Beto O’Rourke Is In, But How Successful Have House Members Been?

On Thursday, Beto O’Rourke announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination. I didn’t respond with a post since just a few days earlier I shared his spot (#2) in my first 2020 Power Rankings. I assumed that he’d run, despite his high-profile hemming, hawing, and Hamleting.

What did catch me off guard, however, was the hilariously negative stories that had clearly been waiting for his entry. Did the opposition pounce or did it pounce?

You can almost picture Republican, Sanders, and Harris operatives making sure news outlets had these stories ready to go once he announced. They’re clearly more worried about him than, say, Cory Booker or Kirsten Gillibrand, and for good reason. He’s a fundraising machine and a Democrat that nearly won Texas.

Of course, the media hit jobs shouldn’t impact your views on O’Rourke. What is a legitimate criticism, however, is his troubling lack of specificity on policy. You can just picture Elizabeth Warren, with her detailed, multi-point proposals that she knows forwards and backwards, losing her mind behind the scenes as O’Rourke rides in on his white steed and steals the show. It’s akin to Hillary Clinton squaring off against Donald Trump three years ago. “Can he go in depth on ANY issue? How are people falling for this?! I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

Still, as I noted in his Power Rankings write-up, that kind of superficiality was not only part of Trump’s historic run, but it was also part of Senator Obama’s primary campaign. I think we can agree those campaigns turned out pretty well. O’Rourke greatest advantage in the primary will not be wonkish language and detailed policy proposals, but rather his celebrity status — precisely the attribute that helped the last two presidents get elected. Many Democratic voters were taken with his campaign, especially young, millennial ones. This appeal, of course, eats into Sanders’s base, hence the earlier war from Sanders supporters on O’Rourke.

Sanders and other progressives also have ideological concerns with an O’Rourke presidency, since he is not one of them. He certainly leans moderate and has in fact voted with President Trump’s position about 30 percent of the time — surely a rate that will lead this field of candidates. His willingness to cross the aisle made him an appealing Texan Democrat, but he’ll have to downplay this centrism nationally for the primary then reclaim it if he wins the nomination, a seesaw that creates new problems all its own. Still, though no Democrat could truly help heal this country’s increasingly heated divisiveness, Biden, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke could probably come closest. (R.I.P. the Sherrod Brown candidacy that never was.)

But we’ll have plenty of time to talk campaign for the next year. For now, I wanted to address how unusual it is for someone of O’Rourke’s comparatively minor experience to become president. A list of our presidents’ relevant experience displays vice presidents (14), governors (17), senators (15), cabinet members (8), major generals or higher (6), and World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Famers (1). Many of those overlap — some presidents held two or more of those offices — but that list just about covers every president.

Except two.

Of the 44 people men to be president, just two were members of the lowly House of Representatives as their highest office before becoming commander-in-chief. That’s a testament to how hard it is to convert the representation of a tiny U.S. Congressional district into a national victory.

Perhaps O’Rourke can learn lessons from the most successful attempts. Below, I’ve ranked (what else?) the ten most noteworthy presidential runs from members of the House, culminating in the two cases where they became president.

10. Shirley Chisholm (1972): Success is relative. In 1972, Congresswoman Chisholm of New York became the first black major party candidate to run for president, and she did it as a woman. It was a campaign that faced all sorts of hurdles, though she did finish top four in some states on her way to earning 28 of the about 3000 delegates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. (After leading contender and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey realized he couldn’t beat eventual nominee George McGovern, Humphrey released his black delegates to vote for her at the convention, a classy move that helped jump her total to 152 delegates and fourth place overall.) Ultimately, she earned 430,000 votes (2.69%) and served as an inspiration to many more. Success is relative indeed.

9. Dick Gephardt (1988, 2004): This Democratic Congressman and Missouri native twice charged hard into a primary only to hit a wall early in the process. In 1988, his plucky, underfunded, retail campaign won Iowa and came in second in New Hampshire, but by the national Super Tuesday — the first that resembles today’s version, which always previews the winner — he couldn’t compete with the more well-funded and nationally known Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis, the latter of which eventually won the nomination. He finished with only three states won and the fourth most votes and delegates.

He returned to the House as its Majority (and then Minority) Leader before trying for the White House again in 2004. In Iowa polling for the year leading up to the caucuses, he either led or finished a close second to Howard Dean. The two men therefore began attacking each other in earnest ahead of the contest, allowing John Kerry to surge past them both, win the caucuses, and use the victory as a springboard to the nomination.

8. Ron Paul (1988, 2008, 2012): The 1988 bid came as the Libertarian nominee and netted the Texan just 0.5 percent of the national vote. Things got more interesting when he resurrected as a Republican years later and twice ran for its presidential nomination. In both 2008 and 2012, his campaigns enjoyed nationally popular grassroots funding from the party’s libertarian base. His debate performances brandished an ideological, impassioned call to purify the party and scale back America’s costly commitments over seas. He became America’s favorite crazy, old, antiestablishment uncle — that is, until Bernie Sanders said, “Hold my ale.”

Notably, his devout supporters clashed with mainstream Republicans on a number of issues, most prominently America’s overextended foreign policy, a position deemed unacceptable to the party at large. (Curiously, four years later they nominated someone who agreed with him.) In 2008 his candidacy was full of fourth and fifth place finishes on his way to fourth place overall with just 35 delegates before John McCain took the nomination without Paul’s endorsement. He did better in 2012, often finishing in the top three, including winning over 20 percent in the Iowa caucuses (with a 3rd place finish) and the New Hampshire Primary (2nd behind eventual nominee Mitt Romney). He ultimately finished third overall with 177 delegates.

Interestingly, the closest he got to the presidency was actually four years later. In the 2016 election, he earned an electoral vote from a Republican-pledged elector who couldn’t bring himself to vote for Donald Trump and submitted a Paul-Pence ballot.

7. James B. Weaver (1880, 1892): Oh, you’ve never heard of a two-time third-place finisher in presidential elections? Shame on you!

In truth, I didn’t know anything about him either. In 1880, this Iowa Congressman earned the nomination of the short-lived Greenback Party, a sort of proto-Populist group that was pro-labor and anti-corporation. Its name derived from favoring the circulation of more cash that wasn’t necessarily backed by bouillon cubes. No, wait, just bullion. He earned 3.35 percent of the vote.

Twelve years later, the Greenback ideology was resurrected in the People’s Party (later called Populists), which dusted off Representative Weaver and sent him back out on the campaign trail. Its coalition of the Farmers’ Alliance, labor interests, and former Greenbacks was not unformidable; Weaver earned a million votes — a not too shabby 8.5 percent of the total — and even won five states, making it the first third party to win electoral votes since the Civil War.

And you never even heard of him.

6. Henry Clay (1824): Clay is a considerably higher profile Congressman of American history. Though the Kentucky Representative used the election of 1824 as a springboard into the State Department, the U.S. Senate, and two more runs at the presidency, as of 1824 his highest office was as the incumbent Speaker of the House of Representatives. (Truth be told, he had two short, forgettable, replacement stints in the U.S. Senate while still in his young 30s — one for two months, one for fourteen — but it’s as a member of the House that he became a national name worthy of a presidential run.)

With the exception of the Election of 1800, the Election of 1824 was, to that point, the most exciting presidential race in the young country’s history. Four viable candidates found themselves as contenders, and they were all from the same Democratic-Republican Party that had outlived the Federalists to become the last original major party standing. (The Democratic-Republicans soon fragmented into the Democrats and Whigs.) Two of the four candidates were cabinet members in President James Monroe‘s outgoing administration — State Secretary John Quincy Adams and Treasury Secretary William Crawford — while a third was deployed by President Monroe as America’s leading general — Andrew Jackson. Only Congressman Clay stood apart from the popular president, which is part of the reason why he finished fourth on election day with 37 electoral votes to Jackson’s 99 (who also led with 41 percent of the popular vote), Adams’s 84, and Crawford’s 41. Clay did finish third in the popular vote, however, with a healthy 13 percent to Crawford’s 11.

Since no candidate finished with a majority vote, the election went to the Twelfth Amendment’s tiebreaker rules, which ruled out Clay on account of his fourth place finish but at the same time gave the Congressional chamber he led, the House of Representatives, the power to determine who among the top three should be president. Despite Jackson’s popular and electoral vote win, Speaker Clay used his influence in the House to support Adams; Clay was much more aligned with Adams ideologically and had a general skepticism that Jackson, whose greatest achievements were military as opposed to Adams’s accomplished diplomacy, was qualified for the presidency. As a result, Adams won the House election and became president. Suspiciously, Adams then asked Henry Clay to be Secretary of State — the position held by four of the first six presidents — which he accepted and therefore became the heir apparent to the White House. Some, like Jackson, thought this was a “corrupt bargain,” and the shenanigans were used as a rallying cry four years later when Jackson won the rematch.

Regardless, Speaker-turned-Secretary Clay continued to pad his resume. He later served in the Senate for nearly two terms and spearheaded compromises between the north and south that averted civil war until a few years after his death. He’s now considered one of America’s greatest nineteenth century statesmen. That’s a rather successful presidential bid from a House member if I ever heard one.

Despite the relative success of the above Representatives, none of them actually won a major party’s nomination. Only five have. With my next post, I’ll tell you who.

See you then.


8 thoughts on “Beto O’Rourke Is In, But How Successful Have House Members Been?”

  1. […] Yesterday, I noted how rare it was for a political official who, like Beto O’Rourke, has topped out in the House of Representatives to then go on to have a strong run at the presidency. I then shared a few of those admirable runs, though none won a major party’s nomination. In fact, only five have done so, and, of those five, only two became president. […]


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