Despite my best efforts, I know exactly what Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke’s post-punk indie band from the mid-’90s sounds like (not as bad as you’d think!). At the same time, I don’t know much about Senate candidate Josh Hawley, who is 38 years old (meaning, around eight years younger than “rising star” Beto), the attorney general of Missouri, and the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.
In fact, Hawley’s name recognition outside of his state is probably negligible. When his name does come up in national political coverage, it’s mostly as a tack-on in pieces accessing opponent Claire McCaskill’s latest face-saving move or a panicky story about voter registration in Missouri. As with most other Americans, I don’t have any idea if Hawley likes to air drum to The Who when he pretends to win a debate. What I do know is that Hawley is slightly leading McCaskill, a two-time incumbent, in the RealClearPolitics poll average in a race that could decide which party controls the Senate.
O’Rourke, who is also up against an incumbent, Ted Cruz, is down seven points and falling. It wouldn’t be completely surprising if Cruz ends up winning Texas by nearly the same margin he did in 2012. Yet you might not have discerned this reality if you were merely paying attention to Betomania.
As with Hawley, I didn’t know much about Arizona’s GOP Senate nominee, Martha McSally, either. I’m probably not alone. She didn’t get to kibbitz with Stephen Colbert or Ellen DeGeneres. Maybe if she used a nickname given to her as a teen she’d have better luck getting attention from the national media. Anyway, what could one of the highest-ranking female pilots in the history of the Air Force and first woman pilot on a combat mission possibly have to offer Colbert’s audience? Beto skateboarded through a Whataburger parking lot.
Also, McSally has a chance to win her Senate race.
So I’m sorry, Associated Press and LeBron James, but O’Rourke isn’t “shaking up” the Texas Senate race any more than Hawley and McSally are shaking up the Missouri and Arizona races. You’re just far more interested.
Then again, Hawley and McSally are not inventions of the media. O’Rourke has raised $38 million thus far. It’s an immense amount for any politician, but an absurd one for a man who relies on fawning coverage provided him and the advocacy that has very little to do with his political race.
It’s difficult to quantify these things, but it might be true that all the money being poured into a losing O’Rouke campaign in Texas might have been better utilized in closer races in red states like North Dakota and Tennessee. Democrats seem more interested in subsidizing celebrity than winning back the Senate.
In a Bloomberg article headlined “Beto O’Rourke Matters Even If He Loses,” Francis Wilkinson says “O’Rourke’s extraordinary political success is all the more poignant because it comes after a wave of public polls registering that he is on course to lose in November.” This is the kind of self-perpetuating back-patting that liberal advocates in the media like to engage in.
O’Rourke’s “extraordinary political success” is illusionary. His national popularity is contingent on aesthetics and mass of coverage. It is merely that Beto looks and acts like the type of guy producers at most cable news networks and talk shows think—or more precisely, wish—a senator would look and act like. Unlike, say, Cruz (nearly two years older than Beto), who is always blathering about the Constitution or whatnot.
It’s not as if O’Rourke is a special talent by any measure. His speeches and talking points are just as vacuous and predictable as those of any other middling politician. His positions on guns and abortion—and a multitude of other issues—are in lockstep with his party, not the state. O’Rourke has never offered any substantively impressive policy ideas. He’s not led on any notable issues in the House. He’s remarkably unremarkable.
There is talk that Beto’s showing makes him a young Barack Obama. It’s true that both men exhibit similar sensibilities. Then again, I remember Obama making his name opposing the Iraq War, something most of his party was scared to do. I remember him winning a Senate race. When was the last time we had a vice presidential candidate, much less a presidential one, who had run for the Senate or a governorship and lost?*
Of course, winning a political race doesn’t make you substantively right. Winning says little about the veracity of your arguments. But it does say plenty about the reality of politics. Now, maybe O’Rourke will pull it out. Polls have been wrong before. Perhaps in the new political reality, celebrity is enough. But the way the media treats a losing candidate—which is to say, with even more infatuation than they did abortion champion Wendy Davis—is just another sign of its bias, advocacy, and wishful thinking.
*As a reader has pointed out, the answer to that question is George H. W. Bush, who was tapped as VP nearly 40 years ago in 1980 after losing (his second) Texas Senate race in 1970. Perhaps one day Beto O’Rourke will become Director of Central Intelligence and build a similarly formidable resume, but that’s yet to be seen.