Read: Democratic operatives are building Beto O’Rourke’s campaign without him
“It used to be about missing cycles—now with Beto, it’s about whether he missed his moment,” said one Democratic strategist watching the race closely who, like others I spoke with, was reluctant to go public with O’Rourke skepticism.
Even some friends have struggled to explain what his delay has been about and how, if he’s had to agonize so long over whether to run, he could actually be ready for the campaign ahead, let alone the presidency.
But numerous other donors, operatives, and informal advisers are more convinced than ever of his potential, confident that he’ll reset a race that so far has not had a breakout candidate. And he and his team are counting on the attention that comes from shaking things up, especially with most voters still far from tuned in.
Read: Beto O’Rourke’s national celebrity was his undoing
With expectations so high, fans and rivals alike suspect that it won’t take long to see whether this works. He probably has only a week or two to be tagged as a front-runner or a flop.
In his handful of public appearances, interviews, and messages to supporters, O’Rourke has made very clear why he doesn’t want Donald Trump to be president. But he’s made no clear argument, in public or private, for why he might want to be president himself. According to people who have spoken with him, he is preparing to pitch himself as offering hope that America can be better than its current partisan and hate-filled politics, and that the country can come together. So far he hasn’t landed on how he’ll propose to actually make that happen.
“This is an artist at work, and we haven’t seen it before, and it’s exciting,” says Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, a friend of O’Rourke’s, arguing that it’s precisely because O’Rourke will run a different kind of campaign that the process of getting to it has been so unlike anyone else’s in the field.
Christopher Hooks: What Beto won
Instead of defining the race by jumping in back in December, when interest in him was at its height, he let the race take shape without him and gambled that he’d still have time to reshape it. Instead of scooping up operatives and donors eager to sign on with a front-runner, he let months of indecision tick by as they signed up elsewhere, tired of waiting.
“I hadn’t planned on losing,” is how O’Rourke repeatedly put it to people, including Chuck Schumer, when the New York Democrat, in some frustration, tried and failed to recruit him to run next year for the other Senate seat in Texas.
Last year, of course, O’Rourke was running a Senate campaign that had every Democrat in the country (as well as some Republicans who can’t stand Ted Cruz) rooting for him. He was able to slowly ramp up, building his argument, his team, and his comfort level on the campaign trail. Now he will start with a dozen other campaigns out to take him down, as well as voters who already have other interesting and inspiring options, and he’ll do it with the spotlight of a superstar on him from the moment he begins.