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Democrats nudge Beto O'Rourke toward 2020 run after closer-than-expected Texas race

Updated 8:49 PM ET, Thu November 8, 2018

(CNN) - Rep. Beto O'Rourke's closer-than-expected loss Tuesday has fueled optimism among his friends and allies -- as well as Democratic admirers across the country -- that he will run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

O'Rourke smashed online fundraising records on the way to coming within 3 percentage points of unseating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. He ended the campaign with the tools, including a massive email list and a national progressive following, to remain a force in Democratic politics. But he hasn't signaled, even privately, what his next move will be.

O'Rourke huddled with senior campaign aides Wednesday in El Paso, but offered them no indication of future political plans -- saying he first planned to spend time at home with his family after nearly two years on the road and process the election's results before weighing what comes next, one person present for the conversations said.

Another source described having "very initial discussions" with O'Rourke in recent weeks about the prospect of a 2020 bid and what it would take to scale a Senate campaign that operated largely on the candidate's own gut, without pollsters or a massive team of consultants, up to the national level. But the source said it's too early for O'Rourke to have made any decisions.

Publicly, O'Rourke has flatly ruled out the possibility of a presidential run.

"The answer is no," O'Rourke said at a CNN town hall in October when asked about the prospect of a presidential campaign.

"Our children are 11, they're 10, and they're 7 years old. We've told them we're going to take these almost two years out of our life to run this race, and then we're devoted and committed to being a family again," he said.

Pressed again, he said, "It's a definitive no."

He told MSNBC on Monday, "I will not be a candidate for president in 2020. That's I think as definitive as those sentences get."

Despite O'Rourke's comments, staffers on his Senate campaign have discussed a potential 2020 presidential run, with many of them hopeful he will ultimately enter the race, multiple people involved in those conversations said.

There is a belief within O'Rourke's camp and among his allies that the campaign's innovative approaches to digital and organizing -- which led to vast increases in young and Latino voters in Tuesday's midterm election -- set O'Rourke apart from other 2018 candidates. More importantly, they see O'Rourke as uniquely able to deliver a progressive message with a tone that is optimistic and not overly partisan.

"I don't know what he'll decide to do next, but I do think he's well positioned to be a major leader in 2020 and someone that can mobilize people from around the nation with his very independent and unique and progressive approach to politics," said Cristóbal Alex, the president of the Latino Victory Fund and a Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign veteran who like O'Rourke is an El Paso native. "What Beto has shown is that he can champion the values of the community without vilifying the other side."

The most significant obstacle for an O'Rourke 2020 bid could be timing.

O'Rourke just ended a campaign in which a defining feature was his grueling travel schedule, visiting all 254 Texas counties. In livestreams on Facebook in the race's closing days, he was blunt about looking forward to time with his wife and three young children once the race had ended.

Meanwhile, other big-name 2020 presidential candidates are already at the starter's gate. At least five potential candidates -- Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and billionaire activist Tom Steyer -- are in talks with prospective staffers and consultants this week, said several Democratic sources interviewing for those roles themselves or with friends who are doing so.

O'Rourke's campaign team was largely made of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign veterans who are certain to have options to join presidential campaigns and are now trying to determine their own futures.

Other 2020 prospects are anxiously waiting to see what O'Rourke would do. If he were to run, he would be a threat to another potential Texas candidate, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, as well as progressive grassroots favorites like Warren and Sanders.

Democratic activists and strategists have lauded O'Rourke for running one of 2018's most compelling campaigns. He raised $70 million after pledging to take no money from political action committees -- which meant turning Democratic-friendly groups like unions away, a step further than other Democrats who have only rejected corporate PAC money. And moments like his defense of NFL players who kneeled for the National Anthem could play better with Democratic primary voters than they did with swing voters in Texas.

Progressives also saw him as cool, in part because everything O'Rourke did -- from livestreaming a cross-country drive with Republican Rep. Will Hurd before launching his campaign, to skateboarding across a stage in Corpus Christi in October -- happened on camera, often broadcast on his own Facebook page. The competitive Senate race also helped Democrats notch major wins elsewhere on the ballot, including picking up Dallas- and Houston-area congressional seats.

Cruz chief strategist Jeff Roe said Democrats "don't have anyone of his caliber on the national stage. I pray for the soul of anyone who has to run against him in Iowa."

"He used a fog machine at his concession speech," Roe said. "He ain't done."

Democrats in early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire say they haven't yet received any signals from O'Rourke's camp that he's even considering a presidential run.

But they're watching closely and waiting.

"Everybody here was watching that race with great interest," said veteran Iowa Democratic strategist Jeff Link. "He was just impressive. He ran a different kind of campaign. He was young, he had a message of hope and opportunity. It was a well-run operation."

Link said he had been skeptical that O'Rourke could quickly turn from losing a statewide race to running for president. Then, he said, he watched O'Rourke come surprisingly close to unseating Cruz, who won the 2016 Republican caucuses in Iowa, and changed his mind.

"Then the second thing -- and this is maybe even more impressive to me -- is just the level of turnout in Texas was amazing," he said. "I think we need somebody who can increase turnout, particularly among younger voters, as we look to 2020."


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