Betting on Beto

Blood-red Texas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1992, but the 2018 midterm race between incumbent Ted Cruz and liberal challenger Beto O’Rourke promises to be the tightest Senate race in the state in decades. O’Rourke, who has been dubbed ‘Kennedy-esque’ on more than one occasion, is a wildly popular candidate, not just in Texas, but nationwide. From playing air drums in the Whataburger drive-thru to singing at a campaign event with Willie Nelson, Beto has made headlines not just for his policy proposals but also for his public persona.

O’Rourke’s efforts, in its many forms, have paid off to the tune of a massive $38.1 million fundraising haul from the beginning of June to the end of September this year. Though independently, this number seems obviously large, in context, it becomes staggering. O’Rourke’s total for this latest quarter is larger than what many presidential primary candidates raise over their entire campaigns; it is even larger than various quarter totals brought in by Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2015.

O’Rourke’s massive success in fundraising is not, however, only rooted in Texas. Instead, a large (though somewhat indeterminate) percentage of O’Rourke’s (and Cruz’s) money comes from donors from the other forty-nine states. Because the campaign finance rules governing the disclosure of small gift donors and their locations are relatively lax, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how much money Beto has gleaned from out-of-state admirers.

Equally unclear is the rationale for Democrats to sink out-of-state money into O’Rourke’s race. RealClearPolitics' polling average has Cruz at a comfortable 6.8 points ahead as of October 28th, and no recent major poll has O’Rourke even within the margin of error. The likelihood of a Beto victory, even with the aid of the oft-prophesized 2018 ‘blue wave,’ is extremely slim. There are much tighter Senate races for enthusiastic Democratic donors, such as the race for Jeff Flake’s open seat in Arizona and Heidi Heitkamp’s fierce defense of her seat in North Dakota.

While there are some people who would only donate to Beto, whether it be attraction to his charisma or endorsement of his unique stances, for many, a misleading media narrative suggesting the plausibility of a Cruz replacement has funneled dollars, which otherwise would have gone elsewhere, into the red state of Texas. The question this raises is what, in 2018, it means to be a partisan—should loyalty to a party outweigh a pull towards one particular candidate? In an era where obstructionism seems almost natural to our legislature, is a smart donor someone who puts their affection for an individual as charismatic as Beto O’Rourke ahead of advocating for a larger party strategy? Though these questions don’t have easy answers, failing to consider them before donating to a candidate is an exercise in irresponsibility.

Though O’Rourke has said he has no Presidential ambitions for the looming 2020 race and will refocus on his family and role as a father if he indeed loses next Tuesday, it seems unlikely that such a bright Democratic star will fade entirely into the background. But we probably won’t be seeing him in the Senate anytime soon, and it will remain unknown whether the Democratic dollars sunk into his race could have changed an outcome somewhere else in the country.