How Beto O’Rourke will change the 2020 race

Posted at 5:30 PM, Feb 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-28 21:12:04-05

Beto’s (almost) in.

On Wednesday night, Beto O’Rourke got thisclose to saying he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. “Amy and I have made a decision about how we can best serve our country,” said O’Rourke in a statement. “We are excited to share it with everyone soon.”

That statement came along with leaks from sources close to O’Rourke that he would not be challenging Republican Sen. John Cornyn for Texas Senate in 2020. Which pretty much leaves only the presidential race still hanging out there as an option for Beto.

As I wrote a while back, O’Rourke would be crazy not to run for president in 2020. He’s the buzziest candidate in what could be a GIANT Democratic field and, if he passed on the 2020 race, it’s not clear whether the energy and excitement he engenders among many party activists right now would continue for the next four or eight years.

So, what specifically does O’Rourke’s now absolutely-certain-but-you-can-never-say-absolutely-until-he-actually-announces-it candidacy mean for the Democratic field?  Here are my initial thoughts:

1. It speeds up the decision-making process of Joe Biden. O’Rourke, based on early national and key state polls, is a top-tier candidate. He’s also someone who is going to lock up a chunk of major donors as well as coveted national and state-level operatives with the quickness. What Biden can’t let happen is for O’Rourke to get on too much of a roll before the former VP formally enters the race.

2. It narrows the path for a dark horse. With O’Rourke in and Biden almost sure to follow, we would have the four poll leaders — those two plus Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris — all confirmed as candidates. That quartet accounts for a significant chunk of Democratic voters. Assuming all four, or three of the four, can maintain something close to their current level of support for the next year, it leaves an even smaller piece of the pie for the likes of Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York or Sherrod Brown of Ohio or former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.

3. It raises the financial bar for viability. O’Rourke, based on the $80(!) million he raised for his Senate candidacy in 2018, could well be the fundraising leader in the 2020 race in six months’ time. He’s got a national list of very activated small-dollar givers that is the envy of every candidate this side of Sanders. With O’Rourke (and his small-dollar donor army) in the race, you have a group of fundraising heavy-hitters that includes Sanders, Biden, Harris ($15 million raised in 2016) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ($34 million raised in 2018).

There are other Beto impacts, too. For one: Depending on how he chooses to position himself ideologically — his 2018 Senate campaign was more about emotion than policy — he could crowd the liberal lane or add another contender to the sensible-ish center.

The Point: O’Rourke’s entry into the race is the most significant moment in the contest — and is likely to stay that way until Biden gets in. (I could be convinced O’Rourke’s entry might have more immediate impacts than Biden’s.) Presidential races — especially wide-open primaries — are as much about momentum and energy as anything else. And O’Rourke has both in spades right now.