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Beto Will Have to Defy History to Win the White House

Congressmen are rarely competitive in presidential elections. Is the Texas Democrat an exception?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beto O’Rourke is running, or so it increasingly seems. After coming closer to winning statewide office than any Texas Democrat in decades, the three-term congressman from El Paso acknowledged that he was considering a White House bid and met quietly with Barack Obama. Louis Susman, a major Democratic fundraiser who backed the former president’s nascent 2008 campaign, has said he would support O’Rourke. Even some of his rivals think he should run. The chief strategist for Ted Cruz, the senator whom O’Rourke nearly unseated, said the congressman has a “hot hand.” “If you have a hot hand, take it,” Jeff Roe told the House Chronicle. “He would win Iowa.”

Would a politician who did little to distinguish himself in Congress, and whose most recent campaign ended in defeat, really stand a chance of winning the Democratic nomination? As The New York Times noted recently, the Democratic primary is “expected to be the party’s most wide open in decades,” and O’Rourke “has emerged as the wild card of the presidential campaign-in-waiting for a Democratic Party that lacks a clear 2020 front-runner.” O’Rourke’s campaign for Senate broke fundraising records, largely on his strength with small donors. In a straw poll released last Tuesday by the progressive group MoveOn, O’Rourke came in first, edging out Joe Biden. In two polls since then, one national and one in Iowa, he trailed only Biden and Bernie Sanders

If O’Rourke does decide to run, though, he’ll be competing not only against a multitude of Democratic hopefuls, but against history. Since America’s founding, congressmen have fared poorly in presidential elections, due to a number of systemic hurdles. The question is whether O’Rourke is exceptional enough to overcome them.

There have been as many reality stars directly elected to the presidency as members of the U.S. House of Representatives: James Garfield is the only sitting congressman to win the White House, a feat he accomplished in 1880.

O’Rourke gave up his seat to challenge Cruz, so he could not join Garfield in that honor, but it would be extremely rare nonetheless for a politician who most recently was a congressman to win the presidency. Only one other person, Abraham Lincoln, whose prior elected office was in the House has gone on to be president. Eighteen congressmen have ever gone on to be elected president, though the majority were governors, senators, or cabinet officials in the interim. (John Quincy Adams also served in the House, but not until after his presidency.)

History is somewhat more favorable for presidential aspirants in the other chamber of Congress. While only three sitting senators—Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama—have gone directly to the Oval Office, they appear much more frequently on presidential tickets, both as candidates and running mates. Aside from 2012, in which former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan challenged Obama and Biden, every election going back to 1992 featured a sitting senator somewhere on the ticket. In the last hundred years, eight elections have featured sitting senators on major tickets; one, in 2008, featured sitting senators atop both major tickets (Obama and John McCain). In that same span, there have only been six elections in which a sitting senator did not appear somewhere on a major party ticket.

By contrast, no sitting congressman has even led a major party ticket since Garfield, and not since William Jennings Bryan in 1908 has someone led a major party ticket after most recently serving as a congressman. (Bryan lost to William Howard Taft in a landslide.)* Until Ryan ran with Romney, no sitting member of Congress had even appeared on a major party ticket since 1984, when Walter Mondale tapped Representative Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.* In fact, just three sitting representatives have gone directly to the vice presidency, the most recent being John Nance Garner, who was elected with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.

Why are representatives so poorly represented in presidential politics? It’s a combination of several factors: U.S. representatives usually lack the visibility, resources, and sometimes the experience of politicians who hold statewide office.

“I think that anyone who’s been a governor or a senator for five minutes gets treated as a more serious candidate,” David Karol, an associate professor of government and politics at University of Maryland, told me. “And that’s typically less true of members of the House, unless they’ve been in a leadership role.”

The structure of the House itself works against presidential hopefuls. Being one of 435 House members, versus one of 100 senators, makes it more challenging to get national attention. Unlike senators, who serve six-year terms, representatives face reelection every two years and thus are particularly accountable to their districts; there is simply less time to mount a nationwide campaign. Congressmen also represent far smaller districts and may have less experience with broader constituencies.

“They may have high approval ratings from one small subset of people,” said Lara Brown, director of the Graduate Program in Political Management at George Washington University and author of Jockeying for the Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants. “But often times, their constituency is not representative of their state and certainly not of the United States as a whole.”

All that can put them at a significant disadvantage in access to the daunting funds and resources needed to compete for president. “A typical congressional race is essentially a glorified city council race,” said Republican strategist Ken Spain. “Running for higher office requires a donor network, a sophisticated campaign team that can operate across multiple cities in multiple states, and experienced hands when it comes to strategy and execution. Sure, you can be a one-man-band candidate. But those kinds of candidates come in flashes and fade quickly.”

O’Rourke isn’t the only congressman reportedly considering a White House bid. California’s Eric Swalwell, Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, and Ohio’s Tim Ryan are all rumored candidates, too. And one has already declared his candidacy: Maryland’s John Delaney entered the 2020 race way back in July 2017.

A wealthy businessman, Delaney has so far been able to largely fund his own campaign, allowing him—at least in theory—to rely less on donors. He’ll also have time; the three-term representative is retiring from Congress so that he can campaign full time. While he remains a mostly unrecognizable figure on the national stage, he’s spent months working to build up a profile in Iowa and New Hampshire, and is banking on strong performances in the important early primary states to catapult him to nationwide recognition.

“When I win the Iowa caucus,” Delaney told me, “everyone who’s focused on the presidential election in this country is going to know who I am.”

Delaney seems to have built some name recognition in the states, but will that be sufficient if and when more prominent figures—Biden, Sanders, Elizabeth Warren—officially enter the race? “Delaney is a very long shot,” Karol said, “and I don’t think it’s just because he’s a member of the House.”

O’Rourke could be a different story. Thanks to his close race against Cruz in a deep-red state, he has national name recognition and a national fundraising network. “He’s unique, because he does already have this enormous grassroots fundraising energy and excitement,” Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist, said in an interview. “That puts him in a very different place than a John Delaney or an Eric Swalwell.” Having given up his seat to challenge Cruz, O’Rourke also would have more than enough time to devote to a presidential bid.

If O’Rourke ran for president and won, he would defy history. But the political environment in America today doesn’t adhere to the conventional wisdom. “I think you need to be a cultural phenomenon in order to win the presidency in the twenty-first century,” Spain said. “And Beto clearly has that.” And if a vulgar reality TV star with no political or military experience can win the White House, it would seem downright ordinary for the next president to be a retired Democratic congressman from Texas.

* A previous version of this article incorrectly described the Democratic and Republican presidential tickets in 1984, as well as William Howard Taft’s margin of victory over William Jennings Bryan in the 1908 presidential election.