Stacey Abrams, Beto O’Rourke, and Charlie Crist are the political versions of 1980s FM station rock bands that once played packed stadiums but these days turn up at a county fair or, on a good night, a casino theater. Now the serial Democratic candidates, who lost the 2022 governor’s races in Georgia, Texas, and Florida, respectively, may finally be exiting the political stage.
The trio’s losses stand out because Democrats did pretty well in the 2022 midterm elections. Despite President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and contrary to many election forecaster predictions, Democrats picked up governorships and are set to hold a Senate majority, while Republican House gains were much smaller than expected.
The gubernatorial defeats of Abrams, O’Rourke, and Crist represented a serious comedown of Democrats who at one time, and to varying degrees, had been chattering-class future favorites for national office. But poor political choices along the way badly damaged their brands, be it looking like a sore loser, as Abrams did, or just running (and losing) too many times, as did O’Rourke and Crist.
Abrams became a doyenne of the progressive Left during and after her 2018 gubernatorial run against Republican Brian Kemp, then Georgia’s secretary of state. A Peach State Democrat hadn’t won the governorship since 1998, and Abrams four years ago promised a new approach that was focused on energizing the party’s political base.
That meant going to the left. The former state House minority leader and Yale Law School graduate didn’t try much to chase swing and independent voters in the gubernatorial campaign. Instead, she sought to expand the Democratic electorate by focusing on highly educated professionals, who have become a potent political force in the Atlanta metropolitan area, and minority and women voters (Abrams was the state’s first black and female gubernatorial nominee).
The strategy had its successes. Abrams’s efforts to assemble a broader, more diverse coalition dovetailed nicely with Democratic gains in 2018, a rebuff to then-President Donald Trump at the midpoint of his White House term. But it wasn’t enough, as Abrams lost to GOP rival Kemp 50.2%-48.8%.
Abrams, though, won by losing — at least in the eyes of many Democrats and a sympathetic media. For months and years after the 2018 gubernatorial election, Abrams refused to concede. She acknowledged former GOP foe Kemp as the state’s governor, but wouldn’t say she actually lost. Instead, she repeated campaign trail allegations that Kemp, as secretary of state, had suppressed voter turnout by, among other things, aggressively purging voter rolls in heavily minority areas. Kemp, during his campaign for governor and now as his state’s chief executive, denied the charges.
Media coverage of then-private citizen Abrams largely lauded her. A Washington Post magazine story about her “power” included an image of her silhouetted in effectively a superhero cape. And a gushing Vogue profile wondered if she could “save American democracy.”
Abrams, though, likely turned off many potential voters with her backward-looking election claims, even as she made her intentions known about another gubernatorial run in 2022. In this year’s rematch, Abrams lost by a much wider margin, about 53%-46%.
Nov. 8 was also a bad day for Texas Democratic gubernatorial nominee O’Rourke, but it was hardly his first in recent years. In 2012, the El Paso city councilman burst onto the national political scene by beating a 16-year House incumbent in the Democratic primary to represent a newly redrawn district that took in his hometown and its suburbs in far-west Texas, along the U.S. border with Mexico.
The congressman’s political future seemed bright. A flurry of news profiles emphasized his Ivy League pedigree (he’s a Columbia University graduate) and telegenic looks, with many drawing comparisons between the toothy, shaggy-haired lawmaker and the late Robert F. Kennedy.
Yet in 2018, O’Rourke made what in hindsight seemed like a head-scratching political decision to abandon his safe House seat and challenge Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). O’Rourke mercilessly pounded Cruz as too conservative and a lapdog for Trump. The Texas Democrat then garnered attention nationwide for his campaign’s ability to draw in large numbers of people, as well as its use of social media. O’Rourke also ran for office without the aid of professional consultants, instead depending upon volunteers without experience in running campaigns.
O’Rourke drew waves of favorable media attention, but not enough votes. He lost to Cruz 50.9% to 48.3%, a difference of 214,921 votes out of more than 8.3 million statewide. And while O’Rourke couldn’t have known it at the time, he left the House just as Democrats won the majority for the first time in eight years.
Nevertheless, O’Rourke came the closest for any Democratic Texas Senate nominee in years. So, he tried to capitalize on the name recognition and positive media coverage by running for president. Yet his White House bid never took off, and he dropped out of the Democratic primary race on Nov. 1, 2019, months before any primary or caucus voters were cast.
O’Rourke, though, gambled the third time might be the charm for his political ambitions. O’Rourke declared that he would run for governor on Nov. 15, 2021, and cleared the primary field to challenge GOP Gov. Greg Abbott. But given Texas’s Republican leanings, polls indicated that O’Rourke was the underdog. And sure enough, on Nov. 8, he lost to the incumbent by about 55% to 44%.
That was hardly the worst serial candidate showing this year, though. The dishonor belongs to Crist, in Florida, who tried to resurrect a statewide political career that had faded years before.
To be sure, Crist never enjoyed waves of flattering media coverage the way onetime celebrity candidates Abrams and O’Rourke had. After all, Crist was a Republican for the first two-thirds or so of his career as an elected official.
Crist, a former St. Petersburg lawyer, in the 1990s and 2000s climbed the Florida GOP ranks, winning elections for state Senate, then statewide as education commissioner, attorney general, and finally governor in 2006. From his Tallahassee perch, Crist became a vocal booster of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s successful bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Crist himself was mentioned as a potential candidate for national office in the not-too-distant future.
But Crist, while outwardly playing the role of a loyal Republican, was already splitting from the conservative GOP base. Crist, as governor, eased voting rules for convicted felons in the state, a move at odds with the Florida Republican establishment. Crist later drew criticism from the Right for supporting the economic stimulus law enacted by President Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress.
In 2010, Crist decided to forgo a second term as governor to run for Senate. But Crist found himself upstaged by an upstart rival, state House Speaker Marco Rubio, at the time a South Florida political phenom much more in touch with the Tea Party wave building that year. Crist abandoned the GOP and instead ran for the Senate as an independent. That included moving away from his longtime conservative views on LGBT adoption and gay marriage, among other issues.
None of it helped. Crist lost the Senate election, receiving 29.7% of the vote to 48.9% for Republican winner Rubio and 20.2% for then-Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Democratic standard-bearer.
Crist never recaptured enough political appeal to run a statewide race. On Dec. 7, 2012, Crist said he had become a Democrat and 11 months later announced a gubernatorial comeback bid. Yet as the 2014 Democratic nominee against Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Crist narrowly came up short in a strong GOP year, 48.1% to 47.1%.
Crist did get some measure of political redemption two years later by winning a St. Petersburg-area House seat. Yet, while Crist had a decade earlier been the governor of the nation’s third-most-populous state, now he was just one of 27 House members from Florida. And his eye always seemed to be on another statewide run.
That is just what he pursued in 2022, winning the Democratic gubernatorial nomination for the right to challenge Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. From the campaign’s start, though, Crist was behind in the polls. On Election Day, DeSantis squelched Crist’s gubernatorial comeback bid by about 59% to 40%.
The downward political trajectory for Crist in Florida wouldn’t bode well for a political comeback at this point. The former governor has, in fact, already effectively taken a political demotion as part of a broader, though unsuccessful, plan to reclaim statewide office.
Chances seem slim, too, for Abrams in Georgia and O’Rourke in Texas to run again for statewide office. Even sympathetic journalists are unlikely to give them the benefit of the doubt about their political acumen after a series of highly touted statewide and national runs proved to be duds.
But American political history is filled with candidates who ultimately met success after serial losses. Think of Richard Nixon, winning the presidency in 1968 after losing it narrowly eight years before and then having to watch his political obituary be written after an embarrassing 1962 loss to be California’s governor. Or President Joe Biden, who in 2020 won the Democratic presidential nomination on his third try and ultimately the White House — 32 years after his first bid.
Abrams and O’Rourke, though, would have to find a way to keep themselves relevant and visible in what could be a long spell in the political wilderness. Unless and until they can find paths to be credible candidates again, they’ll be more the political equivalent of those bands from decades ago playing the oldies circuit. Where they once had roadies at their beck and call, they’re now schlepping around their own equipment on the way to their next gigs.
Not exactly as either had planned back in the salad days of their 2018 campaigns.