, have been down this road before. Wendy Davis staged a marathon state Legislature filibuster in the name of abortion rights, rocketed to national stardom and launched a 2014 gubernatorial bid. Like O’Rourke, Davis was a strong fundraiser and the toast of liberals from Hollywood to Brooklyn. Largely unable to define herself beyond abortion, which resonated nationally but not at home, Davis eventually lost by 20-plus points to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
Bob Radnich, a retiree who lives near the Texas-Mexico border and donned an Uncle Sam costume to hold up a “Stand with Wendy Davis” sign on a street corner in 2014, is now backing O’Rourke – but trying to keep realistic expectations.
“He’s a real star,” Radnich said. “But we have to get the people to vote.”
Cruz’s internal polling is starting to show a much tighter race, those close to his campaign say. But during Texas’ primary in March, when Democrats angered by Trump notched their highest mid-term primary turnout since 2002, Cruz still netted 1.3-plus million votes. O’Rourke got less than 650,000, and only about 1 million total Democratic Senate ballots were cast between him and two-little known primary opponents.
Even if O’Rourke wins over those Democratic primary voters who didn’t support him, he’s looking at a 300,000-plus vote deficit. And, the more stories written about O’Rourke, the more energized Republicans may be to turn out to vote. That’s what Cruz is counting on.
“In Texas, there are a lot more conservatives than liberals,” Cruz said following a recent campaign stop. “So, my task politically between now and Election Day is very simple, turn out conservatives.”
Cruz has tried to paint O’Rourke as the preferred candidate of non-Texans. But 68 percent of O’Rourke’s contributions during the Senate race have come from in-state donors compared to just 39 percent for Cruz, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
That feeds into O’Rourke’s promises to concentrate on representing Texas full-time and championing having visited all of its 254 counties during his campaign – in contrast to Cruz, who hit all 99 Iowa counties on his way to winning that state’s 2016 caucus.
Too much national hype, however, could make such promises sound hollow.
“If people perceive him as being an ambitious climber then they might think twice,” Rottinghaus said. “He looks like a politician instead of a grassroots-inspired movement, and that’s problematic for voters who want to invest in something different.”
This story has been updated to correct Rottinghaus’ university affiliation to the University of Houston, not Rice University.