Beto isn’t No. 1, but he’s in the top tier as he starts White House run
As he launches his campaign for the White House, Beto O’Rourke is certainly not the frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. But he is unquestionably in the upper tier of an already crowded race, early polling has shown.
While former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders remain solidly in the top two spots in polls of most of the early voting states, O’Rourke is among a handful of top contenders that already have name recognition and fundraising ability for a national campaign.
In Iowa, The Des Moines Register and CNN released a poll in December showing O’Rourke in 3rd place behind Biden and Sanders. In New Hampshire, which holds its primary just a week after Iowa, O’Rourke has been between fifth and sixth place in February polls.
“If he can reproduce the energy he had in the U.S. Senate race, he’ll be in the top tier,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
Standing in O’Rourke’s way will be more than a dozen Democrats who are already campaigning — and it’s not entirely clear where he’ll fit in politically.
Even before O’Rourke announced his campaign, some Sanders supporters were already debating if the O’Rourke who ran against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 is really enough of a progressive for today’s Democratic Party. Early polls show Sanders and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are largely seen as the most progressive candidates in the race. In one University of New Hampshire survey released on the last day of February, Sanders was considered the most progressive among 44 percent of respondents. Warren was the choice of 10 percent. O’Rourke was way back and the choice of just 2 percent of registered voters in the poll.
There are other progressive hurdles for O’Rourke to overcome. Democratic insiders note that the El Paso native never joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus where more liberal members of Congress convene. Instead, he was part of the New Democratic Coalition, a group that is often viewed as more centrist in its thinking.
O’Rourke also has some key votes that have stirred some left-leaning Democrats. In 2015, he was one of just 28 Democrats to vote to give then-President Obama fast track negotiating authority for international free trade deals — something Sanders and other progressives have opposed. And while O’Rourke has endorsed a single-payer health care system, he has not been for the type of “Medicare-for-all” that Sanders and others Democrats in the field are supporting.
That is not to say O’Rourke doesn’t have appeal with progressive groups. MoveOn.Org is a prime example. That group in 2016 pushed Warren run for the White House. When she refused, MoveOn played a key roll in elevating Bernie Sanders.
Yet in a straw poll of MoveOn members in December, the former El Paso Congressman was the choice of almost 16 percent of respondents. Biden was second at just under 15 percent, followed by Sanders at 13 percent and California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris at 10 percent.
And O’Rourke has already rolled out one of the most liberal immigration reform proposals. Not only has he proposed granting citizenship to so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, he’s called for extending it to their parents as well. And he’s called for a pathway to citizenship for another potential million people in the country living in the shadows.
Even if the far left doesn’t completely embrace O’Rourke, it doesn’t mean his path to the center is clear. O’Rourke has famously talked about courting GOP votes in even the most conservative places in Texas and made his bipartisanship a core piece of his campaign for office. Other Democrats are also taking centrist positions. Already, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former governors like John Hickenlooper of Colorado and John Delaney of Maryland have pitched themselves as unifiers who are trying to rise above partisanship — a theme O’Rourke rode to the closest U.S. Senate race in Texas in 40 years.