Even Though He Lost A Senate Race, Could Beto O’Rourke Win The Presidency? It’s Happened Before

A well-known figure in American history lost a bid to become a senator, then two years later went on to win the presidency.

Left, Beto O'Rourke; right, Abraham Lincoln.
Chip Somodevilla, Alexander Gardner / Getty Images

A well-known figure in American history lost a bid to become a senator, then two years later went on to win the presidency.

With the 2018 midterm elections almost wrapped up (except for a few runoff elections still left to figure out), attention is now being focused on the next electoral horse race: the presidency in 2020.

While President Donald Trump may have to fend off an internal race for his party’s nomination, it’s a pretty safe bet to assume he’s the frontrunner and likely nominee for the Republican ticket in two years. Naturally, that means attention is being put on Democrats more than Republicans, particularly which candidates have the better chance of going up against the current president when the campaign begins in earnest.

Beto O’Rourke, who ran for U.S. Senator as a Democrat in the state of Texas, lost his race to current Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz. Although he lost, the race was a close one, being the most contentious race over the past 40 years in the state, according to reporting from the Texas Tribune, losing by less than 2.7 percent to Cruz.

That’s a significant outcome — Cruz won six years earlier by nearly 16 percent of the vote ahead of his Democratic Party challenger in 2012, according to Ballotpedia. Closing the gap by that much is a significant victory, and it’s no wonder why many Democratic insiders are considering O’Rourke for a presidential run.

But should the Democrats put their bets behind someone who just lost a big race? If history is any indicator, it’s not that bad an idea.

There was another president who lost a highly-contentious senate race in the middle of the 1800s, who also went on to become president of the United States during a time of huge divide in the country. That president not only won his first election two years after his senate loss, but went on to win re-election as president four years later, and is considered one of the most important presidents — and symbols — in our nation’s history.

That president was Abraham Lincoln, who lost to Stephen Douglas in the Illinois U.S. Senate race in 1858, but went on to win the presidency itself in 1860.

Some important distinctions are worth noting here, namely that O’Rourke is not someone whose political stature matches that of Lincoln’s (at least, not yet). Also noteworthy is the fact that Lincoln lost his senatorial election at a time when state legislatures “elected” candidates to represent their respective states in the U.S. Senate.

Still, the Lincoln example serves to demonstrate that it’s not completely unheard of that a candidate for office, after losing a highly-contentious federal race in his or her own home state, could go on to win the ticket for a major party in a presidential race, and then go on to win the national election itself. Democrats who are pushing for O’Rourke likely know their history — and understand that an election loss like O’Rourke’s earlier this month doesn’t necessarily translate into him being a “bad” candidate to run for office two years from now.