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Buttigieg steals Beto's thunder

By Jonathan Easley 4/22/19

Pete Buttigieg’s fast-rising 2020 presidential campaign is cutting into Beto O’Rourke’s viral mojo.

O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who became a media phenomenon when he nearly toppled Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) last year, has been eclipsed in recent weeks by Buttigieg, the upstart South Bend, Ind., mayor who has won headline after headline and changed national perceptions about his candidacy. 

As white men and two of the youngest candidates in the field, Buttigieg, 37, and O’Rourke, 46, are natural competitors.

Both candidates are seeking to convince Democrats that the party needs a generational change as they chase former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders(I-Vt.), who are both in their 70s.

The polls have been largely steady in recent weeks for all the 2020 contenders except for Buttigieg, who has seen a notable rise and now ranks third in several polls, though behind Biden and Sanders.

Buttigieg has effectively caught O’Rourke to establish himself firmly in the second tier of contenders, along with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

Along the way, Buttigieg, a military veteran, Rhodes scholar and gay millennial leader, has been the subject of glowing media profiles.

Some Washington insiders have compared his political skills to former President Obama.

He’s accumulated an army of experienced fundraisers since announcing an impressive first-quarter haul of $7 million, underscored by five former Obama administration diplomats who told The Hill on Friday they’d raise money for his campaign.

The former ambassadors raised millions of dollars for the Obama-Biden campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

And Buttigieg has repeatedly spun impromptu moments on the campaign trail into viral internet moments.

“I didn’t know Buttigieg existed two months ago,” said David Friedman, a Colorado businessman who raised millions of dollars for the Obama-Biden campaigns and will now fundraise for Buttigieg. “I heard him speak a few times and saw him interviewed and I just decided, he’s the one. He’s inspiring. He has that fire in his belly. He appeals to your heart and your head.”

There was a time when national Democrats seemed deeply captivated by O’Rourke, who captured the imagination of liberals with his improbable run for Senate in deep-red Texas last year.

O'Rourke carried that momentum into his presidential launch, raising $6 million in the 24 hours after entering the race.

But there has been no subsequent bounce in the polls for O’Rourke, who has faced questions about why he’s running and what he stands for.

O’Rourke’s viral campaign moments have both helped him and hurt him.

At campaign stops across Virginia last week, several of his supporters said they decided to back him after watching a YouTube video in which he defended NFL players who kneel in protest during the national anthem.

More recently, however, O’Rourke has been mocked for livestreaming a trip to the dentist and for setting off on a cross-country journey, in which he blogged about how he was in a “funk” as he languished over whether to run for president.

O'Rourke was also criticized as presumptuous for telling Vanity Fair in a cover profile that he was "born to be" in the presidential race.

“He’s been running on pure adrenaline for so long now,” said one unaffiliated Democratic strategist.

“In a race of 20 people, that’s not going to be enough to help you break out of the pack. He was a great Senate candidate in Texas, but he hasn’t adequately explained why he’s running for president, other than that he can raise a lot of money and has nothing to lose.”

As O’Rourke has stalled, Buttigieg has been on a dream run.

“The trajectory of it is a lot faster than what we expected,” Buttigieg told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow this month.

This week, he went viral for offering condolences in French after the Notre Dame fire. And Buttigieg has been battling anti-gay protesters on the campaign trail and picked a fight with Vice President Pence over LGBT issues, rallying liberals behind him and earning national headlines.

Liberal writer Ezra Klein and MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough have compared Buttigieg to Obama, both for his out-of-nowhere rise and his rhetorical skills, although some Democrats think it’s time to pump the brakes on those comparisons.

“There will be a lot of flavors of the month, but there will not be another Obama,” said the Democratic strategist.

And Buttigieg has yet to prove that he can appeal to black and Hispanic voters, which could be a serious hurdle for him in the Democratic primary.

“I think he is an impressive young man who may become a significant leader of the Democratic Party in the future,” said Douglas Dunham, a top Obama-Biden bundler who is not backing anyone yet. “He seems, however, likely too young to persuade enough Democratic primary voters to support him to become the party’s nominee against Trump. He also appears to lack minority support, which is often critical for winning the Democratic nomination.”

Still, the media attention has a been a boon for Buttigieg’s insurgent campaign.

FiveThirtyEight analysis found that Buttigieg got nearly three-times more mentions than O’Rourke on cable news last week and was the second most talked about candidate, behind only Sanders. 

O’Rourke’s mentions on cable news, by contrast, have plunged since his presidential launch.

O’Rourke is getting creative now as he tries to stand out in the crowded field of candidates competing for the media’s attention.

Last week, he became the first Democratic presidential contender to hit the ground in Virginia, a critical Super Tuesday primary state.

O’Rourke focused heavily on racial inequality as he met with black and Hispanic leaders in the state. A recent Latino Decisions survey found that O’Rourke, who speaks Spanish, is near the top of the field with his favorability rating among Hispanics


Driving his staffers around in a Dodge Caravan, O’Rourke made eight stops in Virginia over the course of two days, leaving him hoarse on the stump.

O’Rourke has been a relentless campaigner and hopes to win over voters on the force of his charisma and by outworking the other candidates.

The Virginia swing attracted national media attention because of the proximity to Washington, but O’Rourke has been getting tougher scrutiny from the press in recent weeks.

Reporters have peppered him with questions about his tax returns, which revealed that he gave less to charity than any other Democratic contender.

The recent stretch has raised questions about whether O’Rourke had hit his ceiling. Meanwhile, new polls show there is a lot of room for Buttigieg to grow.

A Morning Consult survey released this week found O’Rourke at 8 percent support and Buttigieg at 7 percent.

But 62 percent of Democrats had still not heard of Buttigieg or formed an opinion on him yet. Fifty-nine percent have already heard of or formed an opinion on O’Rourke.

“Beto is still formidable, especially because of his ability to raise money, but I think he is going to continue to run into problems with the left flank of the party,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist. “Pete is just getting started. He has a lot of room to grow, but it’s not guaranteed. As he continues to be seen as a top tier candidate and his stock rises, so will the scrutiny. It will be fascinating to see how he handles that.”


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