WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — When President Donald Trump took the stage at the El Paso Coliseum Monday night, he wanted to make a few things clear: border walls work, he intends to build one with or without congressional support, and his rally was much bigger than the one Democrat Beto O’Rourke was holding nearby.
“A young man who’s got very little going for himself, except he’s got a great first name He challenged us. So, we have, let's say, 35,000 people tonight. And he has 200 people, 300 people. Not too good,” Trump claimed.
O’Rourke had 7,000 to 8,000 people in attendance, according to NBC News, while the arena where Trump was speaking could only hold 6,500. There were thousands more watching Trump from outside, though estimates of that crowd size vary.
Even if it was not as big as Trump’s, it was a solid hometown turnout for O’Rourke, who is not currently holding or running for public office and has spent much of the last few months road-tripping and blogging his way through the Midwest. As the former congressman eyes a potential run for the Democratic nomination to take on Trump in 2020, the night may have offered a preview of things to come.
O’Rourke has been the subject of growing 2020 speculation since his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz energized the Democratic base and earned him countless glowing national media profiles. In a recent Times Square interview with Oprah Winfrey, he announced he plans to make a decision on running for president by the end of the month.
"We want to play as great a role as possible making sure that this country lives up to our expectations -- to the promise, to the potential that we all know her to have," he said in the interview, which is set to air on OWN this Saturday.
Headlining a protest march and counter-rally within earshot of the coliseum thrust O’Rourke into the center of a border wall debate that is sure to continue through the 2020 campaign. Trump’s defensive reaction only served to shine a brighter spotlight on a possible rival.
“When you, as a politician, can take up that much oxygen, you don’t want to give oxygen to anyone else All he did by acknowledging O’Rourke was to gin up enthusiasm from Democrats against his proposals,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, author of “Inside Texas Politics” and a professor at the University of Houston.
According to Michael Cohen, founder of the Cohen Research Group and a professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, the rally was a savvy move by O’Rourke, who recognized the press would be looking for someone to represent the other side when they covered Trump’s event.
“When you look at this particular event, it’s not like he’s just in Iowa shaking hands or eating corn dogs. He’s doing something substantive that matters a lot to the base and matters a lot to him,” Cohen said.
Although O’Rourke served in Congress for three terms, losing a statewide Senate race is not the most confidence-inspiring way to enter national politics. Even before O’Rourke lost to Cruz, Trump dismissed him as a lightweight.
"Ted's opponent in this race is a stone-cold phony named Robert Francis O'Rourke, sometimes referred to as 'Beto,'" Trump said at an October rally. "He pretends to be a moderate, but he's actually a radical, open borders left-winger."
O’Rourke would undoubtedly be one of the less experienced contenders in the Democratic field, but Cohen said he has a chance at victory if he makes it to a faceoff with Trump.
“Can Beto be competitive?” he said. “Sure. He was competitive in a very red state against somebody who lines up very well with that state. He can also run generationally. He’s a relatively young guy compared to Trump. He matches up pretty well one-on-one, and he’s certainly not afraid of Trump.”
Rottinghaus, who co-hosts the “Party Politics” podcast, said the well-attended counter-rally demonstrated there is a constituency for O’Rourke’s politics and provided visual evidence he is ready to go toe-to-toe with Trump. It also boosted the waning momentum surrounding a Beto 2020 run.
“There’s nothing like thousands of adoring fans cheering your name to encourage you to run for office,” Rottinghaus said.
After months of introspection and live-blogging dental appointments, O’Rourke has lost some of the buzz generated by his failed Senate campaign. However, polls suggest he remains a stronger contender for the 2020 nod than some of the more accomplished figures in the Democratic Party.
In a poll of more than 11,000 Democratic primary voters conducted last week, Morning Consult found O’Rourke in fifth place with 7 percent of the vote, trailing former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. The survey also found his favorability at 41 percent, with name recognition higher than most of the candidates who have already entered the race.
Experts say O’Rourke can learn a lot from the better-than-expected outcome of his ill-fated Senate run, but a national presidential campaign is a very different beast. Aspects of his record and his background that got relatively little scrutiny last year are bound to resurface in both the primaries and the general election.
“He was pretty good at deflecting that, but that’s going to be different on the national stage where every negative thing is amplified and you’ve got a whole raft of other challengers voters can gravitate to if you tumble,” Rottinghaus said.
O’Rourke’s fundraising prowess helped him set records in 2018, but raising money could be tougher with over a dozen opponents competing for the same donors. They will be competing for the same staff, too, and Cohen warned many of the most talented operatives are already being scooped up by other candidates. Hard as it may be to believe, announcing his candidacy 20 months before Election Day might turn out to be too late for Beto.
“People aren’t going to wait that much longer for Beto to get into this thing,” Cohen said.