September 9, 2022 - 3:43pm


Few have fallen from grace as fast and as hard as Robert “Beto” O’Rourke. Back in 2018, when the former congressman from El Paso ran against Ted Cruz, the “Beto” yard signs and bumper stickers were ubiquitous. Texas Democrats, long accustomed to seeing their candidates get trounced in elections, finally had hope. Even though Beto lost, it was a close thing, and Democrats began to dream that Texas might turn blue.

That enthusiasm is a distant memory now. In November Beto announced that he would run for governor of Texas against the incumbent, Greg Abbott, but months would pass before I spotted any yard signs — and I live in a county that voted for Beto in 2018.

Of course, something happened in between these two runs at power. While attempting to unseat Ted Cruz, Beto was frequently the subject of the breathless political fan fiction that Americans charmingly call “journalism”. This seemed to turn his head, as Beto decided that losing to the most unpopular man in Congress qualified him to run for the 2020 presidential nomination.

The campaign was perhaps best summed up by one wag who tweeted “O’Rourke running for president of the New York Times editorial board.” He staked out strong progressive positions, suggesting that budget should be diverted from the “overmilitarized” police, that religious organisations opposed to gay marriage should be stripped of their tax  exempt status while also declaring “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” It didn’t work: Beto dropped out of the race after his polling (and fundraising) plummeted to embarrassingly low levels. Despite that, he remained a presence in Texas politics, endorsing candidates for Congress in the 2020 election, including one in my congressional district (she lost).

And then came the decision to run for governor. Every now and again I would check in on his campaign, which I think that even his die-hard fans found a bit of a letdown. He equivocated on immigration and struggled to rekindle the popular anger against Abbott following the ice storm in February 2021. My favourite moment was when he tried to blame Abbott for hyperinflation while tweeting a picture of trucks backed up at the border with Mexico.

Then came Uvalde. Gun rights are a powerful political shibboleth for Texas Republicans, and so it was always clear that their response to the tragedy would be to do nothing, other than to say some stupid things (Ted Cruz took the gold when he suggested that the real problem was that Texas schools had too many doors). This provided Beto with an opportunity to talk compellingly about gun control but even here he flubbed it, when he crashed a press conference in Uvalde and told Abbott “this is on you”. For consumers of Democrat fan fiction this was no doubt an exciting moment, but it did nothing to move the needle on his polling. Indeed, his posturing angered Uvalde mayor Don McLaughlin so much that he called O’Rourke “a sick son of a bitch” on camera.

The end of Roe means that Texas now has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation, and Beto has gone after them with vigour… and yet still he continues to lag behind Abbott. The latest polling has him five points behind; other polls have placed him at seven points behind. Third time lucky? It seems unlikely. And disappointing his supporters for a third time will surely mark the end of his political career.

Beto will be alright, of course. He’s the son of a Democrat judge, the step-grandson of JFK’s secretary of the navy and the son-in-law of a billionaire: he has spent many years failing upwards. However, to truly understand him, I think we need to turn to 19th century Russian literature, where there was a type known as the “superfluous man”. The Encyclopedia Britannica provides a good explanation: “He is usually an aristocrat, intelligent, well-educated, and informed by idealism and goodwill but incapable, for reasons as complex as Hamlet’s, of engaging in effective action.”

This fits Beto pretty well, except for the bit about complex reasons of course — the guy just isn’t that deep. But it is certainly true that he is incapable of engaging in effective action. At age 50, the superfluous man of Texas politics is going to have to find something else to do with his life.

Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.