Beto O’Rourke’s $6.1 million haul in the first 24 hours of his campaign—topping the prior high-water mark of $5.9 million for Bernie Sanders—indicates some form of Betomania may be sustained outside Texas. It also stands as an implicit rebuke of woke media elites who unexpectedly turned against O’Rourke during the first official week of his candidacy.
Many commentators (myself included) tended to think Beto would continue to receive the hagiographic coverage he got during his failed Senate run against Ted Cruz. The general tone of the establishment media on his launch date suggested it would continue.
The announcement of O’Rourke’s entry into the race was timed to coincide with his Vanity Fair cover story, which was littered with fawning passages like this:
Behind the door, in the O’Rourke living room, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf contains a section for rock memoirs (Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, a favorite) and a stack of LPs (the Clash, Nina Simone) but also a sizable collection of presidential biographies, including Robert Caro’s work on Lyndon B. Johnson. Arranged in historical order, the biographies suggest there’s been some reflection on the gravity of the presidency. But there’s also some political poetry to it, a sense that O’Rourke might be destined for this shelf. He has an aura. Most places he goes in El Paso, he’s dogged by cries of ‘Beto! Beto!’ Oprah Winfrey, who helped anoint Barack Obama in 2008, practically begged him to run at an event in New York City at the beginning of February.
When author Joe Hagan wasn’t inflating Beto’s image, the candidate joined in the celebration of himself:
‘I don’t ever prepare a speech,’ he says. ‘I don’t write out what I’m going to say. I remember driving to that, I was, like, “What do I say? Maybe I’ll just introduce myself. I’ll take questions.” I got in there, and I don’t know if it’s a speech or not, but it felt amazing. Because every word was pulled out of me. Like, by some greater force, which was just the people there. Everything that I said, I was, like, watching myself, being like, ‘How am I saying this stuff? Where is this coming from?’
The first-day coverage from CBS, NBC, and ABC was almost as glowing. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews seemed to be feeling that familiar thrill up his leg again, in the tradition of Barack Obama (or Bill Clinton, in the “avatars of Hope” bin).
The next day brought some negative coverage, which was to be expected. Whether these stories were the product of pure journalistic shoe leather or the opposition research of O’Rourke’s rivals, outlets would want to drop them at the moment of maximum attention.
The entirely predictable stories detailed his ties to the pro-business establishment in Texas. Others were wilder, like his teen fantasy of vehicular homicide (a bad look for a man who fled a DUI charge), or his secret membership in America’s oldest hacking group.
Perhaps more unexpected was the degree to which establishment media shifted into criticizing Beto on grounds of identity politics. On CBS, Gayle King asked him about being a loser and whether his status as a “privileged white man” was a problem. CNN referred to him (negatively) as a white male 52 times in a single day. The Daily Beast published an essay on “The Unbearable Male Privilege of Beto O’Rourke” (which at least raised some valid arguments).
Meanwhile, Politico and HuffPost amplified gripes from feminists that none of the female candidates got the sort of cheerleading O’Rourke’s launch received. This was ironic, given the trend of the coverage. Moreover, Kamala Harris was widely praised for her campaign rollout, including by President Trump. But what matters here is the oxygen Big Media gave to the complaints.
Beto’s initial silence about his first-day fundraising total only fueled media skepticism (in fairness, he emailed supporters to claim those numbers would “set the tone in the national conversation about the viability of our campaign,” so withholding them seemed suspicious).
Now that O’Rourke’s field-topping take is public, the establishment media ought to take a look in the mirror, but it is unlikely this will happen. Establishment media elites are part of the small faction of woke progressives trying to drive Democrats further left than the rank-and-file might otherwise go. This same bias caused them to believe Beto would pull out a victory against Ted Cruz. There clearly has been little reflection on their wishful thinking since the midterm elections. The only thing that has changed is the target, from Cruz to Beto, but always from the left.
More broadly, the past week is a reminder—timely, but always needed—that politics occurs far more in the real world than on social media and cable news. And on the campaign trail, O’Rourke seems to be getting a generally friendly hearing, if not the rapturous reception of his Texas rallies.
As Beto seems to be running as 2020’s “blank screen” candidate, his vagueness on policy occasionally annoys highly engaged Iowans. Yet his free-wheeling pronouncements may help him appeal to a broader segment of the Democratic electorate than candidates with a more consistent ideology.
A great deal of power has been invested in the office O’Rourke now seeks. The media makes the president a daily presence in Americans’ homes and cars. Anyone who has watched the past two decades of politics should not be surprised that voters often care more about charisma than position papers. Progressive elites seem to have failed to suffocate Beto’s campaign. We are about to watch how far O’Rourke’s charisma can take him.