Sparked by his narrow defeat in a Texas Senate race, Beto O’Rourke is scrambling the 2020 presidential primary field, freezing Democratic donors and potential campaign staffers in place as they await word of his plans.
Even prior to O’Rourke’s meteoric rise, many Democratic fundraisers had approached the large number of 2020 contenders with apprehension, fearful of committing early to one candidate. But the prospect of a presidential bid by O’Rourke, whose charismatic Senate candidacy captured the party’s imagination, has suddenly rewired the race.
O’Rourke — who raised a stunning $38 million in the third quarter of his race — is widely considered capable of raising millions of dollars quickly, according to interviews with multiple Democratic money bundlers and strategists, catapulting him into the upper echelons of the 2020 campaign.
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 whether 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 raised more than $70 million, in total, in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, mostly from small donors in a race that captured national attention. Though he fell short — losing 51 percent to 48 percent — his closer-than-expected performance in the largest red state on the map was credited with lifting at least two Democrats to victory over House Republican incumbents.
A POLITICO/Morning Consult presidential primary poll last week put O’Rourke in third place among Democratic voters, behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“He’s game changing,” said Robert Wolf, an investment banker who helped raise Wall Street money for Obama in 2008 and 2012. “If he decides to run, he will be in the top five. You can’t deny the electricity and excitement around the guy.”
Although other prominent Democrats, including Biden, Sanders and Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have support networks of their own, Wolf said, “Beto comes out of [the midterm elections] saying, ‘Oh my God, if a guy can do well in Texas, he certainly can do well throughout the country as a Democrat.”
“I get the hype,” Wolf said. “I think there’s an incredible amount of excitement around Beto. A lot of people have comparisons around him and a Robert Kennedy or a Barack Obama. And the [Democratic] Party likes young, ambitious and aspirational.”
The ascent of O’Rourke, a three-term congressman from El Paso, reflects the volatility of a 2020 presidential primary that has flummoxed Democratic donors and activists for months. Many fundraisers who have exclusively supported a single candidate in previous years are expected to hedge their bets initially, spreading smaller amounts among several candidates.
One major Democratic bundler on the West Coast told POLITICO he is advising donors against throwing in with one candidate, saying, “It’s naivete, it’s political suicide to do that.”
O’Rourke is a major reason for donors’ uncertainty, the bundler said, having “brought a whole bunch of new people off the sidelines.”
“That’s this cycle’s ‘Bernie army’ — it’s ‘Beto’s Army,’” he said, comparing O’Rourke’s Senate fundraising to the crush of small donors who propelled Sanders in his unsuccessful 2016 primary campaign.
“All the guy would have to do is send out an email to his fundraising base … and he raises $30 million,” the bundler said. “That has totally changed the landscape for the tier 1 guys, because now Bernie and Warren, now they have competition. It completely changes the game if Beto runs. And he should run. … He’s Barack Obama, but white.”
O’Rourke said before the midterm elections that he would not run for president, promising to serve six years in the Senate if elected. When asked at a CNN town hall whether he would run for president if he did not win the Senate race, O’Rourke responded, “If I don’t win, we’re back in El Paso.”