The media’s treatment of Texas Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke wasn’t the most egregiously unfair coverage of the past year — that would be the treatment of Brett Kavanaugh — but it ranks among 2018’s most annoying. The endless glowing profiles of O’Rourke in every publication from Vanity Fair to Spin to Rolling Stone to Town & Country represent the national media’s worsening challenge in differentiating between what it wants to see happen and what is actually happening.
The national media desperately want a Democrat who can win statewide races in the South and someday end up on a presidential ticket. That yearning drove the brief and otherwise unremarkable career of disgraced former senator John Edwards of North Carolina. Democratic statewide winners exist here and there, such as North Carolina governor Roy Cooper and Louisiana governor Jon Bel Edwards. Doug Jones won his Senate race in Alabama, though it helps to run against Roy Moore.
Reporters from the national media desperately want to discover the Southern Democrat with national potential — Bill Clinton 2.0 — and write the first glossy profile piece of a future president, a lengthy, detailed piece that basically doubles as a future book proposal. Lots of political reporters aspire to be the next David Maraniss and write the next First in His Class and spend the latter half of their careers as quasi-historian experts about a particular president.
In every cycle, at least one Democrat gets the glossy “here’s the Democrat who can win in the South” treatment. Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, Michelle Nunn and Jon Ossoff in Georgia. Stephen Colbert’s sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, got a lot of hype in her special House election bid against Mark Sanford in South Carolina.
Their campaign ads and photoshoots of the Great Southern Democratic Hopes always feature bucolic, postcard-worthy outdoor settings. If they’re indoors, they’re in church.
The profile pieces of the Great Southern Democratic Hopes always include the same ingredients. “This Democrat owns a gun and hunts!” (Never mind that they usually support some form of gun control that is anathema to many gun owners and the NRA.) “They can quote a Bible verse!” (Yet they almost inevitably pay tribute in one form or another to Planned Parenthood.) “This Democrat wears cowboy boots!” (As if apparel indicated anything meaningful about their governing philosophy.)
And the tone is always breathless optimism about the Democrat’s chances. In 2013, Politico wrote of Grimes, “the fresh Democratic face could give the Senate minority leader the fight of his political life.” Mitch McConnell won reelection, 56 percent to 40 percent, in what was not the fight of his political life.
But what the national media really yearn to see is a Democrat who can win Texas. A Democrat who could win Texas in a presidential race would end the competition before it began; a Republican candidate is up a creek with no paddle without the Lone Star State’s 38 electoral votes, and a Democrat charismatic and appealing enough to win Texas would probably put other red states in play.
Bringing this dream to fruition is difficult, because no Democrat has received more than 45 percent of the vote in a race for senator or governor since 1994. This is the political equivalent of the long runs of frustration that Cubs and Red Sox fans endured up until recently. What’s more, Texas has plenty of liberals with national audiences who have desperately wanted to believe that this was the year when their party’s great comeback has finally arrived — the late Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, CNN regular Paul Begala.
The yearning to believe has gotten national reporters to breathlessly hype the chances and potential of figures such as former Houston mayor Bill White, state legislator Wendy Davis, and former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro in past cycles, and of the grassroots organizing group Battleground Texas. “There’s no doubt the group has put a scare into the long-dominant Texas GOP,” declared MSNBC, a few months before Republicans had one of their best Election Days ever.
The stage was set for a torrid media love affair the moment O’Rourke decided to run for Senate.
Give O’Rourke credit for his strengths. He’s handsome and good on the stump, and uses social media in creative ways. He won his past Democratic primaries by outhustling comfortable incumbents. He genuinely doesn’t consult with pollsters when shaping his positions, which is how you end up with a Texas statewide candidate who is running on banning AR-15s, abolishing ICE, and impeaching President Trump.
But what’s fascinating is how the media looked at O’Rourke’s fairly mundane life and standard-issue national Democratic positions and convinced themselves they had found a transformational political talent.
O’Rourke kept getting labeled “Kennedyesque,” but the adjective was never applied where the comparison is most accurate, his driving record. The presence of enthusiastic supporters at O’Rourke rallies kept being cited as some sort of indicator of a sea change in the state’s politics. But attracting a crowd of supporters is not that high a bar to clear. Wendy Davis had plenty of well-attended rallies in 2014. Texas has 15 million registered voters and almost 4 million of them voted for Hillary Clinton.
O’Rourke once played in a rock band and knows how to skateboard. Big deal, a lot of guys in Generation X did that. Media headlines keep leaving the impression he’s Latino — “In Texas, Beto O’Rourke’s rise fuels hope for Latino Democrats” — and he’s not. He gets labeled an “outsider” despite being in elected office since 2005 and Congress since 2013. Even the AP noticed that he’s got an everyman image but a net worth of about $9 million.
There are Senate candidates running in this cycle who have genuinely interesting life stories. In Michigan, John James graduated from West Point, served in Iraq (where he earned three medals, led two Apache platoons, and logged more than 750 hours flight time in theater), went back for two master’s degrees, and now runs the family business. In Missouri, state attorney general Josh Hawley graduated with high honors from Stanford and Yale Law School, clerked for John Roberts, worked on the Hobby Lobby case, and oversaw the biggest human-trafficking bust in state history, shutting down “13 separate businesses that were acting as fronts for human trafficking.” In Wisconsin, Leah Vukmir worked overnight shifts in an emergency room while studying to be a nurse, had her personal medical information seized by the Wisconsin Justice Department and labeled “opposition research,” and compares her family to the cast of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But you haven’t heard much about them, have you?
O’Rourke doesn’t even have the most interesting life story in Texas politics; Governor Greg Abbott’s life story, including living with paralysis after an accident involving a falling tree in 1984, is more inspiring.
The ingredients were there for a much less flattering media portrait of O’Rourke — a boarding-school-attending son of a judge who escaped serious consequence for a DUI and burglary charges, used gentrification to jump-start his career in El Paso city politics, supported the use of eminent domain to drive out poor residents, and married into the family of his region’s most influential businessmen. In Congress, O’Rourke was largely ignored until his Senate bid; he’s been the primary sponsor for just three bills that became law. One of them renamed a federal building in El Paso.
But that’s not what the media wanted to see, and you can’t write that story for a national magazine after you’ve submitted expense reports for a flight to Texas, a hotel, plenty of tacos, and God knows how much Shiner Bock. A Democrat who really had a shot at winning Texas would indeed be a huge political story. Alas, Beto O’Rourke is shaping up to be just a charismatic guy who will do better than the Texas Democrats’ usual bad performance.