AUSTIN, Texas—Revealing one of the worst-kept secrets at this year’s South by Southwest festival, filmmaker David Modigliani introduced former congressman Beto O’Rourke after the world premiere of his compelling and emotional new HBO documentary Running with Beto on Saturday afternoon.
“David asked me if he could do this one day at breakfast in Austin,” O’Rourke told the crowd after his standing ovation died down. “I was like, what the fuck, I mean, we’re running for Senate and if you want to bring a camera along sometimes… I just didn’t think it would be this.”
The documentary, which appropriately had its world premiere at SXSW, chronicles O’Rourke’s ultimately unsuccessful 2018 campaign to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). But Modigliani manages to create so much narrative tension that you start to wonder if this young, energetic, inspiring candidate might be able to pull it off in the end.
We see O’Rourke go from live-streaming to four and six people to getting thousands of viewers for his 24-hour marathon Facebook live session nearly a year before the first votes were cast. We see him figure out how to mold his appeal to voters in all 254 counties in Texas and get frustrated at his campaign staff when he doesn’t have enough time to answer questions from reporters before events.
We see the behind-the-scenes machinations that led O’Rourke to briefly abandon his otherwise positive campaign and channel Donald Trump to attack “Lyin’ Ted” at a debate, a move for which he later expressed regret. And we meet a series of dedicated and charismatic volunteers who worked their hearts out to elect him and are devastated when their dreams are dashed in the end.
The most illuminating moments in the film come in scenes of O’Rourke at home and on the road with his wife Amy and three young children. It helps put a human face to all of the jokes about how he entered a “funk” after losing to Cruz and has been slow to announce his pending decision to run for president.
As the documentary was airing, O’Rourke’s campaign sent out an email to supporters teasing a “big announcement.” “There’s been an outpouring of speculation, excitement, and support from people across the country -- everyone eagerly waiting for the news,” the email drafted by Cynthia Cano, former deputy campaign manager for his Senate bid, read. “Many of us are crossing our fingers and hoping that Beto has decided to run.”
While there was no timeline on the pending announcement, it added to widely held speculation that the Texas Democrat is poised to announce a presidential bid soon. In late February, he said that he had made a decision and was “excited to share it with everyone soon.” Aides to O’Rourke did not immediately respond to messages seeking further information from The Daily Beast on Saturday.
A likely 2020 run was on everyone’s mind in the Paramount Theater on Saturday with multiple audience members standing up to practically beg O’Rourke to enter the race.
He deftly dodged those questions, not wanting make any news from the SXSW stage. Each mention of a 2020 run drew loud cheers from the crowd, but O’Rourke didn’t take the bait.
Noting that the increased turnout in 2018 helped elect dozens of new Democrats across the state, he would only say, “We got to be part of this amazing thing in Texas over the last two years and it continues.”
Additional reporting by Gideon Resnick.