Beto O'Rourke joins crowded Democratic 2020 presidential field

Beto O'Rourke speaks to Oprah Winfrey during a taping of her TV show in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, Feb. 5, 2019.
Beto O'Rourke speaks to Oprah Winfrey during a taping of her TV show in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, Feb. 5, 2019.

The Democrats' 2020 presidential field already has several senators, a couple of governors, a couple of mayors, a former cabinet secretary, and as of this morning, a former congressman by the name of Beto O'Rourke.

The 46-year-old former congressman from El Paso has captivated some in the party with his skateboarding, adventurous road trips shared on social media, and crossover appeal to both moderates and progressives.In a video announcing his decision, released at 6 a.m. ET, O'Rourke said: "The only way for us to live up to the promise of America is to give it our all and to give it for all of us."He added: "This is a defining moment of truth for this country, and for every single one of us. The challenges that we face right now; the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy, and our climate have never been greater. And they will either consume us or they will afford us the greatest opportunity to unleash the genius of the United States of America."

When the Texan launched his U.S. Senate campaign ahead of the 2018 cycle, he looked like a longshot against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in a reliably red state. But O'Rourke proved to be an adept candidate, who inspired a small army of supporters, and who very nearly upset the Republican senator.

To be sure, presidential candidates generally don't parlay failed Senate campaigns into successful presidential bids. It has, however, happened once before: Abraham Lincoln had a fairly brief career in the U.S. House, lost a Senate race in 1858, and was elected president two years later.

That said, I'd caution against too many O'Rouke-Lincoln comparisons. My point is to emphasize the historical rarity of the career trajectory, not to put the Texan in the same category as ol' Abe.

Ordinarily, when a candidate enters a presidential race, I have certain reflexive reactions. I'll put on my pundit hat and start drawing conclusions about whether his or her campaign is sensible or foolhardy, likely to succeed or fail, driven by a compelling vision or a misguided fantasy.

But with Beto, in all candor, I'm just not sure what to think.

The list of reasons to assume the former congressman will fall short is probably obvious. O'Rourke, for example, unlike each of his Senate and gubernatorial competitors, has never won a statewide race. After just three terms in the U.S. House, his record of accomplishments is thin, and for Democratic voters who care deeply about substantive policy details, the Texan often prefers to stick to general goals.

O'Rourke's new campaign website, for example, has a link that directs visitors to merchandise people can buy, but it doesn't yet have an issues page.

And yet, it's tough to dismiss his candidacy out of hand. O'Rourke is a political figure who inspires and connects with his supporters in ways most politicians don't. He has a talent for presenting progressive goals in a way that doesn't alienate non-progressive voters. He's also proven himself to be a prolific fundraiser, which tends to make a real difference when playing at a national level.

Perhaps most importantly to those preoccupied with "electability," O'Rourke seems to make Republicans awfully nervous, in ways that don't apply to many others in the Democratic field.

The Washington Post's Greg Sargent had a very smart piece on Beto this morning, noting that he doesn't have a defining issue -- the way Elizabeth Warren and Jay Inslee do -- preferring to run as more of an Obama-esque "yes, we can" kind of candidate.

Will that be enough? I don't know, but I'm reluctant to bet against him.