On Friday, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) ended his presidential campaign, joining Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), ex-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) as 2020 national contenders who are no longer in the race.
Mr. O’Rourke’s concession statement made reference to departing because he no longer possesses adequate resources with which to compete. Beginning as a top-tier candidate with a strong financial base, his effort rapidly crumbled largely due to ill-advised comments, poor debate performance, and calling for assault weapon confiscation, which did not reinvigorate his campaign as he expected. O’Rourke had hoped to use the latter issue to begin cracking into the party’s far-left faction that Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) seemingly have cornered.
Democratic leaders had from the outset attempted to persuade Mr. O’Rourke to challenge Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R) instead of running for president, but they were ignored. In his statement announcing the end of his national campaign, the former congressman addressed the speculation that he might return to Texas to challenge Cornyn, but again ruled out running for that office or any other in 2020.
How does the Democratic race change now that O’Rourke has departed? Largely, his move could be a precursor of many more exits to come. At this point, it is clear three candidates occupy the top tier, and separation exists between them and the rest of the pack. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Warren and Sanders maintain the top three positions in virtually every poll, and it is reasonable to expect that one of them will eventually become the Democratic nominee.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has recently made a resurgence after lagging in single digits since the second nationally televised debate in July. Concentrating on fundraising and organization, Mr. Buttigieg’s efforts have proven worthwhile. Raising $19.1 million just in the third quarter, placing him behind only Sanders ($25.3 million raised in Quarter 3) and Warren ($24.6 million) during that period, the midsize city mayor has brought in over $51.5 million since the onset of his presidential campaign.
Since delivering a stronger performance in the October debate, Buttigieg has been moving up in some national surveys and particularly in Iowa, where he has secured second place in several credible studies. Mr. Buttigieg’s strategy in the last debate, sensing that Mr. Biden is faltering, was to move closer to the center in order to position himself as an acceptable alternative to the center-left constituency that may be looking for a candidate should the ex-VP at some point discontinue his campaign.
Right now, we still see 16 active candidates who have participated in at least one of the national forums, but that number is likely to soon decrease. It will be difficult for many of the lower-tier candidates to continue for the same financial reason that O’Rourke left the race.
Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro has admitted that should he not qualify for the November and December debates, he will be forced to withdraw. And it’s just a matter of time before Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT), former Rep. John Delaney (D-MD), ex-Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA), and author Marianne Williamson all fold their campaigns since none of them are even on the cusp of serious contention.
Kamala Harris also made a move over the weekend. Doubling down for a strong finish in Iowa, Sen. Harris reduced the size of her national campaign team and is now exclusively concentrating on the state whose electorate will cast the first ballots. The strategy is questionable from a national campaign perspective, however, because Iowa does not set up well for the California lawmaker. On the other hand, within a California context, because her home state votes early in the cycle (Super Tuesday, March 3), the plan makes sense.
Now dropping into single digits nationally and even in the most recent series of California polls, Sen. Harris cannot afford to finish poorly in her own state primary. Doing so would likely make her vulnerable to a serious 2022 U.S. Senate challenge, most probably from another Democrat in the state’s jungle primary election system. Therefore, faring badly in Iowa will likely lead to suspending her campaign, thus negating the effects of a poor showing in California because she will be out of the race even though her name will remain on the ballot.
Though Beto O’Rourke had dropped significantly behind in the Democratic presidential contest, his departure is still significant. His exit could begin a domino effect among the lower-tier candidates, thus hastening the winnowing to only the strongest contenders.
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