Suspense: Was Beto's first day of fundraising a bust?

If ever a single day of fundraising could make or break a candidate’s campaign, it’s this guy this year against this field.

Team Beto knew it too. On Thursday morning, when he formally announced his candidacy, his campaign sent an email to supporters declaring, “What we raise in the first 24 hours will set the tone in the national conversation about the viability of our campaign.” That’s correct. If anything could instantly erase doubts about O’Rourke’s viability, a bombshell first-day number could. “The Senate campaign wasn’t a fluke,” people would say. “Those donors didn’t shower him with cash because they hated Ted Cruz. They did it because they love Beto. He’s for real.” O’Rourke had every political incentive to shout it from the mountaintop if his initial haul was impressive.

Is there any conclusion to be drawn from this clip, then, except that the first 24 hours were … discouraging?

Remember what it was that made O’Rourke famous last year. Yeah, he got close to winning a Senate seat in a red state where liberals are supposed to be DOA, but Arizona’s pretty red too and Kyrsten Sinema actually won her race there. Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams came within a whisker of winning their own races in the reddish southern states of Florida and Georgia, respectively. What made Beto Beto! wasn’t falling just short in a race he had no business winning, it was money. He raised $80 million for his campaign against Cruz, the biggest haul for a Senate race in American history. That was the alleged smoking gun that O’Rourke was an unparalleled grassroots phenomenon, someone who’d electrified not just his base in Texas but liberals across the country. It’s the entire reason he was touted as a top-tier presidential candidate after the campaign ended while Sinema, Gillum, and Abrams weren’t. Money is the measure of national Betomania! and last November the needle was off the charts.

Now he won’t share his numbers. Why?

There’s more. Beto’s not just competing against himself in fundraising in terms of matching the enthusiasm from last year, he’s competing against the rest of the field, of course. The pacesetter this year is Bernie Sanders, who raised a mind-boggling $5.9 million on his first day in the race. To that point Kamala Harris had led the field with $1.5 million in her first 24 hours. Sanders quadrupled her, serving notice to the other candidates that his base from 2016 was still intact and raring to go. Nothing else Bernie could have said or done in a day would have validated the sense that he’s the populist choice on the left as much as that fundraising number did. His supporters wanted to send a message by kicking in. You would think the same would be true of O’Rourke’s supporters, particularly given all the hype about his fundraising totals in 2018. If they wanted to show Bernie and the rest that their guy’s for real, a day-one bonanza was the way to do it.

Did they provide one?

Sanders fans especially are watching Beto’s numbers closely. They think all of Bernie’s rivals are poseurs to greater or lesser degrees but they seem to have special contempt for O’Rourke, partly because his progressive resume is so thin but partly too because they quietly worry that Beto really is a grassroots juggernaut capable of matching their own guy. No one expected O’Rourke to pull down $6 million on his first day, I think, but certainly he was expected to match or out-raise Harris. Thanks to his Senate campaign, he entered this race with a base of 743,000 donors, second only to Sanders. A first-day number anywhere in the ballpark of Bernie’s would be an impressive bit of muscle-flexing considering that Sanders is a nationally known figure from his 2016 run and Beto isn’t yet. It would announce him to the world instantly as a legit threat to win the nomination.

But so far, total radio silence from him and his team.

This isn’t just about bragging rights vis-a-vis Bernie either. You know how eager the media is to find narratives in presidential horse-race coverage. If O’Rourke’s first-day numbers are a bust, he’ll be buried under “DOUBTS SWIRL AROUND BETO AFTER DISAPPOINTING FUNDRAISING” headlines for weeks, drowning out his message to voters. Every misstep he makes, no matter how minor, will be assimilated into the not-ready-for-primetime narrative, gleefully encouraged by progressives who disdain him ideologically and righties who think he’s a tool. The stink of electoral death will be on him early. He can scrub it off if his donors rally and chip in over the next two weeks, producing a respectable quarterly haul in time for the first reports to the FEC on April 1, but if that number disappoints as well, he’ll be chased by “Beto Bust” storylines for months.

There is, of course, the possibility that his first-day numbers were actually good or even great and he’s holding them back as a surprise for sometime between now and April 1. It’d be a narrative coup if the media started pushing the “Beto Bust” line and then O’Rourke dropped a bombshell a week from now that he’s raised $10 million thus far or whatever. I’m not sure what incentive he’d have to delay the good news by a few days or weeks, though. He wants to build as much buzz as he can as quickly as he can. If his fans delivered, he’s better off announcing it now and starting the media off on shaping the inevitable “BETO’S FOR REAL” narrative.