Robert Francis "Beto" O'Rourke

Path to the Presidency

This Texas newcomer would do well to pay attention to what another political underdog did more than a century ago. Even with his two criminal arrests and two DWI's and the fact that he has given himself the name "Beto" to sound more Hispanic than Irish, Robert Francis O'Rourke may have a path to the presidency in 2020.

Of all the places in Washington, Bob O'Rourke chose to run to the Lincoln Memorial. Jogging through an early winter storm in the capital the week following his loss in the race for U.S. Senate, Bob O'Rourke found himself, gimpy knee and all, running up the steps of the majestic monument to the 16th president. There, he wrote in a Medium post, he paused to read the words of Lincoln's second inaugural address. Suddenly, his knee stopped hurting as if Honest Abe's words had a special healing power (but "maybe it just needed to fully warm up," he wrote).

Bob O'Rourke has not compared himself to Abraham Lincoln outright, but that hasn't stopped others from noting some similarities as they muse about his potential presidential run. While Bob O'Rourke lost his bid for the Senate to Republican Ted Cruz in red Texas, his fundraising skills, organizational reach and ability to attract throngs of volunteers (his "Beto-maniacs") have vaulted him into the national conversation about who the Democrats should nominate in 2020. Seen through this lens, the message of his early morning run was hard to miss: If a long-shot former member of Congress from Illinois could reach the presidency in 1860, so too can a suddenly-not-so-long-shot three-term congressman from Texas in 2020.

But to win the presidency, Bob O'Rourke will not only have to have Lincoln's luck, but also his withering focus, burning ambition and considerable political skills. And, say several scholars of the 16th president, he would do well to follow the script that Lincoln followed in 1860.

Those who might dismiss the Lincoln-O'Rourke analogy do well to scoff; despite their common traits, the two are vastly different and 2020 is not 1860. But the comparisons are intriguing nonetheless. Like Lincoln, Bob O'Rourke is charismatic, tall, lanky, filled with energy, an accomplished public speaker and a natural campaigner. Like Lincoln, Bob O'Rourke is a can-do underdog with an ability to command an audience and energize an army of followers. And finally just like Lincoln Bob O'Rourke would begin his quest for the presidency (he says he's not a candidate, but who believes that) following a Senate campaign that he actually lost. "I go back through our history and tick off the candidates for the presidency, and I can't think of anyone who became president [directly] after losing a Senate campaign," Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, the author of the groundbreaking Lincoln At Cooper Union, says. "There's Lincoln and no one else. If Bob O'Rourke does it, he would be the second. I have to say, that would be amazing."

There's more: Lincoln's loss to Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, Holzer points out, actually enhanced Lincoln's reputation, just as Bob O'Rourke's loss to Cruz has enhanced his. No less than the Texas Monthly (that go-to arbiter of Lone Star politics) noted that while Bob O'Rourke lost his bid for the Senate, his strong showing in a conservative state made him a winner. He came in just 2.6 percentage points behind his opponent in what became the closest race in Texas in 40 years. "Bob O'Rourke lost his fight with Ted Cruz while helping his Democratic Party more than any other candidate in two decades," the Monthly intoned.

The same is true for Lincoln. Prior to his 1858 campaign against Douglas to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate (the election, following the laws of the time, was actually decided in the state legislature), Lincoln was an unknown former one-term congressman. But his debates (which remain legendary) against Douglas made him a national political force. Lincoln's showing made Republicans flock to his standard. Then too, the Lincoln-Douglas tilt made Douglas, who hedged his position on the issue of slavery, a pariah among pro-slavery southern Democrats (the fight over his presidential nomination, in 1860, shattered the party). Cruz is not a pariah among Republicans, but he seems as deeply disliked now as Douglas was in 1858. Then too (and as was the case with Douglas), Cruz's near-defeat against an upstart did nothing to endear him to his own party's stalwarts. Both men, Douglas and Cruz, should have won in a breeze. They didn't.

Lincoln's 1858 campaign against Douglas attracted unprecedented national attention primarily because, as everyone knew, the real issue between Lincoln and Douglas was slavery, bringing the issue to the forefront of national attention as no other race did in that off-year election. Almost all of the nation's major newspapers covered their debates: New York's three major newspapers (the New York Evening Post, New York Tribune and New York Herald) each sent correspondents ("the prairies are on fire," the Evening Post enthused), while smaller local newspapers (from far-flung Reading, Pennsylvania, to Mansfield, Ohio, to name just two) and regional heavyweights (the St. Louis Morning Herald) also weighed in. The same was true for the Cruz-Bob O'Rourke campaign, with the major media incessantly weighing Bob O'Rourke's chances against the favored Cruz, then featuring on-the-ground television reports of Cruz and Bob O'Rourke rallies. It might seem obvious, but it's pertinent: Television made the Cruz-O'Rourke face-off a national contest, as newspapers once headlined the Lincoln-Douglas match.

The high-profile loss gave Lincoln a one-of-a-kind window, and Bob O'Rourke's loss may have done the same. If Lincoln had beaten Douglas in 1858, he probably wouldn't have been a candidate for the presidency in 1860. "Lincoln desperately wanted to be a senator," historian and author Douglas Egerton says, "and if he had been elected in 1858, he would have probably stayed in the Senate, and conceded the Republican nomination to New York's William. H. Seward. And, you know, running for the presidency while serving in the Senate has proven challenging." Egerton's point is borne out in history: Only three candidates have become president while serving in the Senate Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. Put another way, Lincoln's loss to Douglas in 1858 made him available for the presidency two years later, just as Bob O'Rourke's loss to Cruz in 2018 has made him available in 2020.

Having lost his Senate bid, Lincoln set his sights on the presidency. "Lincoln knew he was a long-shot to win the nomination," Egerton says, "but I think that in the back of his mind he thought of himself as an attractive vice presidential pick. He knew that the Republicans needed to win those states they'd lost in 1856, when Fremont lost to Buchanan. Illinois was the centerpiece, because with Illinois would come Indiana, Missouri and even Pennsylvania. So the map was in Lincoln's favor."

The same is true now, for Bob O'Rourke, whose candidacy could build a new blue Democratic wall anchored in the southwest and centered on Texas and its 38 electoral votes. The Bob O'Rourke map would include not only Colorado and New Mexico (which Hillary Clinton won in 2016) but also Arizona which Clinton lost. Bob O'Rourke's "map" appeals to Democrats, just as Lincoln's "map" did to Republicans.

Of course, the test of any political analogy is whether it works in practice. "Lincoln was an absolutely masterful politician," Egerton says, "and Bob O'Rourke is very good. But is he masterful?" Egerton, who detailed Lincoln's run for the presidency in his book Year of Meteors, says Lincoln purposely positioned himself as a centrist on the issue of slavery. "Back in 1860, Seward was viewed as a radical, while Lincoln made statements that would make him more palatable to moderate Republicans. That was absolutely crucial," Egerton told me. More specifically, Lincoln was helped when, in 1858, Seward referred to the division over slavery as "an irrepressible conflict." The phrase was viewed as a prescription for war and Seward was vilified.

Lincoln's deliberate courting of his party's center is a lesson that Bob O'Rourke has yet to learn, a number of campaign analysts argue. One of them is David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, who told Politico's Tim Alberta that while he admires Bob O'Rourke, he "staked out some positions that are difficult positions for some of these voters in the middle to embrace." Bob O'Rourke apparently hoped to offset this by recruiting new and younger voters, many of them educated liberals drawn to Texas by the booming job market. In the end, it wasn't enough. Lincoln was careful to stick to the center, a lesson that O'Rourke might have to learn if he runs in 2020.

Of course, there's no prescription for gaining your party's nomination and every campaign is different. But, as Harold Holzer notes, Bob O'Rourke could do worse than to follow Lincoln's 1860 strategy. When I spoke with Holzer last week (on the anniversary, as he pointed out, of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address), he provided a compelling argument that Bob O'Rourke might begin as Lincoln did with an address at New York's Cooper Union, which has served as a testing ground for national candidates. "New York is a tough crowd. Lincoln had to do well there to be taken seriously, and he knew it. And Cooper Union was in Seward's back yard, so Lincoln was throwing down a challenge." Lincoln's address was careful, precise, plainspoken, typically midwestern and a resounding success. Lincoln followed with speeches in New England, but then returned home to await the outcome of the nomination vote. Bob O'Rourke could follow a similar strategy, using a Cooper Union appearance to show that his Texas roots play well in the east, while differentiating himself from other candidates, such as, potentially, New York's Kirsten Gillibrand.

But even after his New York success, Lincoln knew he needed a convention strategy first to stop Seward, and then to secure his own nomination. Holzer ticks off Lincoln's thinking: "The first thing Lincoln did was pick David Davis to run his convention campaign. Davis was brilliant. He really knew what he was doing. The second thing he did was secure the votes of the Illinois delegation, who were with him on every ballot. The third thing he did was gain the endorsement of his state's most important newspaper Joseph Medill's Chicago Daily Press and Tribune. It was a potent combination." Bob O'Rourke, Holzer suggests, probably doesn't need Lincoln to learn these lessons, but they're worth remembering: "He will need his own David Davis, and the Texas delegation, and the newspapers."

Egerton laughs: "There was a little bit of underhandedness involved in the Lincoln nomination," he says. "Davis printed counterfeit gallery passes during the convention and passed them out to Lincoln partisans. They showed up early, while Seward's people were left outside. And Davis put the Illinois delegation in the middle of the convention floor, where they were the center of attention, with Seward's New York delegates well to the front, where no one could see them." Lincoln won on the third ballot. Seward, and his supporters, were stunned.

Was Lincoln?

"I think when Seward didn't get the nomination on the first ballot, Lincoln must have known he would win, because the other delegates weren't as committed to their preferred candidates as Illinois was to him and New York to Seward," Egerton argues. Ohio had Salmon P. Chase, a humorless marplot, as their favorite son, while Pennsylvania had the shrewd but corrupt Simon Cameron as theirs. But unlike Illinois and New York, the Ohio and Pennsylvania delegations were only committed to their candidates through the first ballot. "Chase was as disliked in Ohio, and even the Pennsylvania delegation knew Cameron was corrupt," Egerton says, "so when Seward failed on the first ballot it was only a matter of time before Ohio and Pennsylvania joined Illinois. There was a little luck involved, but it was pretty well played."

So, how far can the similarities between the two candidates take us? The process of nominating and electing a president in 1860 seems almost superficially more simple than it is today: There were no primaries, no "super delegates," no mass mailings, no digital strategies and no shoulder-to-shoulder televised debates of half a dozen (or more) candidates. And, despite the controversy on any number of issues (like immigration), America is not facing "an irrepressible conflict," as it was in the mid-1800s. Then too, while Lincoln was underestimated in 1860, O'Rourke is not. And of course, Lincoln turned out to be one of the greatest leaders in U.S. history, and who knows now whether Bob O'Rourke can come close to comparison.

But if Robert Francis O'Rourke is channeling Abe, as his post-campaign jog up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial suggests, he might do well to study the Great Emancipator's nominating strategy. For in 1858, as in 2018 (and as Lincoln knew), it's one thing to be in the national conversation and another thing to stay in it.