Beto O’Rourke said Tuesday he will decide whether to run for president by the end of the month, signaling his closely watched deliberations over a 2020 run are entering their final stages.
The former Democratic congressman from El Paso and U.S. Senate nominee made the comment during an interview with media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who pressed him on his long-awaited decision — and whether he’s given himself a deadline.
“The serious answer is really soon,” O’Rourke replied. “Before the end of this month.”
The O’Rourke interview will air at 7 p.m. Feb. 16 on Winfrey’s OWN TV network. It will also be available on her “SuperSoul Conservations” podcast.
Winfrey tried several times to nail O’Rourke down on his 2020 decision to no avail. In a parting message, she said, “You seem like you’re getting ready to run.”
In the interview, O’Rourke also reflected on the lessons of his Senate campaign last year and the meeting he had with former President Barack Obama in the wake of the race. O’Rourke said Obama did not encourage him to run for president but that they discussed 2020 more generally — and the strain a White House bid can put on a family.
Getting a decision sooner rather than later would be nice, if only so we can sort out the who’s-running-against-Cornyn question in a reasonable fashion. Assuming the choice is between “running for President” and “running again for Senate” and not “running for something” and “not running for anything at this time”, I look at it this way: Beto’s odds of beating Donald Trump are higher than his chances of beating John Cornyn, but his odds of beating John Cornyn are higher than his chance of getting the chance to run against Trump. You need a clear assessment of how much higher those odds are in each of those comparisons if you want to make a rational, outcome-maximizing decision.
Not that these decisions are necessarily rational, of course. Beto’s gonna do what Beto thinks is best, however he arrives at that decision. I’m honestly not sure where “run for Senate” is on the list of choices for him, but I could believe it’s in third place, after “run for President” and “don’t run for anything”. If that’s the case, then where do Texas Dems stand in a no-Beto 2020?
But if O’Rourke doesn’t run against Cornyn, who will? The structural conditions that would make a Senate run in 2020 so enticing for O’Rourke would also be there for another Democratic candidate. You might think that ambitious Texas Democrats would be lining up to run, all but declaring their candidacies in the event that O’Rourke should decline to pursue the Senate seat. (If O’Rourke decides to run against Cornyn, he’ll almost certainly clear the Democratic field.) After all, O’Rourke discussed the possibility of running for Senate in 2018 in early November 2016. We’re already in February 2019. Where are the candidates?
“The conversations would be very quiet now,” said Matt Angle, the founder of the Lone Star Project, a progressive PAC. “You don’t want to say it would be really great if someone else runs and then Beto runs instead.”
When I spoke with Jason Stanford, a former Democratic strategist who is now an executive at the public relations firm Hill + Knowlton, he insisted that Democrats have a “deeper bench in Texas than people suspect.” He pointed to Dallas state representative Rafael Anchia, Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins, former gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, and Mark Strama, a former Texas state rep who is now an executive at Google Fiber. These four people might make fine candidates and senators, but aside from Davis, they have almost no statewide profile. They’re not the names you’d expect to hear bandied about if Democrats thought the 2020 Senate seat was theirs for the taking.
Maybe O’Rourke will run for Senate after all. Maybe a new face like Allred or Garcia or Hegar will gamble their political future on a Senate run. Maybe a big-city mayor like San Antonio’s Ron Nirenberg will go for the prize. Maybe a lesser-known name from the bench like Anchia or Jenkins will catch fire. Kim Olson, the Democrats’ 2018 candidate for agriculture commissioner, has suggested she’s considering a 2020 run.
But some Democrats aren’t convinced a strong option will materialize. “If Beto doesn’t run for Senate, I’m not convinced we’ll have a strong viable candidate,” Harold Cook, a Democratic political operative, told me. “I fear that a lot of the most prominent Democrats who might want to run may well conclude that Beto got so close either because Beto is a one-of-a-kind candidate or that Cruz is so intensely disliked that no other opponent would fare as badly as he did.”
I’m more optimistic than that. As for the “who”, surely none of the just-elected members of Congress would run for Senate in 2020, and it looks a lot like most if not all of the just-missed Congressional candidates from 2018 will try again, so they’re off the list. One person that I suggested as a possibility but is omitted here is Justin Nelson. Maybe he’s hoping that AG will be on the ballot in 2020 following a conviction of Ken Paxton. Or maybe Senate isn’t his thing. I continue to believe there are plenty of good candidates available, and one of them will step up if Beto doesn’t choose this path. Big John Cornyn is expecting and preparing for a fight, and he’s going to get it, one way or another.