Opinion

Is Beto O’Rourke the Next Jon Ossoff?

Democrats can’t seem to help falling for white, Southern men in unlikely races

Democrat Beto O’Rourke historic fundraising numbers set off alarm bells in the GOP that the Texas Senate race was not one to be ignored, Murphy writes. Above, O’Rourke arrives for a rally in Lockhart, Texas, on Oct. 1. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — There have been so many glowing profiles of Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic Senate hopeful in Texas, that there is a running joke  among journalists about the ingredients for a perfect O’Rourke piece. The short version goes something like this: He looks like a Kennedy! He’s got tons of cash! He’s a Democrat in a Red State! Let’s do this thing!

The one detail that’s almost always missing in those profiles is reality — namely, the fact that O’Rourke could run a perfect race against Sen. Ted Cruz and will still probably lose based solely on the fact that far more Republicans are likely to vote in Texas this November than Democrats. Although twice as many Texans (about 1 million) voted in the Democratic primary this year compared to 2014, 1.5 million votes were cast in the Republican primary. Even as the state’s demographics are changing, the math for Texas Democrats still doesn’t look good.

The same bad math was waiting for Jon Ossoff, the young Democratic candidate in the special election in Georgia’s 6th District last June to replace former Rep. Tom Price, President Donald Trump’s pick for Health and Human Services secretary. Although Trump won the district by just a point, Republicans dominated the state and had held the congressional seat for decades. But a fresh face, national attention and a whole lot of money made the race seem suddenly winnable to reporters from outside the district looking in.

Watch: Democrats Are Breaking Fundraising Records 3 Weeks From Election Day

That Kennedy glow

Let’s review the warning signs that the O’Rourke campaign is starting to look like the Ossoff race, starting with actual looks, and specifically Camelot looks. In The New Yorker’s profile of Ossoff last year, he was “Kennedy-ish.” In Salon, Ossoff was “Kennedy-esque.” Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis even compared him to JFK, which really got the comparisons going.

O’Rourke, too, has the bearings of a long-lost Kennedy cousin that neither the national press nor Democratic activists have been able to resist. In a GQ profile, he was also “Kennedy-esque.” Same with Vanity Fair and Town and Country. (In the latter, Rep. Joe Kennedy joked, “Beto is often referred to as the best-looking Kennedy in Washington.”)

With the Kennedy glow cast and national profiles getting both Ossoff and O’Rourke’s campaigns on the national radar, money started pouring into both races from small-dollar, online donors across the country.

Ossoff raised an astonishing $30 million for his abbreviated House race. Likewise, ActBlue and donors across the country have given a major chunk of the $62 million the O’Rourke campaign has raised so far. No matter the fact that Texas went for Trump by 9 points less than two years ago and hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, the chance to reincarnate RFK and knock off Ted Cruz in the process has proved irresistible to progressive activists and donors.

Waking the giant

You’d think that posting a gigantic fundraising number like the $38 million that O’Rourke reported for the third quarter last week would be nothing but good news for a candidate. But as Ossoff’s team learned the hard way, money in a campaign can begin to have diminishing returns. As the Georgia Democrat racked up more and more cash last year, he began to attract an equal barrage of Republican money in attack ads against him. The same is holding true in Texas, where GOP outside groups are significantly outspending Democrats.  

Ossoff’s historic fundraising also sounded an alarm inside the GOP that this was not a race to ignore or take for granted. The Cruz campaign now seems on equally high alert, with a cracking fundraising and campaign schedule finally in place. A sneak attack on Cruz is now off the table.

More than anything, the well-intended money that poured into Ossoff’s coffers weighed the campaign down with expectations, while diverting resources and attention from other more favorable races. On the same night that Ossoff lost his race by 4 points, the Democrat in a special election in South Carolina’s 5th District came within 3 points of defeating the Republican there, with one-sixtieth the resources of the Ossoff campaign. A staffer there told me that even $100,000 of Ossoff’s $30 million could have won the race for them. Instead, they both lost.

Like 2017, it’s hard not to see how a fraction of the money heading to O’Rourke might make a bigger difference in a smaller state, where other Senate seats are on the line.

Embattled Sen. Heidi Heitkamp raised $3.8 million in the third quarter, a record for North Dakota, but still just one-tenth of the O’Rourke quarterly total. 

Sen. Claire McCaskill is in a 1-point race against her GOP challenger and pulled in $8.5 million last quarter, while Rep. Jacky Rosen raised more than $7 million in Nevada for her challenge to Sen. Dean Heller.

The best and worst feature of the small-dollar donors for Democrats is that nobody is really in charge of it. There is no Senate leader calling the shots. No strategy to pull money from one race and send it to another. No one to ask why, in a year powered by the votes of minorities and women, grass-roots donors can’t quit falling for handsome white Southern men in states where Democrats don’t usually win.

From the gauzy profiles to the grass-roots adoration to the campaign so flush with cash it’s hard to spend, the O’Rourke campaign is starting to look eerily similar to the Ossoff operation last year. If Democrats are smart, they’ll use the next three weeks trying not to repeat history.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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