The Art of Losing: A Beto O'Rourke Story, Part I
The story of the astounding ascent before the collapse.
On September 10, 2019, John Bolton was fired from his position as National Security Advisor by President Donald Trump. Over the next year, he would write a memoir entitled “The Room Where It Happened” about his time in the Trump administration. As might be evident from the title—undoubtedly meant to appeal to the nation’s Hamilton-loving liberals—the former Ambassador had few kind words to say about his old boss. Along with various allegations of corruption, incompetence and criminality, Bolton was focused first and foremost on making the case that Trump was insufficiently committed to what he saw as America’s overseas interests—Venezuela in particular. To drive the point home that Trump had no respect for the West-backed opposition in the country, Bolton shared an anecdote that the President went as far to call Juan Guaidó, the nation’s self-declared President, the “Beto O’Rourke of Venezuela.”
On paper, this was a strange reference for Trump to make. O’Rourke was a nobody, at least according to his resume: just a former backbencher House Representative, city councilmember for El Paso, Texas, and failed candidate for the U.S. Senate. But we all knew exactly what Trump meant by his comparison. He was calling Guaidó a lightweight, an empty suit, a loser. It was how conservative media had been branding O’Rourke ever since he announced his run for Senate, but you hardly had to have watched Tucker every night to have picked up on it. It’s how everyone was starting to see him.
Three years later, and after three failed campaigns—one for Senate in 2018, one for the Presidency in 2020, and one for the Texas Governorship in 2022—this reputation is completely solidified. While some politicians who lost races for office during the same period have come out with their standing intact—if not outright improved—Beto’s political career is on life support. Having failed at becoming a Senator, a President, or a Governor, he is now just a perennial candidate, defined by very public losses with no wins to counterbalance them. Everyone is ready to move on.
This, of course, is somewhat out of character for Democrats. The party is known for its attachment to well-known losers, and anyone who has read the first entry to this series can attest to how disastrous this tendency can be. O’Rourke being met with skepticism and dismissal after his losses may seem like a nice change of pace. Texas Democrats have the chance to start over, to new politicians and a new strategy. It’s something some other state parties would kill to have the chance for.
And, at least for now, the first part—new politicians—seems certain. In his concession speech, O’Rourke went out of his way to make the point that it was more likely that his wife would be a candidate on the ballot in the near future than him. For better or worse, 2024 will be the first election since 2010 where there will be no Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke to kick around anymore.
However, in regards to the second part of the equation—that O’Rourke’s strategy, and career as a whole, has been a failure—things are less simple. For all of the strange moments, impulsive decisions, and defeats he has become known for, Beto’s career also contains flashes of brilliance: real risks taken that paid off, impressive electoral performances, and a meaningful list of wins. At least for a time.
For Texas Democrats, properly moving on from Beto won’t be as simple as writing him off. His career contains a mix of both real successes worth replicating and a bevy of missteps and overcorrections that show what exactly not to do. It is a multilayered and somewhat tragic arc: the rise of the rare sort of rising star who actually lived up to the hype, followed by the self-inflicted destruction of his entire career. To reach a complete verdict on Beto’s efforts, we must look at what he actually did during his three losses in 2018, 2020, and 2022, how his track record stands in the context of Texas history, and where the party is left as his era ends.
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