Presidential campaign would test Beto O'Rourke's elusive political identity
Republicans spent last year insisting O'Rourke was too liberal for Texas. Democrats have since scrutinized him from the left, an examination that will only intensify if he jumps into the presidential race.
Over the last year, Beto O'Rourke gained a national following for his unorthodox campaign against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. From his ubiquitous livestreams of jampacked campaign events to that viral video of him defending NFL players' right to protest, the campaign was the latest expression of a political brand he had built up in El Paso, eschewing political labels and partisan attachments while opting for broad, values-based appeals over granular policy pronouncements.
Now, as O'Rourke prepares to join the crowded race of Democrats auditioning to take on President Donald Trump, even those who supported O'Rourke in the Senate race acknowledge a presidential bid would cast a much brighter light on an overarching question: Just who is Beto O’Rourke politically? At the heart of it, according to both supporters and critics, is a simple reality: Running against Cruz in Texas is a lot different from running against a bunch of other Democrats nationally.
“In the Democratic primary for Senate, it was such a no-brainer that for any Democrat or progressive who wanted to beat Ted Cruz, if someone as inspiring as Beto was running, there were very few questions asked about the minutiae of his policy positions,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which endorsed O’Rourke against Cruz. “But in a presidential primary, when there are so many good choices on the table, ideology matters and a candidate’s worldview matters. … And I think Beto will have a lot of worldview questions to fill in for voters, and hopefully it’s good.”
Of course, O’Rourke’s elusive political identity is what got him here in the first place — within 3 percentage points of beating Cruz and on the precipice of a White House bid. And that’s just fine to fans who see him as a transcendent figure in a divided political era — much like Barack Obama, the former president who has said he sees himself in O’Rourke.
“He might have that Obama ability to be what the voter who receives him wants to see — and I say that admiringly, not critically,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder and senior vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington. “Obama was able to make you believe that his ideology was such that it could reflect your hopes — not necessarily that he agreed with you on every single issue, but he could be your standard-bearer regardless of who you were in the progressive family of ideas.”
As he has navigated intraparty currents in recent months, O’Rourke has seemed well aware of the tension over his somewhat fuzzy political persona — and does not appear to have any plans to change.
“In Texas, Ted Cruz called me a socialist. I’m too liberal for Texas," O'Rourke said during a recent visit to Wisconsin. "Outside of Texas, people say, 'Is he really a Democrat? I think he’s a closet Republican.' I don’t know where I am on a spectrum, and I almost could care less. I just want to get to better things for this country.”
"A younger, ragtag crowd"
Whatever it has come to mean, “progressive” is a term that has never been too far from O’Rourke’s political career. It was affixed to him and a few other young up-and-comers who fought their way on to the El Paso City Council in the 2000s, eager to push the border community toward its full potential as a world-class city.
O’Rourke’s time on the council was highlighted by policy positions that were undoubtedly liberal, particularly at the time: ending the drug war by legalizing marijuana, providing health benefits to same-sex couples. Yet there were also episodes that found O’Rourke in less politically clear territory — like when he was caught between powerful business interests and a historic Mexican-American neighborhood that stood in the way of a redevelopment plan.
In any case, few remember O’Rourke as a rigid ideologue or partisan warrior, even as he confronted the internecine strife that regularly takes hold in a Democratic stronghold like El Paso. In some ways, it was in his DNA: His late father, Pat O’Rourke, had served in countywide office as a Democrat before switching parties in the 1990s to run for other positions — and lose.
“That has to have some impact on the way that you think about party,” said Richard Pineda, a University of Texas at El Paso communications professor who has long known O’Rourke. “You can’t just say party only, party forever. … That burns you sometimes, and that’s enough to derail progress or derail action.”
When O’Rourke launched his successful bid for the U.S. House in 2012, he did not make an ideological case against the incumbent, El Paso’s longtime Democratic congressman, Silvestre Reyes, as much as one about his ethics and entrenchment. Along the way, O’Rourke built a coalition that provided an unorthodox contrast to Reyes’ support from the Democratic old guard.
“O’Rourke’s supporters are harder to classify but seem to be a younger, ragtag crowd of unaffiliated liberals, crossover Republicans, independents and moderates looking for a change,” El Paso journalist David Crowder wrote at the time in a local publication.
Exit polling conducted by a student group at Coronado High School and well-regarded locally suggested Crowder was onto something. The group, We(fillintheblank), found Reyes won Democrats but that O’Rourke beat him roughly 2 to 1 among independents and more than 7 to 1 among self-identified Republicans who chose to vote in the Democratic primary.
“A work in progress”
Years later, as O’Rourke again began thinking about running for higher office, he visited with Jim Hightower, the former Texas agriculture commissioner and rabble-rousing populist who was a Bernie Sanders surrogate in 2016. O’Rourke, in Hightower’s telling, expressed his desire to be the “candidate of progressives” in Texas but also did not want to be another statewide candidate who taps out at 40 percent of the vote.
Hightower’s first real encounter with O’Rourke’s politics was in 2015, when he participated in a protest in El Paso against two high-profile trade issues before Congress: Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The debate put O’Rourke in a tough spot, pinched between his representation of a hub of international trade and labor unions who vocally opposed bothTPA andTPP. O’Rourke ended up voting for TPA but withholding support for TPP, which never came up for a vote.
The developments left Hightower convinced O’Rourke is at least willing to listen.
The issue emerged again in the Senate race, when the Texas AFL-CIO initially declined to endorse O’Rourke. There were other factors at play in the decision beyond his support for TPA, but it was an issue the group had nonetheless been talking to O’Rourke about, according to its president, Rick Levy. He said members eventually got to a point where they were “comfortable with him being our Senate candidate when it comes to the issue of trade.”
“What I like about Beto is he is a work in progress,” Hightower said. “He is trying to learn what America, what government, should be and do, not just in terms of particular policies but in terms of values and how he can express his personal values and fairness and opportunity for all in a political agenda.”
That dynamic was evident in O’Rourke’s Senate race. Through countless town halls, O’Rourke expressed a set of clearly fixed beliefs — there should not be a border wall, for example — but also demonstrated an almost instinctive receptiveness when confronted with new ideas, often thinking through them out loud, regardless of how politically fraught they were.
One prominent example was the “Abolish ICE” movement, which caught fire last summer. Pressed about it by an activist, O’Rourke gave a confusing answer in which he both said he would be “open to” eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the main federal agency in charge of immigration law enforcement, and then argued against the idea because he did not know what the immediate consequences would be for immigration law enforcement. For the rest of the race, Cruz hammered O’Rourke for the former part of the answer, while Abolish ICE activists balked at the latter part. In the weeks that followed, O’Rourke never again went as far as expressing openness to abolishing ICE but emphasized the need to reform the agency’s practices.
Even when O’Rourke could be hard to pin down at times, he made people confident that he cared about what they cared about — and “that is a gift,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of the progressive group Progress Texas. On O’Rourke’s Senate bid, Espinoza added, “I don’t think it was as issues-driven as values-driven.”
That campaign style would likely come under stronger scrutiny in the presidential race, where some Democratic candidates are already taking firm stances on hot-button issues and rolling out detailed proposals.
“You have to differentiate yourself in this field — you can’t just be like the cool skateboarding guy you dated in college,” said Laura Moser, a former Democratic congressional candidate from Houston who hails from the progressive wing of the party. “You have to have something really strong to differentiate yourself policy-wise.”
O’Rourke has appeared conscious of the need for a more detailed platform, especially after a Washington Post interview published in mid-January that called into question his policy know-how on a key issue: the border. Since then, O’Rourke has unveiled a 10-point immigration plan, as well as a five-point outline on criminal justice reform. Each plan contains ideas he has largely expressed before.
“I’m not big on labels”
It was not long after O’Rourke emerged as a potential presidential candidate late last year that questions about his political identity came into sharp relief. They were mostly confined to social media and a few opinion pieces, but there were several common threads: his less-than-ironclad support for things like Medicare for All and tuition-free college – two of the most prominent issues advocated by an increasingly vocal left wing of the party, his membership in Congress in the centrist New Democratic Coalition and not the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the amount of campaign contributions he got from oil and gas executives in a state dominated by the industry. Analyses of his voting record in the House highlighted how at times he voted with Republicans despite representing one of the bluest districts in the country.
They were the kinds of issues that may have come up had O'Rourke faced a competitive Senate primary last March. Yet there were signs even then of weak spots in his Democratic base. Two challengers with far fewer resources managed to draw more than a third of the primary vote, capping O'Rourke's support at an embarrassing 62 percent. Still, the second-place finisher, a self-described "Berniecrat" named Sema Hernandez, met with O'Rourke after the primary and eventually endorsed him.
After the November election, as interest in O'Rourke's 2020 plans intensified along with heightened scrutiny from his left, he did not do much to appease the newfound skeptics. Asked at a December town hall if he considered himself a progressive, he said he did not know and that he was “not big on labels” — a familiar refrain for anyone who has followed his campaigns but a splash of cold water to those just beginning to size up the relatively new national figure.
Since then, O’Rourke has only had to navigate more fault lines within his party. He has spoken positively about the concept behind the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to fight climate change spearheaded by freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. But he has also said he disagrees with some of the specifics in the proposal and that he prefers it more narrowly focus on climate than it currently does.
Of Ocasio-Cortez herself, O’Rourke is a fan. During a visit last month to his alma mater, Columbia University, O’Rourke praised her for breathing new life into the national political discourse, even jokingly lamenting that she is too young to run for president.
Still, O’Rourke has decisively steered clear of the ideology that has fueled Ocasio-Cortez’s recent rise: democratic socialism. Asked twice in recent weeks about socialism, O’Rourke has responded by pointedly declaring himself a capitalist, saying most recently that he does not “see how we're able to meet any of the fundamental challenges that we have as a country without, in part, harnessing the power of the market.”
O’Rourke also has a unique footing in the party’s biggest, most recent divide: the 2016 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. O’Rourke largely stayed out of the contest, waiting to endorse Clinton until she had all but wrapped up the nomination, a move he said was deliberate because he did not want to tip the scales as a superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention. Even as he backed Clinton, O’Rourke praised Sanders’ contributions to the primary.
In the Senate race, O’Rourke was uninterested in relitigating his party’s 2016 presidential primary — at times emphatically so. During an event in San Marcos early in the race, O’Rourke became frustrated as an audience member prodded him to take sides in the lingering tensions from the primary.
"I frankly could care less," O'Rourke said. "I don't care about Bernie. I don't care about Hillary. I don't care about Tom Perez or the DNC. I care about Texas. I care about you …. So don't ask me about Bernie. I don't care about Bernie."
The 2016 primary was not the last time in recent history that O’Rourke grappled with the question of who was best to represent his party. Weeks after Clinton lost to Trump, O’Rourke joined with 62 other House Democrats to vote against Nancy Pelosi for minority leader, backing Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio instead. At the time, O’Rourke said he was grateful for Pelosi’s long tenure but believed that “for any organization to succeed, there must be a change in leadership to ensure that it continues to meet new and evolving opportunities and challenges.”
If Pelosi, now the speaker, harbored any ill will, it has not been apparent as O’Rourke’s star has risen. She lauded O’Rourke in a video that was played before he received the El Pasoan of the Year award last month in his hometown. Upon taking the stage, O’Rourke jokingly said he had not been sure Pelosi knew who he was until he saw the video.
Another part of O’Rourke’s political brand that will likely receive fresh scrutiny in a presidential campaign is his occasionally go-it-alone approach to party politics. That was on display from the start of the cycle, when he went on a profile-raising road trip with Texas’ most vulnerable Republican congressman, Will Hurd, and then took a vow of neutrality in the race to unseat the Helotes lawmaker.
The eventual Democratic nominee against Hurd, Gina Ortiz Jones, ended up losing to him by less than a half of a percentage point while O’Rourke carried the district by 5 points.
It was not the only episode that left some fellow Democrats questioning whether O’Rourke was a team player. While he appeared at a handful of events with fellow statewide candidates when they were in the same parts of the state, he did not go out of his way to campaign with — or for — the attention-starved bunch, absent at the overwhelming majority of joint appearances they organized in the months before the election.
Of course, Texas Democrats ended up almost universally grateful for the impact O’Rourke had down ballot by running such a strong race at the top of the ticket. But that does not mean some do not wonder what could have been.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that everybody down ballot would’ve appreciated a more concerted effort from the top down, and in the long run, I don’t see how that could’ve hurt Beto’s candidacy,” said a former top staffer to another Democratic statewide candidate, granted anonymity to speak candidly about the party’s biggest star right now. “If anything, it would’ve helped it.”
Then again, it is unsurprising to many that O’Rourke would chart his own course in any political aspect. Hightower said he’s offered O’Rourke a number of progressive ideas — and “he’s even accepted a few of them, but he puts them in his own terms, and I have huge respect for that.”
“It doesn’t always fit into a liberal-progressive-conservative-moderate package,” Espinoza said of O’Rourke’s appeal. “He is very clearly a progressive voice, but the way he packages it may not always sound the way other people say it.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso and Progress Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn't cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.