Chuck McCarthy was hoping for a Beto O’Rourke victory when he lined up six hours before the Southwest University Stadium doors opened for an election night rally. While he said he wasn’t happy about Ted Cruz’s victory in the U.S. Senate race, he believes this isn’t the last time Texas will see O’Rourke on a ballot.
“He’s got it in his blood now. This guy is not giving up — he’s coming back,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know where or when, but he’s coming back.”
The thousands who gathered in central El Paso agreed, evident in the cheers of “2020” that echoed through the stadium as O’Rourke walked off the stage.
A day after nearly producing the first Democratic victory in a statewide race in Texas in 24 years - a feat that caught the nation’s attention - O’Rourke wasn’t making any statements about his future. His top campaign aides did not respond to interview requests Wednesday.
But speculation about his prospects as a presidential contender in 2020 or beyond were inevitable after his record-breaking haul of $70 million, about half of it in small-dollar donations from energized supporters around the nation.
The questions also arise amid a wide-open field of Democratic contenders. Other than Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts - and perhaps former Vice President Joe Biden - few have the star power O’Rourke has developed over his improbable 19-month candidacy.
“All I can say is that Beto not only acquitted himself well as a candidate, but he inspired the nation,” said Dallas lawyer Marc Stanley, a Democratic donor who formed the Fire Ted Cruz PAC for the 2018 Senate race. “He’s got a future on the national stage. What that is, I don’t know.”
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When the question was put directly to O’Rourke during a CNN town hall last month in the Rio Grande Valley, a crowd made up mostly of young college students cheered wildly. O’Rourke’s response was purposely brief:
“The answer is no,” O’Rourke said, citing strains of public life on his wife and three young children. “It’s a definite no.”
Pressed by CNN host Dana Bash as to whether “no” meant “never,” O’Rourke seemed to put a potential expiration date on his promise not to run for president.
“Let me put it this way,” O’Rourke said, “I promise you, and most importantly to the people of Texas, that I will serve every single day of a six-year term in the United States Senate.”
Then, making a not-too-subtle comparison to Cruz, who launched his White House bid half-way through his Senate term, O’Rourke added, “I won’t leave the state to go run for president.”
“If I don’t win,” the three-term congressman added, “we’re back in El Paso” - his home town.
In a CBS interview days before the election, he gave a similar answer, but only ruled out a run in 2020.
With Tuesday’s narrow loss to Cruz, questions about the political future of O’Rourke, 46, have only intensified. Intriguingly, the same questions surround Cruz, who has not ruled out another presidential run, though he has said he will not run against President Donald Trump in 2020.
The prospect of a future O’Rourke rematch with Cruz on a national level has captivated media pundits for months. But with the 2020 election cycle just one-day old, analysts can only speculate.
“I think that he, without a doubt, distinguished himself as a fresh and a positive voice, somebody who, regardless of what his position is on a particular issue, is open to all sides and to solving problem,” said Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle, who heads the Lone Star Project.
But some Texas Democrats also have their sights set closer to home, on the seat held by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who will be up for reelection in 2020.
“I’m not going to say whether he should be taken seriously as a contender for national office,” Angle said of O’Rourke. “He’s not asking my opinion, but I would kind of slow walk that if I were him. But I think he’s a serious player in Texas, and we have a Senate seat up in two years.”
Nationally, Democratic excitement over O’Rourke is palpable.
Texas Democratic consultant Colin Strother followed Tuesday’s election results at a watch party with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill in Washington. “In the main ballroom, there were two huge jumbo screens, and anytime it showed an update with Beto in the lead, there was a huge roar from the crowd.”
Strother called O’Rourke’s campaign “monumental and unprecedented in Texas.” As to whether he should be in the mix of Democratic contenders looking at the presidency, Strother said, “if he isn’t, he ought to be.”
Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic-aligned Washington think tank, also said he’s sold on the idea of O’Rourke going national.
“He is among the most well-regarded Democratic politicians in the country right now, and he did it in a very short period time through his force of vision and his performance as a candidate. I don’t know that he should do it, but I think he should look at it seriously,” he said.
That view is shared by some Texas Republicans who have seen O’Rourke’s rise from the El Paso City Council to Congress. “You can’t underestimate Beto O’Rourke,” said El Paso native Jacob Monty, a former member of Trump’s National Hispanic Advisory Council.
Monty quit Trump’s advisory group over the president’s hard-line rhetoric on immigrants, but he supported Cruz in the Senate race. Monty believes that ultimately O’Rourke staked out positions that were too liberal for Texas. But he gives him credit for mobilizing new voters, many of the young or minorities.
“I didn’t vote for him, but I wouldn’t write this guy off,” Monty said. “He’s a dragon-slayer.”
Alejandra Matos and Bill Lambrecht contributed to this report.