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Why ‘Betomania’ didn’t translate to the national stage

Beto O’Rourke left his political magic in Texas.

The former congressman’s stunning rise and sudden fall ended Friday night in Iowa, when he acknowledged the reality borne out by his low poll numbers and slumping fundraising: His hopes of winning the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination were over. His campaign had explored all of its options — including the possibility of seeking public financing, an aide said — before concluding that he wouldn’t have the money to compete with his top-tier rivals.

It brought an end to an arc that began last year in Texas, when his go-everywhere-meet-everyone approach, off-the-cuff cultural wokeness and advanced social media and organizing tactics helped him tilt the political landscape of the red state in his near-miss Senate bid.

Then came the height of “Betomania”: Before launching his presidential campaign, O’Rourke was praised by Barack Obama, hyped by Oprah Winfrey and compared to Robert F. Kennedy. He was still relatively untested — but coming from the US-Mexico border at a time when President Donald Trump’s treatment of immigrants was dominating national headlines, and having proven his appeal across demographic and partisan lines in a state that could fundamentally alter the nation’s electoral map if it became competitive, he looked like he might represent Democrats’ future.

In the wake of O’Rourke’s early exit from the 2020 race, supporters were left wondering how it was all possible: How had O’Rourke risen so suddenly, and then fallen even faster?

It’s a complicated question, and one rooted in the reality that — unlike most politicians who run for the White House — O’Rourke had only recently begun seeing himself as someone who could run for president, and had spent virtually no time preparing for the possibility.

A breakout star

In 2018, Democrats were still searching for ways to remedy the complacency that had handed Trump the White House. Progressive strategists and activist groups focused on identifying candidates who represented their party’s future: people who were younger, campaigned with authenticity and offered broader political and cultural appeal.

O’Rourke had launched his 2017 Senate run as a little-known three-term congressman who hadn’t even been recruited by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

But by the spring of 2018, he was part of a trio of candidates — along with Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Florida’s Andrew Gillum — who became the stars of that year’s class of Democratic candidates. As Democrats in Washington complained that the money would be better spent on older, more cautious incumbent senators vying to hang on in red states, grassroots donors were instead helping O’Rourke raise $80 million — shattering all previous Senate fundraising records — in a higher-risk, higher-reward bid to change the political landscape in Texas.

Part of O’Rourke’s appeal was in liberals’ deep desire to oust his opponent, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

But O’Rourke was also running a revolutionary campaign.

He became the first Democrat in recent history to visit all 254 counties in Texas. He often allowed reporters to ride with him on the road — talking on-the-record with them the whole time. He allowed supporters an unprecedented degree of access, too, by broadcasting all of his events — and often his drives in between — live on Facebook, sometimes taking questions and often riffing on policy along the way. And he allowed a documentary crew to follow him, ultimately producing a film about his Senate bid that would premiere at South by Southwest this year.

His penchant for viral moments — from his defense of NFL players kneeling in protest of police brutality during the National Anthem to his skateboarding through a Whataburger parking lot after Cruz had accused him of stealing his campaign logo from the fast-food company’s packets of spicy ketchup — gave him cultural cachet.

Beyoncé wore a “Beto” ball cap on Instagram. LeBron James wore the same cap to a game in San Antonio.

Meanwhile, O’Rourke was using “distributed organizing” — a method pioneered by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign of empowering volunteers in far-flung regions of Texas, often working out of pop-up offices in people’s garages or basements — to drastically expand his campaign’s reach.

O’Rourke ultimately lost to Cruz by 2.6 percentage points. The margin was much closer than most analysts had expected and fueled speculation that the suddenly unemployed O’Rourke could next mount a presidential run.

Looking to 2020

In December, he met privately with former President Barack Obama, who encouraged him. In early February, he teased a run while being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey.

But the ground was shifting quickly as O’Rourke was still deciding about whether he was ready to devote at least another year to being on the road, away from his wife and three young children.

California Sen. Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren had jumped into the 2020 race earlier than expected, jump-starting a scramble to hire talented staffers — such as Shelby Cole, who’d helmed O’Rourke’s email fundraising program in 2018 but decamped to become Harris’ digital director — and giving Democratic voters candidates to begin considering.

O’Rourke was seen as a top-tier prospective candidate — but the will-he, won’t-he speculation wore poorly at a time when Democratic voters and activists believed they had little time to waste and no room for indecision in taking on Trump.

In January, he went on a solo road trip through the Southwest. “Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk,” he wrote in a Medium post. He added, “Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don’t know and I’m not known, it’ll clear my head, reset, I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.”

Issues arise

The media landscape also shifted.

O’Rourke in 2018 had been the subject of so many magazine profiles that it became a running joke among journalists and politicos on Twitter.

Now, though, he was being scrutinized by a much larger audience of journalists, pundits, activists and voters who hadn’t read those profiles and didn’t give him credit for his performance in a Senate race he’d ultimately lost.

That much was clear when O’Rourke posted a video on Instagram that started with himself in a green bib during a visit to the dentist.

It was another viral moment — but this time, O’Rourke was being mocked on social media. The context, that he was interviewing his dental hygienist about her experience living on the US-Mexico border, was ignored. That O’Rourke had already spent two years doing things like that — which, by any fair measure, had worked for him in Texas — was forgotten.

A more significant misstep came when O’Rourke, while still deciding whether to run for president, agreed to be interviewed by Vanity Fair. It led to a March cover story with a pull quote featuring O’Rourke saying, “Man, I’m just born to be in it,” on the eve of his official entrance into the 2020 race.

O’Rourke would also err during his first swing through Iowa, joking at one point that his wife Amy was at home in El Paso raising their three children, “sometimes with my help.”

Quickly, he admitted the remark was in poor taste, telling CNN at the time he decided to apologize after talking about it on the phone with his wife.

“She said, ‘Look, I know what you’re trying to say, which is here I am in El Paso, I’m working, I’m also taking on the lion’s share of the responsibility of raising our children and you were trying to acknowledge that in your comments but it came off sounding a little flip. And you know, this is a serious thing, and I think you should treat it seriously,'” he said. “So I thought that was great advice. And advice that I’m going to follow.”

However, the damage was done. The Vanity Fair cover, which he would also later admit was a mistake, and the joke about his wife fueled the perception that O’Rourke was entitled and hadn’t earned his way into the upper echelon of 2020 Democratic contenders.

None of that slowed him at first.

O’Rourke raised $6 million on his first day as a candidate — just as much as Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden did. He was still polling in double digits.

But the poor reception to his launch in the national press and on social media compounded a more significant problem O’Rourke faced: The man who had been a back-bench congressman with no expectations of a political future outside of El Paso less than two years ago had barely begun to build the sort of organization it would take to sustain a serious presidential campaign.

He also didn’t appear to be receiving detailed briefings ahead of his campaign stops. During O’Rourke’s first visit to Wisconsin, immediately after his initial Iowa swing, he was asked by a reporter about the state’s controversial deal with Foxconn to build a massive manufacturing plant there — a story that has dominated headlines in the state for years. He said he didn’t know enough to weigh in on it.

Though he would later roll out some of the most detailed policy proposals in the Democratic field, O’Rourke launched his campaign without much focus on specifics — instead speaking in broad terms about values. It was an approach that worked in Texas, where he was all but certain to be on the left of Cruz on every issue. But it left unanswered questions about how he fit into a Democratic race where ideological differences were being measured in much smaller degrees.

O’Rourke had also entered the race without having hired a campaign manager. Jen O’Malley Dillon, a well-regarded Obama veteran, would soon take the helm of his El Paso headquarters. But as she arrived, his lead organizers from his Senate run, Zack Malitz and Becky Bond, departed — underscoring the reality that O’Rourke hadn’t entered the race with a specific plan.

By the summer, the ship had been righted in El Paso. O’Malley Dillon brought in talented teams at O’Rourke’s headquarters and in the early-voting states.

But by that point, O’Rourke’s trajectory had already changed. His fundraising ground to a halt, leading to a second quarter in which he raised just $3.6 million — much less than he’d brought in during his first 24 hours as a candidate. And his poll numbers dipped into the low single digits.

New stars emerged, such as Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who had usurped O’Rourke’s position as the exciting, generation-change candidate.

And the first debates didn’t help. In June, O’Rourke — who never liked debates and, aides said, felt he came off too wooden and practiced after detailed prep sessions — appeared stunned when he was pummeled by former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro over immigration.

Yet again, the tactics that had worked for O’Rourke in Texas fell flat nationally. He had spoken Spanish repeatedly in the first debate, raising eyebrows — even though O’Rourke, who is from the US-Mexico border, has long spoken both English and Spanish at nearly every campaign event and press conference.

He continued to fade as the summer wore on, ultimately facing the same problem that vexed most in the historically large Democratic presidential field: Faced with too many options to consider, many voters had already narrowed their choices to a handful of candidates they believed could win — and there was little those who missed that cut could do to change their trajectory.

A shift in strategy

In early August, O’Rourke stepped off the campaign trail entirely for 12 days following the mass shooting that left 22 dead in his hometown of El Paso. Police said the gunman had written a screed that echoed Trump’s racist rhetoric targeting Mexican immigrants.

In El Paso, after a vigil, an emotional O’Rourke had his first viral moment as a presidential candidate.

A reporter asked: “Is there anything in your mind that the president can do now to make this any better?”

O’Rourke answered: “Members of the press, what the f***?”

“It’s these questions that you know the answers to,” he said. “I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s inciting racism and violence in this country.”

After pausing his campaign to visit hospitals and attend funerals, O’Rourke returned to the campaign trail in mid-August with, for the first time, an animating cause for his candidacy: Combating gun violence.

He advocated mandatory buy-backs of assault-style rifles, drawing headlines — and also condemnation from some Washington Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who said he was making more modest gun control measures more difficult to get Republicans on board with.

Still, his position was popular with Democratic voters, and gave him a stand-out moment in the September presidential debate, when he was pressed on whether he would really confiscate Americans’ firearms.

“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

The moment provided a short-term boost to O’Rourke’s fundraising, helping him finish the third quarter stronger than the second, raising $4.5 million. It wasn’t enough, though — he’d raised less than 20% of what Warren and Sanders had brought in, and less than one-quarter of Buttigieg’s haul.

His poll numbers also remained in the low-single digits, raising the prospect that O’Rourke could miss the Democratic National Committee’s increased qualifying threshold for the November debate stage.

The end

Headed into the final stretch before the Iowa caucuses, when campaigns need to quickly ramp up spending on advertising and organizing, the writing was on the wall — and O’Rourke on Friday acknowledged the reality he faced.

In Des Moines, supporters had spent all day outside the Wells Fargo Arena, awaiting the Iowa Democratic Party’s biggest event of the year — the one that had allowed Obama, who encouraged O’Rourke to run and compared the former Texas congressman to himself, to leapfrog Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

But he’d decided earlier in the week to drop out. O’Malley Dillon began informing senior staffers on Thursday morning. And O’Rourke told his full staff the news during a call on Friday.

O’Rourke arrived at about 5:30 p.m. Central time to tell his supporters his campaign was ending. The man who’d been a fundraising dynamo just a year ago couldn’t raise enough money to go on.

“We have to clearly see at this point that we do not have means to pursue this campaign successfully,” he said.

O’Rourke lingered for more than an hour, hugging supporters, some of whom had traveled from out of state to see him. He promised to support the Democratic presidential nominee.

As one woman cried, he hugged her and said, “We’ve got to keep the faith.”

Though Democrats have long urged O’Rourke to run for the Senate again in 2020, this time against Republican John Cornyn, O’Rourke’s aides on Friday said he’d already ruled that out. O’Rourke said he wouldn’t be a candidate for any public office.

By late Saturday morning, he was home in El Paso.

CNN