Beto O'Rourke
Credit: Erik Drost/Flickr

Beto O’Rourke’s presidential aspirations are not going well. The former Texas congressman and one-time Senate hopeful has attended at least 67 Iowa town halls, driven nearly 3,000 miles across the state, and hired dozens of staffers there. He’s tall, white, charismatic, and handsome—traits that should serve him well in the famously monochromatic Hawkeye State.

And yet, in the latest Des Moines Register poll, O’Rourke only has 2 percent support. He’s also not faring much better in national polling, where he hovers around 3-4 percent, and his numbers have sharply declined since an early and splashy entry into the race.

Perhaps worst for O’Rourke is that his strategic persona—youthful, well-spoken, vaguely left-liberal, smart yet inoffensive—is being done better and more effectively by South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has surged to a top-five position in the race. Nor does O’Rourke’s presence in the campaign, unlike other candidates like Washington Governor Jay Inslee, serve to highlight issues that would make his candidacy worth the effort even in defeat.

Fortunately for O’Rourke and for Democrats, there is another useful path for him, one that would serve the country far better: making another run for the U.S. Senate against Republican John Cornyn. The filing deadline isn’t until December 9, which gives him plenty of time to reconsider. And a large number of Texas Democrats would like to see him come back home to do it.

While it does matter which Democrat might take the Oval Office from Trump in terms of their policy priorities, the cynics are largely right that the difference between John Hickenlooper and Tulsi Gabbard in the White House would be far less consequential in the long run than the difference between 50 and 49 Democrats in the Senate. A Joe Biden presidency and an Elizabeth Warren presidency would certainly have different cabinet choices and strategic platforms, but both would run aground in the face of a Republican-controlled Congress.

That means that every high-profile Democrat with a viable chance of taking a Senate seat from a Republican in 2020 would better serve liberal and progressive interests by gunning for that office, rather than by taking a long shot at seizing the presidential nomination from one of the many other Democrats in that already overcrowded field.

Could O’Rourke actually beat Cornyn? It’s hard to say, but the latest Quinnipiac poll shows Trump trailing Biden in Texas, and only leading Warren by a single point there. Trump’s net approval in Texas is a meager 3 percent to the positive. Senator Cornyn has tied himself staunchly to Trump, and represents some of the ugliest Republican politics. O’Rourke could stand a decent chance of an upset given a large enough Democratic turnout advantage—likely a better chance than he has of winning the Democratic nomination for president—and at worst he would tie up Republican dollars defending what used to be a safe seat.

At this point, O’Rourke should ask himself less what the country gains from his presidential candidacy, and ask more what he can do for the country—and his home state.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.