During the 2018 midterms two young candidates, Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke, captured the hearts and imaginations of Democrats nationwide. Yet four years later, these two hopefuls are still seeking office and in serious danger of falling short once again.
Just why exactly did these two inspire so much excitement from Democrats, and why have they so far failed to live up to those lofty expectations? Perhaps by examining their paths over these last few years, we can gain some insight into these compelling questions.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s shocking Presidential victory, Democrats across the country were on the lookout for a new young savior to emerge as their party’s leader. Beto O’Rourke definitely fit that bill.
Youthful, charismatic, and indefatigable, O’Rourke had all the Obama and Kennedy vibes that make progressives swoon. That he came from Texas, and threatened to displace despised Republican Senator Ted Cruz, were only positive multipliers.
Over in the Georgia Gubernatorial race, Abrams possessed many of the same attributes. She too was young and talented, as well as focused on flipping another growing Southern state from red to blue. Separately from Beto, she also possessed substantial legislative experience and trail-blazing potential as America’s first Black female Governor.
Ultimately, while the 2018 midterms were generally strong for the Democratic Party, Abrams and O’Rourke both narrowly lost. Those defeats, however, only seemed to further endear them to Democrats. Almost immediately, some openly pondered whether Beto’s overperformance set him up for a Presidential run.
At the same time, Abrams became a sort of liberal martyr who was felled by underhanded tactics employed by Republican nominee and then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp. She even refused to concede defeat, setting herself up to run again in 2022.
“I want to be in it,” Beto infamously told Vanity Fair. “Man, I’m just born to be in it.”
That poorly chosen declaration epitomized a presidential campaign that went from third place in April 2019 to folding up shop on November 1st.
Ironically given the Vanity Fair quote, O’Rourke’s indecisiveness is what ultimately spiked his campaign. This quality first manifested itself in the aftermath of the 2018 midterms, when Beto posted some brutally honest essays about feeling lost as he contemplated a presidential run. This languor hung over his campaign for months, until the August shooting in El Paso finally gave the candidate some focus.
Beto set out to become the most anti-gun candidate in the race, memorably declaring during one debate “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47!” Analysts instantly tagged Beto’s pledge as a gigantic gaffe that would make it nearly impossible for him to ever seek elected office in Texas again.
O’Rourke subsequently spent the pandemic campaign of 2020 publicly begging the Biden campaign to compete in Texas. The Democratic nominee was unmoved, however, and sent VP nominee Kamala Harris instead. Beto’s pre-election claims looked foolish when Trump ended up carrying the Lone Star State by five and a half points.
If 2020 was O’Rourke’s low point, it was just the opposite for Stacey Abrams. Unlike Beto, she passed on any Presidential run and remained laser-focused on winning the Governor’s Mansion in Georgia. That decision was heartbreaking to Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, who desperately wanted her to run for one of the two seats up for grabs that year. Instead, she recommended her friend, Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Of course, Abrams didn’t completely eschew national politics. For instance, she not-so-subtly auditioned to be Biden’s Vice Presidential choice. Although, as Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin chronicled in their book “This Will Not Pass”, the Biden campaign blanched at Abrams’ audaciousness.
While the Biden team might’ve laughed off her attempts to join the ticket, they took her attempts to flip the Peach State seriously. As opposed to the campaign’s treatment of Texas, Biden made multiple trips to Georgia. All that effort would pay off on Election Night…well, Election Week.
Whereas Florida, North Carolina and Ohio all disappointed the Biden-Harris team, the Democratic ticket scored a surprising victory in Georgia. Furthermore, on January 5th, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won their Senate run-offs, securing Democrats a narrow majority in the Senate.
The trio of Georgia victories made Abrams practically a deity among progressives, and set expectations even higher for her. After flipping the state, and taking both Senate seats, gaining the Governor’s Mansion suddenly felt like a fait accompli.
It’s funny just how quickly circumstances can change.
Instead of a coronation, Stacey Abrams is struggling in her rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp. FiveThirtyEight has Gov. Brian Kemp with a 3.7% advantage over Abrams, even while Warnock is running 2.7% ahead of Republican Herschel Walker in Georgia’s Senate contest.
As a result, the question of why Abrams can’t seem to get over the hump has become the dominant narrative of the race.
Meanwhile, Texas Democrats eager to recruit a challenger for GOP Governor Greg Abbott eventually turned to Beto. Not only that, O’Rourke even enjoyed a bit of a media revival in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting, as his gun remarks held new relevance.
Of course, there’s no small amount of irony in this perception flip. After all, FiveThirtyEight shows Gov. Abbott with a 7.5% lead, significantly more than Kemp’s advantage over Abrams. Yet Beto benefits from low expectations while Abrams suffers from the reputation she gained after the 2020 victories.
Regardless, it’s looking likely that neither Beto nor Stacey will win their races on November 8th.
So just why is that?
The answers are a bit clearer concerning Beto. He’s a passionate guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, but that’s not always the best attribute for a politician. Too often he seems to be reacting to the latest issue instead of proactively moving the electorate in increasingly purple Texas.
With Stacey Abrams, on the other hand, the answer is more complicated. One school of thought is that she has moved too far to the left, that the Stacey Abrams of 2022 is nothing like the effective centrist legislator she positioned herself as in 2018.
I’m not sure, though, that Abrams’ problem is political.
Even for a politician, she’s exceptionally driven, keeping a spreadsheet of life goals. She also loves the spotlight, jumping at the chance to play the President of Earth in a Star Trek TV show. She’s even a tad eccentric, writing several romance novels in her spare time.
All these traits just seem to rub Georgia voters the wrong way. Undoubtedly, these perceptions are magnified by her race and gender, making an already uphill climb even steeper.
That’s the predicament of being a stand-out politician. The very traits that make you stand out can also push voters away.