He has run for the presidency, the U.S. Senate and the governorship of Texas. Each time, Beto O’Rourke energized progressives with his rhetoric, by turns fiery and earnest. He skewered Republicans. He drew comparisons to JFK. He drew crowds.
And each time, Beto O’Rourke lost.
Not even an endorsement from musical megastar and fashion icon Harry Styles could help O’Rourke unseat incumbent Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who launched a series of culture wars popular with the conservative base — but was also criticized, after the massacre of 19 children at an elementary school in Uvalde, for his unwillingness to impose stricter gun control measures.
O’Rourke was among the fiercest of those critics, challenging Abbott at a press conference after the shooting. “You’re doing nothing. You’re all doing nothing,” O’Rourke said to the governor from the audience. It was the kind of unscripted, impassioned confrontation that thrilled progressives who were frustrated by the anemic pace of change in Washington.
But once again, it was not enough.
Democrats are desperate to make inroads in Texas — where the emerging Latino vote is the focus of intensive pitches by both parties — but after a third high-profile defeat, they will probably look to another candidate to bring them victory.
Tuesday’s defeat marks the end of a half-decade stretch during which O’Rourke stoked Democratic hopes but, ultimately, proved incapable of fulfilling those aspirations. As the Washington Post pointed out in a recent profile, he last won an electoral contest in 2016, to the same House seat he had held for the previous four years. Since then, he has gone after some of the most sought-after elected offices in the nation, only to come up short each time.
“He’s been campaigning virtually nonstop since 2017,” the head of the Democratic Party in Texas told the Post.
Now there will come inevitable questions about whether the lanky wunderkind (well, kind of — he is 50) with an affection for the dense novels of James Joyce and grungy 1990s rock was more than a passing fad. Will the one-time favorite of former President Barack Obama ever translate his star power into political victory?
It may be too soon to ask that question, considering that the gubernatorial election in Texas has just concluded. But it is a question that the naturally restless O’Rourke is surely asking himself, since a life outside electoral politics is, by his own admission, inconceivable.
“I’m just born to be in it,” he told Vanity Fair in 2019, for a cover story for which he was photographed by celebrity-in-her-own-right Annie Leibovitz.
That was after a 2018 run for the U.S. Senate in which O’Rourke came close to unseating the incumbent, Ted Cruz, whose loyalty to then-President Donald Trump made him a top target of national Democrats looking to punish what they saw as Republicans’ unthinking obeisance to a president who flouted conservative principles.
O’Rourke raised funds and hopes alike. "Democrat enthusiasm is at an 11,” a Republican strategist heading a pro-Cruz political action committee confessed to the Dallas Morning News at one point. "The No. 1 issue that I've run into is potential supporters trying to wrap their head around the reality that this is a real race."
O’Rourke lost, but some saw a superstar in the making, even as others wondered if his loss could be attributed to having taken progressive positions that, while popular on Twitter and cable news, were unlikely to play well in the sprawling exurbs of Houston and Dallas, where a more conventional campaign would have courted moderate voters.
Following the loss to Cruz, O’Rourke made little effort to disguise his presidential ambitions, presenting himself as the youthful leader of a party desperate for new voices articulating bold ideas. And desperate for someone who could capture the same energy that had energized Democrats the way Obama had in 2008. Nobody seemed better suited than O’Rourke, who was charismatic but unpolished, compassionate but with flashes of what appeared to be genuine anger.
“I learned to love JFK from my Irish grandmother. I see his same qualities in Beto O’Rourke,” wrote a columnist for the Irish Times, who was hardly alone in seeing similarities between the tall, charismatic Texan and President Kennedy. At a time when many Democrats were dreading the possibility of Joe Biden or another Washington elder serving as the party’s nominee, O’Rourke held out the hope of a more auspicious future.
That future never materialized. O’Rourke began 2019 with a road trip that had him blogging from the dentist’s chair, among other adventures. He announced his candidacy that March, promising a “positive campaign that seeks to bring out the very best from every single one of us.”
The reality of a crowded primary, however, quickly rendered that promise fantastical. O’Rourke's support of a gun buyback program proved especially controversial, earning criticism not only from conservatives but also from fellow Democratic primary candidate Pete Buttigieg, who denounced the proposal as a progressive “purity test.”
His openness to stripping churches of tax-exempt status if they didn’t perform same-sex marriages was seen as unhelpful to a party trying to convince Americans that it was not the caricature of far-left ideologues depicted nightly on Fox News.
As the campaign petered out that fall, the reviews were brutal. “Beto O’Rourke 2020 Has Been Worse Than Useless,” a New York magazine headline read. His campaign was deemed by Politico “the most spectacular failure of the Democratic presidential primary.”
By the time O’Rourke announced he was running against Abbott in the fall of 2021, national enthusiasm was notably absent, despite the fact that Abbott’s increasing attention to conservative culture war issues made him surprisingly vulnerable. O’Rourke managed to raise more money than Abbott as Election Day approached. But when that day actually came, voters decided to stay the course and keep Abbott in power in Texas.
It was another disappointing result for O’Rourke, but it may not keep him from trying for elected office once again. After all, the presidential primary season unofficially begins on Wednesday.