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Beto O’Rourke Doesn’t Want to Run for Senate. That’s Fine.

It will take more than a few charismatic candidates for Democrats to regain and maintain control of national politics.

Joe Raedle/Getty

Beto O’Rourke is sick of people telling him to run for Senate again. “You know the question’s going to keep coming up,” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell told O’Rourke on Thursday, “this question of what about dropping out of this presidential race and taking up the race for the Senate.”

“Let me make your show the place where I tell you and I tell the country: I will not in any scenario run for the United States Senate,” O’Rourke replied, with a sheepish grin. “I’m running for president. I’m running for this country. I’m taking this fight directly to Donald Trump, and that is what I am exclusively focused on doing right now.” There was an understandable edge of exasperation in his response. In a speech, earlier that day, in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, O’Rourke had batted the question away for the umpteenth time since declaring his candidacy in March. “That would not be good enough for this community. That would not be good enough for El Paso. That would not be good enough for this country,” he said, alluding to the horrific mass shooting that took place earlier this month. His campaign also tweeted out that he was not considering running for Senate, in yet another attempt to quell the speculation.

O’Rourke’s frustration is understandable. He’s running for president, after all—and questions about a possible run for Senate inescapably point to the fact that his campaign isn’t going particularly well.

It’s also understandable why so many people would be pressuring (and maybe pestering) him to run for the Senate again. O’Rourke ran a dynamo of a campaign for Senate in 2018 against Ted Cruz and came up just short. This year, O’Rourke has struggled to distinguish himself in a crowded presidential field. Voters looking for a vaguely inspiring, difficult-to-pin-down, white, male candidate of the future have South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. It’s not yet clear if O’Rourke has found his own constituency in the Democratic presidential primary, and his future in the race might be even more hazy. (His newfound justification for continuing his run for president also doesn’t make much sense. The Senate is a significantly larger roadblock to passing gun control legislation than the White House is, though O’Rourke’s decision to focus his post–El Paso campaign on gun control issues will undoubtedly influence the tenor of the entire primary.)

Having come close to a Texas victory once before, the thinking goes, O’Rourke should give it another go, this time against the state’s other vulnerable incumbent senator, John Cornyn. O’Rourke has shown an ability to raise big money and run a competent, charismatic campaign before; if he were to put all his energy into it again, the thinking goes, he could get over the hump this time.

That may very well be true, but it still doesn’t mean that he should abandon his (admittedly floundering) presidential campaign. There are Democrats in Texas not named Beto O’Rourke, and they will have as good a chance of unseating Cornyn as the former El Paso representative would.

The obsession with Beto running for the Senate again is just the latest example of a Democratic Party too enamored of individual heroes—so much so that the search for “transformative” candidates supersedes longer-term goals, such as building a party infrastructure that encourages candidates with roots in the community and gives them a strong array of core positions on which to base a campaign.

The Democrats have a real shot to turn Texas blue in 2020. As Bob Moser wrote for The New Republic last week:

Suddenly, Texas Republicans are on the defensive in their national fortress—and they’re both talking and acting like it. “The tectonic plates shifted in Texas in 2018,” Senator John Cornyn, the powerful Republican who’s facing reelection in 2020 (with just a 37 percent approval rating) said earlier this year. Cornyn has been sounding the alarms ever since November, warning national Republicans against complacency and spelling out the dire consequences for his party if they can’t stave off the Democratic surge: “If Texas turns back to a Democratic state, which it used to be, then we’ll never elect another Republican [president] in my lifetime,” said Cornyn.

Texas’s Republican Party is in disarray. In recent weeks, a number of GOP congressmen from the state have announced that they are not running for reelection. Latinx Texans will likely be the majority by 2022, and an increasingly xenophobic and nativist Republican Party could foment a rapid political transformation.

A number of Democrats have already announced their intention to run for the party’s Senate nomination. They include M.J. Hegar, who is running with Chuck Schumer’s backing. A moderate who has opposed gun control legislation in the past, she made waves last year during an unsuccessful run for the House of Representatives, thanks to a viral ad about her experience facing gender discrimination.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a political organizer hoping to build on O’Rourke’s success in 2018, will galvanize progressives. Other candidates include former congressman (and perennial candidate) Chris Bell, and 2018 lieutenant governor candidate Michael Cooper.

If O’Rourke were to enter, he would be the frontrunner for the nomination immediately. But the goal for Texas Democrats should be about building meaningful infrastructure that they can use to consistently win elections, and not to just keep trotting out what worked—or, in O’Rourke’s case, almost worked—the last time.

Similarly, given that 2020 is a presidential year, the top of the ticket will almost certainly play a decisive role in the outcome of a number of close races. An inspirational presidential ticket could bring additional Democrats to the polls in many states, but maybe not all. This is why it makes sense for Colorado’s former governor, John Hickenlooper, to drop out and run for Senate, but not necessarily Montana Governor Steve Bullock. (The top of the ticket problem is also, possibly, the real reason that O’Rourke doesn’t want to run for Senate again. A second statewide defeat in two years could deal a decisive blow to his political career.)

Since the presidential loss in 2016, there has been quite a bit of soul-searching among Democrats over the lack of depth in their candidate “bench.” It is not without reason, especially given that the party was hollowed out at the local and state level during the Obama years. But if Democrats are serious about winning—and not just swooning over a handful of stars—they should embrace the fact that there is more than one electable member of their party in the Lone Star State.