Martin O’Malley’s announcement Thursday that he will not run for president may not have upended the 2020 presidential field. But by endorsing Beto O’Rourke at the same time he revealed his own departure from the race, O’Malley significantly advanced the case for the former Texas congressman in the Iowa crucible that could determine O’Rourke’s fate if he chooses to run.
Despite O’Malley’s weak performance in the Iowa caucuses in 2016 — he dropped out of the race on caucus night after receiving less than 1 percent of the vote — the former Maryland governor has spent years cultivating relationships with Democratic donors and activists in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. Even after the 2016 campaign, he spent months appearing in the state, traveling there for fundraisers and to help down-ticket Democrats in the midterm elections.
O’Malley was at best a longshot in Iowa in 2020. But he remained connected to the state, enough to break the news of his departure in the state’s biggest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, where he simultaneously made the case for O’Rourke. He set forth a rationale for an O’Rourke candidacy that would position the Texan as a unifying figure separate from the progressive stream of Democrats now appealing to the party’s liberal base.
“People are looking for a new leader who can bring us together,” O’Malley wrote. “They are looking for a unifier and a healer. They are looking for a leader of principle, and they are now looking for a fearless vision.”
And implicitly addressing a major point of criticism of O’Rourke — that at 46 and after three terms in the House, he lacks experience — O’Malley wrote, “Because he is of a new generation, O’Rourke understands that a new way of governing — with openness, transparency, and performance — is called for to tackle our problems in the Information Age. And because he is from a border state, O’Rourke understands the enduring symbol of our country is not the barbed wire fence, it is the Statue of Liberty.”
Jake Oeth, who was O’Malley’s Iowa state director in 2016, said that when O’Malley called him with his decision not to run about two weeks ago, O’Malley had concluded that “Democrats want somebody new and fresh who hasn’t been around.”
“I think he felt … that the Democratic Party was looking for a fresh face and a new generation of leadership, and it just wasn’t his turn,” Oeth said. “He liked Beto. I think he saw the way he campaigned in Texas … I think he saw the way he connected with the growing diversity of the Democratic Party coalition, and I think he just appreciated his youthfulness and perspective.”
O’Rourke has not yet said if he will run for president and has done little to prepare for a potential campaign. If he enters the contest, he will do so with little campaign infrastructure, starting behind more established Democrats such as Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Warren announced the formation of an exploratory committee this week, and recently made public her plans to campaign across the state over the weekend.
But O’Malley’s decision not to run laid bare the limitations of starting too early — and of the uncertainty of the field more than year before the Iowa caucuses. It was O’Malley, after all, who had his leadership PAC poll Iowa caucus-goers more than two years ago, and he traveled the country extensively campaigning for Democrats in the midterm elections as he mulled another run.
Given his numerous appearances in the state, Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist, said the announcement “was a little surprising.”
“I kind of expected O’Malley to give it a go himself,” he said. “He’s just been out here so consistently in the last two or three years.”
Instead, Link said, O’Malley’s endorsement of O’Rourke underscores how wide open the process remains. While O’Rourke is also already being tested by the party’s left flank — with activists criticizing him for his membership in the centrist New Democrat Coalition and for his acceptance of campaign money from oil industry employees — the O’Malley endorsement is a reminder that “the idea that anyone who thinks they’re going to consolidate progressives, it’s going to be a hard job.”
Privately, many Democrats who worked for O’Malley in 2016 were skeptical of his prospects in 2020 — making his endorsement less significant to O’Rourke’s prospects than O’Rourke’s own surprisingly strong showing in early presidential polls. The former Texas congressman catapulted to the top tier of 2020 contenders following a closer-than-expected U.S. Senate run, raising more than $80 million — mostly from a national network of small donors — in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. But O’Malley’s vigorous endorsement nevertheless managed to thrust O’Rourke into the Iowa spotlight, providing validation from a voice who knew Iowa pretty well for an outsider..
Not everyone was convinced the endorsement would matter. Following the release of O’Malley’s op-ed Thursday, Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way said, “I have to say I was underwhelmed by the impact that it had,” describing the early endorsement as “kind of odd.”“I don’t know how anybody could decide, unless there’s somebody that has been involved in a campaign before, that they’re ready to endorse anybody in a field this large and uncertain,” Bennett said. “Beto is a very compelling figure, but he hasn’t even announced an exploratory committee … It’s still kind of all TBD.”
Terry Lierman, a former Maryland Democratic Party chairman who was treasurer of O’Malley’s 2016 campaign, called O’Malley “the essence of a great public servant in all the levels of government he’s served in, and he’s been immensely successful.”
He said, “I certainly hope he has a future in public service before him, and not just behind him.”
Asked about O’Malley’s support of O’Rourke, Lierman, who is now co-chairman of John Delaney’s presidential campaign, said O’Malley’s endorsement is consistent with another endorsement he made of a young, progressive Democrat: South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg for Democratic National Committee chairman.
Left unsaid was that Buttigieg, who is now mulling a presidential race of his own, fell far short in that campaign.