Will he or won’t he?
It’s been the Texas-sized elephant in the cramped room of Democratic presidential politics.
Will Beto O’Rourke, the square-jawed former congressman who gained a faithful national following in his come-up-short bid last year to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), set his sights on the White House? Or will his soul-searching, conducted on Facebook Live and on Oprah Winfrey’s “SuperSoul Sunday,” lead him to scale back his ambitions?
For months, even the 46-year-old himself claimed not to know. That, at least, has changed.
O’Rourke has made up his mind about a possible presidential bid, which could transform the nascent race for the Democratic nomination. He said Wednesday that he and his wife are preparing to make an announcement.
If history is any guide, the announcement of the announcement rarely leads to a quiet withdrawal from public life.
“Amy and I have made a decision about how we can best serve our country,” the former three-term congressman from El Paso said in a statement to the Dallas Morning News, which an aide confirmed to The Washington Post.
“We are excited to share it with everyone soon,” he added.
The aide declined to elaborate on O’Rourke’s plans or timing, but the Dallas newspaper reported that the Democrat has decided not to make another bid for the Senate, this time challenging Republican John Cornyn, as some have urged him to do. Instead, he is expected to announce a presidential campaign “within weeks,” according to the paper, which cited sources close to the former congressman.
The latest insight into O’Rourke’s plans came a little more than a week before an HBO documentary on his Senate race, called “Running with Beto,” will make its world premiere at the South by Southwest festival on March 9.
O’Rourke would be joining an already crowded field of Democrats vying to take on President Trump, each with a different idea about how best to oust him — left-wing populism, an appeal to the heartland, the female vote, the youth vote.
Candidates who boast many more years in elected office, and at a much higher level, are running. And there are formidable contestants still likely to come, including a certain former vice president who knows a thing or two about soul-searching.
The enthusiasm that makes O’Rourke a threat, and that helped him rake in an extraordinary amount of money during a Senate bid that lifted Democratic candidates all over Texas, has less to do with his stance on any given issue than the sheer force of his personality. He has been inundated with inquiries from Democratic operatives who see in his bright-eyed assessment of the country’s political potential the same sort of appeal that helped a one-term senator beat out more experienced Democrats in 2008 and seize the White House after eight years of the George W. Bush presidency.
His message of uplift recalls President Barack Obama’s observation, when, as an Illinois state senator during his keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he said, “We’re not red states and blue states; we’re all Americans, standing up together for the red, white, and blue."
O’Rourke’s standing with celebrities is reminiscent of the former president, too. On Election Day last year, Beyoncé donned a “Beto For Senate” hat to let her fans know where she stood. LeBron James also sent his social media followers running toward the underdog candidate. The gossip website TMZ has recently been trailing him.
The Texas Democrat met with Obama in December at his post-presidency offices in Foggy Bottom. His audience with the former president was notable, as Obama did not endorse his Senate candidacy, largely at O’Rourke’s request. “I don’t think we’re interested,” he said on the campaign trail, suggesting that he was wary of out-of-state Democrats dictating to Texans how to vote. He concluded, “This is on Texas.”
In January, he took his introspection on the road, setting off on a beatnik drive through the Southwest. Soon, his meandering process of making up his mind began to wear on the patience of some. Did his social media savvy get the best of him when he live-streamed his visit to the dentist?
But recent appearances have been more pointed. He led counterprogramming to Trump’s campaign rally earlier this month at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso. That was followed by a trip to the battleground state of Wisconsin, for a closed-door meet-and-greet with students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Rarely has an unsuccessful candidate for statewide office been sized up immediately for a presidential run. Winfrey, who has generated presidential buzz of her own despite suggesting she won’t enter the fray, labeled O’Rourke a “cultural phenomenon.”
Polling suggests he remains a subject of interest for Democratic voters, even as his name has receded slightly from the headlines following sustained attention surrounding his upstart midterm campaign.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in January found that his was among the names offered by Democratic-leaning voters asked an open-ended question about whom they would support if the election were held that day. Most, however, said they did not have an opinion.