Beto O'Rourke
Credit: Michael Hogan/Flickr

Beto O’Rourke has certainly given people a lot to think about. Politico reports that some of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors and most experienced campaign professionals are essentially frozen, waiting to hear whether or not O’Rourke will run for president before making commitments to others aspiring candidates.  There are a variety of metrics that help explain the Beto phenomenon.

For starters, he raised a dumbfounding $70 million for his Senate race in Texas, including an absurd $38 million in the third quarter alone.  For donors, money chases money, and for campaign hands, they like to be well paid.  If O’Rourke makes a run for the presidency, his tailpipe will be blasting out dollar bills.

Mikal Watts, a San Antonio-based lawyer and major Democratic money bundler, said several donors and political operatives in Iowa, after hearing from other potential candidates in recent days, have called to ask if O’Rourke is running, a sign of his impact in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

“They’re not wanting to sign on to other presidential campaigns until they know whether Beto is going,” Watts said. “And if Beto is running, what good progressive Democrat wouldn’t want to work for Beto O’Rourke?”

He said, “I can tell you that there has not been this kind of level of electric excitement about a candidate since” Barack Obama ran in 2008.

O’Rourke’s charisma is easy to spot and hard to measure directly, but he is often compared to both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, the only successful Democratic presidential candidates since 1976. The ease with which he raises money is one manifestation of this, but there’s also the more important indicator—votes.

As of November 19, O’Rourke’s tally in his midterm race is 4,024,777. In 2016, Hillary Clinton actually did pretty well (for a Democrat) in Texas, losing more narrowly (percentage-wise) with 3,877,868 votes than she did in Iowa, a state Barack Obama carried twice. Still, she only got 43.2 percent compared to Beto’s 48.3 percent, and he actually got more overall votes despite it being a significantly lower-turnout election.

And this had an impact. Though incumbent Republican Governor Greg Abbott was reelected with a healthy 56-43 percent advantage and the GOP once again swept every statewide office, the Democrats gained two seats in the state Senate, picked up twelve seats in the State House and knocked off two sitting U.S. congressmen.  Even the Republican victories were substantially diminished. Attorney General Ken Paxton’s margin dropped from 21 points to four, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s 19-point spread was brought down to five.

It’s true that Senator Ted Cruz was a relatively weak opponent, but the Democrats ran well in many other races with O’Rourke leading the way with those four million votes.  Clearly, O’Rourke’s money and natural appeal paid for and inspired a formidable political organization that had benefits for the party as a whole.

To see what a machine like this can produce over time, you can read an excellent Associated Press article on how Harry Reid built up a battering ram in Nevada beginning in 2004, and how that organization has turned Nevada into a blue state. Now, even in retirement and in faltering health, Reid’s machine keeps humming along. Next year, Nevada will have a Democratic governor for the first time in two decades, two Democratic U.S. senators, and a supermajority in the State Assembly. Pending a recount, it looks like they came up 24 votes shy of winning a supermajority in the State Senate, too.

The reason Harry Reid could accomplish this is that he was able raise a lot of money, and he used that money to pay for a permanent organization, not just one that is ramped up and down around important elections.  One good argument against O’Rourke running for president is that he might be able to do more to turn Texas blue by running for Senate again in two years if he focuses on fleshing out what he has already built rather than diverting his attention to national politics.

On the other hand, if he can take his Texas model national, he might be able to replicate the kind of excitement we saw around Barack Obama.

There are a lot of names floating around and I won’t be surprised if the Democrats wind up needing to split their candidates up for their debates the way the Republicans did in 2015-16.  Some of these aspirants have compelling rationales for their campaigns but, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, none of them have the fundraising ability or preexisting organization that O’Rourke brings to the table.

There’s certainly a risk that O’Rourke is getting too much hype. He might not be as competitive in Texas in a presidential race as he was in a Senate race against Ted Cruz. Yet, he could use the extra two years to expand in Texas to a point that brings him over the top. And can anyone else really say that have a better chance of flipping Texas and delivering a deathblow to the conservative movement?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at