AUSTIN — Just nine months ago, attorney Katie Baron was so inspired by Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign in Texas that she commissioned a sprawling mural in an alleyway in east Austin featuring the candidate in a Superman-like pose.
After O’Rourke lost the race and began mulling a presidential campaign, the artist added a sweeping “2020” in blue paint — providing what seemed to be yet one more call for O’Rourke to get into the crowded race.
Now, four months into O’Rourke’s campaign, Baron wishes he had stayed out.
After the first Democratic presidential debate last month, Baron posted an altered picture of the mural on a Facebook page dedicated to the artwork. She had replaced O’Rourke’s face with Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s and wrote: “Don’t worry, still got PLENTY of love for Beto, but Kamala earned herself a little recognition too last night!” The comments filled with messages from angry O’Rourke supporters and a few excited Harris backers.
While Baron says she will be forever grateful to O’Rourke for inspiring her and thousands of others to become politically active, she doesn’t think he’s the strongest candidate for president, nor has he shown he can nationalize the magic of his Senate campaign.
“If the primary vote was tomorrow, he wouldn’t have my vote,” said Baron, 35, who likes Harris (D-Calif.) for her sharp intellect and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for her methodical policy papers.
“Being part of the Beto-mania that was fueling the fire, I can see why he kind of thought he had no choice but to enter,” she said. “Honestly, I did get a little caught up. We were still riding the wave of the midterms.”
As O’Rourke slogs through a difficult primary season, he’s not only struggling to gain the support of voters who don’t know of him, but also to hold on to the support of those who know him best, Texans who powered his long-shot campaign against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year.
In that race, they saw O’Rourke as the big-hearted underdog to a Republican despised by Democrats, a candidate who gave soaring speeches that brought some to tears and inspired others to donate to his campaign. But in the presidential race, O’Rourke is up against fellow Democrats with similar values and inspiring speeches of their own — and, in some cases, more legislative experience and firmer plans for how to fix many of the problems facing the country. The fresh face of 2018 somehow seems stale.
“I think Texas still loves Beto. The difference is Texas voters have more suitors now,” said Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas, a rapid response media organization based in Austin.
O’Rourke’s campaign strategy is to focus heavily on two states: Iowa, which will hold the nation’s first nominating contest early next year, and Texas, which will hold its primary on Super Tuesday on March 3.
A Quinnipiac University poll released in early June found former vice president Joe Biden leading in Texas with 30 percent support among Democratic-leaning registered voters. O’Rourke was at 16 percent, lagging but much higher than his average standing in national polls. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was at 15 percent.
In that same poll, 60 percent of Texas Democratic voters said they preferred that O’Rourke abandon his presidential campaign to run in 2020 against Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), while 27 percent supported him continuing.
Earlier this year, Democratic leaders tried to persuade O’Rourke to run against Cornyn, but O’Rourke wasn’t interested. Such a race would probably be even more difficult than challenging Cruz — and as that pitch was made, a chorus of supporters across the country was urging O’Rourke to run for president.
After O’Rourke passed on the Senate race, Democrat MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who narrowly lost a House race last year and built a national following thanks to a viral campaign ad, announced she would run. If O’Rourke were to change his mind — those close to him say he has no plan to do so — he would have to challenge Hegar in the primary or try to push her out of the race.
The presidential race, meantime, hasn’t gone as many expected. Although it opened with a laudatory televised chat with Oprah Winfrey, a Vanity Fair cover and a massive burst of donations, O’Rourke has struggled since to raise money and stand out.
During the first debate late last month, O’Rourke was attacked by fellow Democrats, including fellow Texan and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, and often struggled to directly and concisely answer questions. Early polls have placed him squarely in the middle of the pack, not near the front as supporters had hoped.
“The excitement has just kinda died down as we’ve seen him just be another white guy running for president,” said Gabrielle Harris, 19, the vice president of the Texas College Democrats who was a student fellow for O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign.
Lisa Allen, a 59-year-old physician assistant who lives in Muleshoe, in the deeply conservative Texas Panhandle, volunteered for O’Rourke’s Senate campaign and has donated to his presidential campaign — but she worries he doesn’t have enough experience or policy understanding, and that he could be overpowered by Trump on a debate stage. If she had to vote today, she would pick Warren.
“I still wish him the best,” she said of O’Rourke. “And maybe he will step it up a notch.”
Ryan Rosshirt, the vice president of the Austin Young Democrats, supported O’Rourke during the Senate race and even put a bumper sticker on his car. But he’s angered that O’Rourke is running for president, as he thinks the former congressman would have a better shot running for Senate again — and that the party sorely needs to work together to flip as many seats as it can.
“It was an extremely arrogant act, running for president after the career that he’s had,” said Rosshirt, 30. “He hasn’t proved that he could do it.”
On the Facebook page dedicated to the O’Rourke mural, a recent post about his presidential campaign prompted a handful of his supporters to debate whether he should be running.
“I believed in Beto then, and I believe in Beto now. BUT. The presidential bid just isn’t there,” one supporter wrote. “This doesn’t mean that Beto won’t be a realistic presidential candidate in the future. Now is not the time. Beto, *please* leave this race.”
“He has just as much right to run as anyone else up there,” another countered, saying it was too early to discuss dropping out.
Those close to O’Rourke say he’s accustomed to being the underestimated underdog and that, while he has been listening to constructive criticism from some top donors, he’s not fazed by his low poll numbers.
“People shouldn’t be pressured to drop out just because they had a bad first debate,” said Marcel McClinton, an 18-year-old gun-control activist in Houston who is running for the city council and was one of O’Rourke’s guests at the first debate.
McClinton said he was surprised when the candidate took the stage looking exhausted and not like his usual energetic self. He hopes O’Rourke will “show some fight” and “be more assertive” at the next debate — and he’s still confident O’Rourke will show that a candidate can succeed by listening to people and allowing them to set the agenda.
In O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso, many Democrats remember the 2018 Senate race fondly. They credit O’Rourke for bringing attention to their community and for having a deep understanding of life on the border, which they consider his greatest strength as a candidate.
On Thursday night, hundreds of El Pasoans gathered at the baseball stadium downtown to cheer on their minor-league team, the Chihuahuas. Attendees across political affiliations had a shared sense of pride in O’Rourke, who served on the El Paso City Council and then represented the city in the U.S. House of Representatives for six years. Nearly everyone had a story about how they knew him. One fan went to his high school. Another was friendly with his kindergarten teacher. Another had seen O’Rourke’s kids playing outside just the other day.
O’Rourke is part of the reason that Juan Caballero, 19, decided to study political science at Texas Tech University. After meeting O’Rourke during a social studies class in high school, Caballero decided to join his Senate campaign as a student fellow, working 30 hours a week in the month leading up to the 2018 election.
A concessions stand worker at Thursday’s game, Caballero is grateful for the impact O’Rourke has had on his life, but he worries O’Rourke “couldn’t find his footing” on the national stage. While he still supports O’Rourke’s candidacy, Caballero is increasingly interested in Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind.
“He’s an eloquent, educated person,” Caballero said of Buttigieg after reading his autobiography. “Something fresh.”
Davies reported from Austin and El Paso. Johnson reported from El Paso. Scott Clement contributed to this report.