Democratic gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke became liberal media darlings in their 2018 bids for statewide office in red states Georgia and Texas.
They lost, but their futures as national stars appeared set. Four years later though, after countless media profiles, national interviews and endless hype, the excitement seems to be wearing off, and the press has taken notice.
“The vibe is different” this time around, Politico reported last month, saying the once “shiniest stars” of the party are no longer as exciting. There seems to be a simple reason: their respective bids for governor have not caught fire in the polls. They’re also running in a more difficult environment; in 2018, they had the benefit of political winds at their backs in President Trump’s first midterm, but now it’s a Democrat in President Biden who’s facing the common historical prospect of his party losing seats in his first midterm.
“Their anointment as the future of the Democratic Party — young, dynamic and erudite — led to glossy magazine profiles and soft press coverage that may have burnished their national profiles, but did little to advance their prospects among voters who weren’t already inclined to support them,” Politico’s Calder McHugh wrote.
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Since their 2018 defeats, O’Rourke mounted an ill-fated bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination, dropping out months before the Iowa caucuses. Abrams helped Biden win Georgia in 2020 and was floated as a possible vice-presidential candidate, but her rhetoric about losing a “stolen” election in 2018 has come back to haunt her with unwanted comparisons to Trump.
Abrams, running for governor of Georgia against Republican Brian Kemp, and O’Rourke, a Texas U.S. representative seeking to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, gave the press irresistible storylines in 2018 and hope that their success portended long-term Democratic gains in the GOP strongholds. MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, one of the media’s most fervent Democratic Party boosters, fawned over O’Rourke as one of the “best stories” of the cycle at one point. An ABC News reporter told him to his face he was a “rock star.”
“Win or lose, Beto O’Rourke set to emerge victorious,” Reuters Politics tweeted out on Election Day that year.
O’Rourke used his narrow loss as a springboard to mount a 2020 Democratic presidential campaign; he memorably appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair and declared, “I’m just born to be in it.” But his candidacy never took off and his presumptuous remarks on the cover came off as entitled to even liberal media members.
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Now, with both consistently trailing their opponents in polls – Abrams is facing Brian Kemp again in Georgia and O’Rourke is challenging Greg Abbott in Texas – there’s also more focus on the fact they may be out of step with their possible constituents.
O’Rourke has taken heat for his flip-flops on gun control; he famously said in 2019 that “hell yes” he was going to seize people’s AR-15s as he sought the presidency, a markedly different position than he had in 2018 while just appealing to Texans.
Abrams, in spite of never officially conceding her loss to Kemp, was heralded as an election reform icon and floated as a possible running mate to 2020 Democratic candidates. A Washington Post magazine story about her “power” included a widely mocked image of her silhouetted in effectively a superhero cape, while a gushing Vogue profile wondered if she could “save American democracy.”
In Georgia’s case, Abrams’ narrow defeat to Kemp continued a trend of the southern state veering toward the blue column, culminating in Biden barely beating Trump there in 2020. No Democrat had won the state in a presidential election since 1992.
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But now her refusal to officially concede, in the wake of widespread media criticism of Trump’s claims that he truly won the 2020 election, is being revisited in an uncomfortable way.
Abrams repeatedly told media figures that she never denied that she lost in 2018. She said on CNN that she has never been “unclear” about not winning. She was also pressed on a video from 2019 that showed her telling Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, “we won.” She told “The View” hosts in September that she was taken out of context and was referring to the “communities that were long left out of the electoral process finally participating in ’18 in outstanding numbers.”
During an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” she told host Shannon Bream that she repeatedly acknowledged that she is not the governor.
“What I will not do is allow the lack of nuance in our conversations to dull and obfuscate the challenges faced by our citizens,” she said.
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Abrams has also struggled to cement Black male support in the state, which is crucial to her victory strategy. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has published multiple stories about her difficulties to cement that voting bloc, and it even caught the attention of left-wing New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who wrote last month about the “softening support for Democrats among Black men.”
Also, Abrams has seen considerable mainstream media pick-up of a Fox News Digital exclusive on her election rights PAC Fair Fight doling out thousands in payments to its director’s family and friends. Fair Fight is now launching an investigation into the matter.