Beto O'Rourke's donors and supporters are prodding him to run for president or against GOP Sen. John Cornyn in 2020

Key Points
  • The rising Democratic star, who has been the subject of intense speculation about a possible White House run, is privately engaging with his donors and supporters about his next move.
  • Two of the options he's facing include either running for president in 2020 or for John Cornyn's Senate seat.
  • O'Rourke, for his part, has told some of his closest associates that all options are on the table.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX), candidate for U.S. Senate speaks with reporters after voting in the 2018 midterm elections in El Paso, Texas, U.S., November 6, 2018.
Mike Segar | Reuters

Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who became a Democratic superstar during his competitive but ultimately losing campaign against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, is being prodded by his top donors and supporters to make a run for either the White House or Texas' other U.S. Senate seat in 2020, CNBC has learned.

Since O'Rourke's nail-biting loss on election night, backers have encouraged him to use the statewide and national recognition he gained during the race to propel himself to a higher office, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter who declined to be named.

The Texas Democrat, for his part, has told some of his closest associates that all options are on the table, including a run for president and possibly another campaign for Senate, according to a person who recently spoke to the congressman. O'Rourke has also noted, however, that he's not ready to commit to what comes next after his final term in Congress comes to an end in January, according to this person. It is unclear when O'Rourke will make his decision.

Democrat Beto O'Rourke speaks after losing Senate race to Ted Cruz
Democrat Beto O'Rourke speaks after losing Senate race to Ted Cruz

O'Rourke had been the subject of intense 2020 speculation through much of his Senate campaign. Polls show he's among the potential candidates most popular with Democratic voters. A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll shows O'Rourke ranked third among whom Democrats prefer to be their first choice for president in the upcoming election, behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders and ahead of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

O'Rourke's campaign spokesman did not return repeated requests for comment. Yet the politician appeared to tell the gossip and celebrity news outlet TMZ in a recent interview that he wasn't ruling out jumping into the 2020 presidential race.

"You know … I haven't made any decisions about anything is probably the best way for me to put it," O'Rourke said last week. "I think everything's too fresh still for me."

In an interview with MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar, who will succeed O'Rourke in his House seat, said he should run for president. Escobar also said she asked him about his future plans at a recent dinner in Washington, D.C.

"I think he should run. I really do," Escobar said Monday. "We owe such a debt of gratitude to Beto. ... He does it in a beautiful, genuine way that really touches people, and I think that's what our country needs right now," she added.

Cornyn and O'Rourke

Texas' other Senate seat is held by Majority Whip John Cornyn, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the chamber. He is up for re-election.

A spokesman for Cornyn directed CNBC to the recent comments on NBC affiliate KXAN in Austin, Texas, about his upcoming re-election bid.

"I intend to be ready and do my homework," Cornyn said in the interview.

Cornyn would be a vastly different opponent for O'Rourke than Cruz. Throughout his run for Senate, O'Rourke cited how often he worked with Cornyn on legislation. Still, Democratic strategists believe Cornyn is vulnerable going into 2020 and there could be an opportunity for O'Rourke to pull off a victory.

"I think Cornyn is more vulnerable then Ted Cruz was in the last cycle," Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle said in an interview. "Cornyn is not a George W. Bush Republican anymore, and the right wing know he's not one of them, either," he added, meaning that he is seen neither as a traditional Republican nor a member of the GOP's hard-liners.

A combination of those factors, plus continued support from young voters, may be what O'Rourke needs to take down the veteran senator in two years, according to Angle.

O'Rourke's appeal

O'Rourke, a three-term congressman, galvanized young voters and Democratic supporters in Texas and beyond with his mix of charisma, social media savvy and a policy message at odds with that of President Donald Trump's.

His platform included calling for improvement to the Affordable Care Act, speaking out against Trump's proposed wall along the southern border and increasing federal spending on infrastructure to create construction jobs for Texans. His engagement with voters through social media and in the field also gave him a boost going into Election Day. O'Rourke often filmed himself running with supporters and driving across the state during the campaign.

Those factors helped him to break fundraising records and to come within 3 percentage points of unseating Cruz. O'Rourke would have been the first Democrat elected to represent Texas in the Senate since Lloyd Bentsen in 1970.

O'Rourke's campaign made history with its third-quarter fundraising haul of $38.1 million, raking in more than Barack Obama did in the same period in the 2008 presidential campaign and more than Hillary Clinton did in the third quarter of 2016. O'Rourke finished the 2018 election cycle raising just more than $70 million and with $10 million on hand, Federal Election Commission records show.

Texas intrigue

Even people who might take on O'Rourke and what's generally considered to be a big Democratic field in 2020 have been asking members of O'Rourke's inner circle if he will run for president.

Julian Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and twin brother of Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, has had at least one conversation with a friend of O'Rourke's and asked if he's running for president, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation.

One of those conversations happened on election night at O'Rourke's headquarters in El Paso, Texas, according to a person who spoke with Castro that night. Julian Castro was told that O'Rourke is still considering his options and is focusing on what's best for his family.

Julian Castro did not return requests for comment.

The intrigue comes after Julian Castro has reportedly met with a group of financiers about possibly jumping into the presidential election. The Castro brothers were top supporters for O'Rourke during his Senate run and joined him on his campaign tour along the Texas border.

Julian Castro told an audience at a conference on Mexican-American civil rights in San Antonio on Friday that whatever O'Rourke chooses to do, it won't impact his decision on running for president.

A person close to O'Rourke says Julian Castro's next move won't affect O'Rourke's future, either.

"I think its an independent decision for Beto. I joke with him saying, 'Well who's not running?' I think he's going to think it through for himself," this person said.

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Correction: Beto O'Rourke is a three-term congressman. An earlier version misstated the number of terms.