Congress

3 Takeaways: Experts say ‘Beto’ could beat Trump — if he can get that far

‘You pronounced it incorrectly: It’s Robert Francis,’ WH spox says dismissively of O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke joins Willie Nelson on stage in Austin during his failed bid for Senate in 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Donald Trump has mostly remained silent about the ever-growing list of candidates who have joined the Democratic race for the party’s 2020 nomination to face him. But that’s not the case with Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who threw his hat in the ring late Wednesday.

Unlike California Sen. Kamala Harris or former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper or Washington Gov. Jay Inslee or Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the politician known colloquially as “Beto” seems to have gotten under the president’s skin — or at least gotten Trump’s attention.

O’Rourke is promising an unconventional and upbeat campaign. The black-and-white color scheme depicted on his campaign’s official logos and merchandise certainly meets that standard, offering a stark contrast to the red-white-and-blue everything of Trump’s campaign organization.

But some Democratic members, notably, responded to his entrance with a muted shrug. “Oh, I have no reaction,” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who opted against his own White House bid, told CNN. “I just, uh, one more, one more, one more gets in the race. Bring him in, and it’ll be an interesting primary fight.”

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Here are three takeaways from O’Rourke’s entry into the 2020 race.

Going positive

O’Rourke vowed in an announcement video released Thursday morning to run a “positive campaign that seeks to bring out the very best from every single one of us, that seeks to unite a very divided country.”

“We saw the power of this in Texas, where people allowed no difference, however great or however small, to stand between them and divide us,” the former congressman said, referring to his failed bid to unseat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz last November.

But in a crowded field, and with Trump working hard each day to drive the national narrative, there are questions about whether an upbeat message will garner the kind of attention O’Rourke will need to compete with bigger names like California’s Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“O’Rourke was good at rallying liberals across the country who wanted to defeat Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas — though not good enough to actually win his Senate seat. But that’s very, very, very different from appealing to primary voters with a dozen other Democratic candidates on the ballot,” said Michael Steel, a former aide to then-Speaker John A. Boehner and Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign.

But Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, says O’Rourke could find a lane to the nomination because “many of the other Democratic candidates are very smart and earnest … but they come across as policy wonks. … Candidates can talk about issues until the cows come home but people vote for people, not programs.”

Donald v. Beto

Several polls of hypothetical head-to-head races between the president and some of the top Democratic candidates show Trump losing to each one. A recent Public Policy Polling survey gave O’Rourke 47 percent to Trump’s 41 percent.

Political strategists say the general election might not be the Democratic upstart’s biggest challenge, however.

“He would be a formidable general election opponent for the president,” Steel said. “But it’s harder to see how he gets the nomination in the first place.”

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Bannon said “most voters are personality oriented, especially independent voters — these independent voters are key to winning the general election.”

Still, a positive personality-based campaign has its own risks, Bannon said. “Beto runs the risk of appearing shallow, but he projects leadership, which is what the presidency is all about,” he noted.

Surrogates strike

Trump’s morning tweets show he was watching cable news shows Thursday morning, all of which were discussing O’Rourke’s candidacy at length. But he opted against using a post to discredit or attack the El Paso native.

He let his surrogates handle that task instead.

Asked about “Beto” getting into the race by Fox News, White House Principal Deputy Secretary Hogan Gidley was dismissive of O’Rourke’s campaign logo- and merchandise-friendly nickname.

“First of all, you pronounced it incorrectly: It’s Robert Francis,” Gidley told a Fox anchor, using the former three-term congressman’s given name.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy earlier in the morning tried to paint O’Rourke’s House record as thin. “I can’t remember one speech that he gave on the floor or one bill that he passed,” he said during his own Fox appearance. “It’s remarkable, his rise, and that he’s now running for president.”

Gidley also painted O’Rourke’s entering the race as the Democratic Party lurching further to the political left. “Democrats have to stand for their new set of policies,” he said, describing those collectively as “making America socialist.”

Trump did comment on O’Rourke briefly Thursday morning alongside the Irish prime minister in the Oval Office, saying “Beto” has “a lot of hand movement. ... I've never seen anything quite like it.”

Watch: Socialism through the Republican lens

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