Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke entered the presidential race in March, just months after losing a competitive race for the United States Senate against one-term Republican incumbent Ted Cruz.
O'Rourke previously spent three terms serving as the Representative from Texas' solidly Democratic, El Paso-based 14th congressional district and before that as a member of the El Paso City Council. He received 48.33 percent of the vote compared to Cruz's 50.89 percent.
The former Congressman's performance impressed many and marked the highest percentage for any Texas Democrat since 1988, when then four-term incumbent Lloyd Bentsen was re-elected to his fourth and final term with 59 percent of the vote.
Initially seen by many as a long shot in his Senate bid, O'Rourke quickly rose to prominence by pledging to run a positive campaign and not taking any Super PAC money. As was evident in his showing on election day and record fundraising totals, the buzz surrounding O'Rourke was palpable and his strategy largely worked, short of giving him a victory.
Just five months after losing his Senatorial bid, O'Rourke launched his campaign for president and was once again cast as a long shot and an outsider, and early on, that held mainly true. As Vox's Matt Yglesias put it, "The race against Cruz required no explanation. O’Rourke was running to beat Cruz and to stop Trump, and everyone in the Democratic Party and left-of-center politics was glad he was out there doing it. A presidential campaign was a different matter."
There were calls by many, including native Texans, that O'Rourke should put his presidential campaign aside and mount another Senate bid, this time in 2020 against three-term Republican incumbent John Cornyn, giving Democrats a chance to potentially flip the Senate in their favor. But as the Fort Worth-based Star Telegram wrote in a conservative-leaning opinion piece: "Here’s a reality check: The idea that O’Rourke could defeat Cornyn in Texas in a presidential election year is preposterous. He raised a historic $80 million dollars for the race against Cruz, aided by the influx of Hollywood celebrities endorsing him — and he still lost." The article continued on to point out that Cornyn, who previously served as Attorney General of Texas and an Associate Justice on the Texas State Supreme Court, is far more popular than his fellow Republican Cruz.
However, O'Rourke's strong showing against Cruz, coupled with the retirement of several prominent Republican Congressmen, is still giving Democrats hope and has led to Texas being deemed by many as a battleground state.
Yet, despite the name recognition and praise heaped on him for holding Cruz to a tighter than normal win, O'Rourke's presidential campaign faltered early on. In the first debate, he got into a heated exchange with former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Mayor of San Antonio Julian Castro over immigration policy. Specifically, the two traded blows about Castro's calls to rescind a certain section of the U.S. Code that criminalizes border crossings, which O'Rourke opposed. It was in this exchange, as well as O'Rourke's refusal to adopt Senator Bernie Sanders' and Elizabeth Warren's respective Medicare-for-All plans on healthcare, where he painted himself as more of a moderate.
In terms of environmental policy, O’Rourke supports a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions; he came out against a carbon tax in the CNN Climate Town Hall. He plans to use cap-and-trade to create a legally enforceable standard to attain net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. O’Rourke pledged that he will return any donations over $200 from the fossil fuel industry. However, he did take more than $550,000 from the oil industry in his Senate race against Senator Ted Cruz.
O'Rourke's first debate performance was widely panned as he struggled to defend himself against attacks. Since then however, O'Rourke's stock has risen. He was bolstered by his performance in the second set of Democratic debates, wherein the Dallas Morning News said O'Rourke "worked in some of his well honed lines later in the debate."But it was after a gunman murdered 22 people in El Paso, Texas on August 3 and professed to have targeted Mexicans, when O'Rourke has started to break out. He has gained attention for criticizing President Trump's rhetoric as the prime motivation behind the shooting. "Trump is a racist and stokes racism in this country," O'Rourke told reporters. The former congressman then doubled down and stood by his comments, saying: "I mean, connect the dots about what [Trump’s] been doing in this country: He's not tolerating racism; he's promoting racism. He's not tolerating violence; he's inciting racism and violence in this country.” Much of the coverage of O'Rourke's recent rise dealt with those comments and those on the left have focused on how those comments could cause voters to gravitate back toward the 46 year-old former congressman as an antidote of sorts to Trump. The right meanwhile has pushed back directly on O'Rourke's rhetoric and claims that Trump is responsible, either wholly or tangentially, for the shooting in El Paso and that he is a white supremacist.
It remains to be seen how long O'Rourke's rise lasts or if he remains one of Trump's most ardent critics, but it seems as though the former relative unknown has officially arrived in the national spotlight.