No one in the field of Democratic presidential candidates has been the subject of more hype — and, recently, more skepticism — than Beto O’Rourke. To go from a losing Senate campaign in Texas to a run for the White House is hardly a normal path in politics. O’Rourke, who formally launched his campaign on Saturday, is about to show what he’s learned from that experience.
It’s indisputable that he was a political phenomenon during his Senate run last year. Maybe it was due to his spirited defense in a viral video of quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence in black communities. Maybe it was his aptitude with Facebook Live. Maybe it was the image of O’Rourke driving on the open road, at once seemingly aimless and totally focused. Whatever it was, it almost worked.
But “almost worked” is the issue. O’Rourke lost the race to incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz by fewer than three percentage points. How should he read what happened? Should he say, “Hey, it’s deep-red Texas, I did everything I could, and though I lost, I did better than any Democrat running statewide in many years?” Or should he say, “I might have been able to win this race if I had been savvier, smarter, tougher. Where did I fall short personally?”
Several things suggest that O’Rourke isn’t laying his defeat just on forces beyond his control. As he explored the question of whether to run for president, O’Rourke sought advice from a range of Democrats with presidential campaign experience. Those who have talked directly with the candidate (or with advisers close to him) have come away persuaded that O’Rourke believes he could have won — or done better than he did — had he done some things differently.
He did many things right, which was one reason he came as close as he did. He displayed energy and skills as a candidate that have impressed even his rivals. His aspirational message captured imaginations among voters weary of the constant partisan warfare. He showed that he understands not just the power of social media but how to exploit it effectively. He showed that being unconventional can pay dividends.
He also seemed to revel in projecting just how unusual his style of campaigning could be. In a Vanity Fair profile, O’Rourke described the feeling he had at an early event in that Senate race. “I got in there, and I don’t know if it’s a speech or not, but it felt amazing,” he told Joe Hagan, who wrote the profile. “Because every word was pulled out of me. Like, by some greater force, which was just the people there. Everything that I said, I was, like, watching myself, being like, ‘How am I saying this stuff? Where is this coming from?’ ”
That might appeal to some politicians, but presidential campaigns are not romantic explorations of self. They are hardheaded enterprises: long, complex, massive and expensive. For the Democratic Party’s nominee, this will become a billion-dollar enterprise, created from scratch and on the fly. There is room for spontaneity, innovation and creativity — but within a disciplined, orderly structure.
Democrats who spoke with members of O’Rourke’s team over the past few months said they found, between conversations late last year and more recently, a noticeable difference in his thinking. One Democratic strategist said that, in an early conversation, he got the sense that O’Rourke and his team were trying to decide whether they could run a presidential campaign largely as an extension of the Senate campaign.
By spring, such thoughts seemed to have disappeared. “Something happened,” said this Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share what he had learned. “Beto kind of forced the idea that [we] can’t do things the same way we did the last time.”
Another Democrat said: “He’s clear that this is at a totally different scale: the size and scope and intricacies. For him to be successful, he has to be the best candidate he can be, which means the most professional team around him.”
The clearest indicator of the change in thinking was O’Rourke’s decision to recruit and hire Jen O’Malley Dillon, who was deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama in 2012, as his new campaign manager. O’Malley Dillon, who is widely respected across the party, had not planned to work for a candidate during the nomination battle. O’Rourke managed to change her mind.
“To me, Jen is the biggest get of the cycle,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC. “If I were running for president, I would be doing everything humanly possible to get Jen to work for me. It’s an acknowledgment that to be successful there is an inside and outside game to play.”
In reaching out to O’Malley Dillon, O’Rourke has found someone who can put a foundation beneath the candidacy. She has knowledge gained from experience in multiple presidential campaigns and, because she came up through the organizing side of politics rather than the messaging side, she brings to O’Rourke elements that were missing in his Senate race.
She is steeped in the intricacies of voter contact and mobilization, comfortable with digital and data analytics that are part of modern campaigns. She is also tough-minded in the ways that the manager of such an operation must be and known for her ability to make decisions. “There is nobody better at the blocking and tackling of politics, and that’s what he needs,” said David Axelrod, who worked with her in both of the Obama presidential campaigns.
Beyond the structures that must be built, other questions exist. Can he fill out the message that he carried throughout the Texas campaign? One Democrat who sees O’Rourke as a talented but incomplete candidate described that message as “Obama lite,” aspirational but insufficient in terms of policy heft to carry into a presidential campaign. Another is whether he is prepared for the hard knocks of a national campaign and ready to fight back against opponents, especially President Trump, should he become the nominee.
O’Rourke and O’Malley Dillon face similar challenges: Each must let the other thrive and do the best work possible. That means O’Rourke needs to give his campaign manager wide berth to build and run the operation, and she must not impose on the candidate strictures or changes that would take away from his natural talents.
Ultimately, campaigns are reflections of the candidates, not the staffs. Which puts the real onus onto O’Rourke. As my colleague Matt Viser so aptly put it: Is the candidate who found near-success driving himself now prepared, figuratively and literally, to give up the keys to the car?