Richard Ojeda; Stacey Abrams; Beto O'Rourke; Andrew Gillum (AP/Getty/Salon)

Democrats seek a political phoenix: Can 2018's biggest loser become 2020's big winner?

Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, Beto O'Rourke and Richard Ojeda are all strong contenders for the 2020 presidential


Matthew Rozsa
January 7, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)

Barring the unexpected rise of a dark horse within the next few months, the Democratic presidential primaries in 2020 seem poised to be the most wide-open since 2004. After all, the 2008 primaries quickly whittled down to a face-off between a pair of incumbent senators — Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York — the 2012 nomination went to President Obama by default; and in 2016 Clinton, three years removed from a controversial stint as secretary of state, fended off a surprisingly strong challenge by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Yet while there are certain obvious parallels between the situation facing Democrats in 2020 and the one they faced in 2004 — from the presence of a Republican incumbent despised by the progressive base (George W. Bush in 2004, either Donald Trump or Mike Pence in 2020) to the party’s seemingly shallow bench — there is one crucial difference: This time around, there are four Democrats being considered as viable prospects whose most prominent recent elections ended in defeat.

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These are the names to remember: Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House Minority Leader who was denied the governorship in an election where her opponent, Brian Kemp, disenfranchised more than 340,134 of her potential voters (and who was the most-searched politician on Google in 2018); Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor who lost the Florida governorship in an upset to Ron DeSantis; Richard Ojeda, a former Army major and state senator from West Virginia who unsuccessfully ran for Congress against Carol Miller (and has already announced that he's running for the White House); and Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who fell just short of defeating Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and is a favorite among party donors. O'Rourke, it is worth noting, recently came in first in an early MoveOn straw poll that gets a sense for progressive preferences, ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont himself.

While it may seem presumptuous to speak of these four individuals as presidential prospects, it is important to remember that Abraham Lincoln’s most famous campaign prior to being elected president in 1860 was his unsuccessful bid against Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois two years earlier. What’s more, Ojeda's early announcement for 2020 suggests that he is confident about his chances, O’Rourke has refused to rule out a possible presidential bid and is already popular among the Democratic donor class, Abrams has cryptically alluded to future political ambitions and Gillum remains popular among the progressive activist voters he galvanized in November.

So are any of them truly viable?

“Anything is possible, but it's hard to see how losing a close race for statewide office in a midterm election puts you in a strong position to run for president,” Will Marshall, president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, told Salon by email. “What it signifies is that you may not be able to carry your own home state in the general election for president. If you don't think that's a serious liability, just ask Al Gore. If he had carried Tennessee in 2000 he would have been president, not George W. Bush.”

Marshall added, “Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a notable exception, but he won because four candidates split the presidential vote in 1860 as the nation divided along sectional lines.”

Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball (a website that specializes in polling analysis), was more optimistic.

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“I don’t know how much it matters,” Kondik explained. “Some recent presidents didn’t lose the election immediately preceding their presidential win, but some lost their most immediate prior election before becoming president, like Ronald Reagan (who lost the 1976 GOP nomination) and Richard Nixon (who lost the 1962 California governors’ race). Many of the recent presidents had at least one prior election loss on their resume. A recent loss gives opponents a talking point, but it may not be a deal-breaker.”

When asked about the respective merits of the four candidates, Kondik broke down his analysis.

“All of them, except probably Ojeda, have some name recognition among Democratic voters nationally and some small-dollar fundraising strength,” Kondik noted. “O’Rourke is probably both the best-known and has the most fundraising potential. Ojeda being a self-described Trump voter is likely a problem, as is the fact that he’s most anonymous of the four. The FBI investigation into Tallahassee government still hangs over Gillum’s head. None of these candidates also have much high-level political experience (none have been a senator or a governor, which remain important feeder offices to the presidency). The Democratic Party remains the more technocratic of the two parties, and a lack of high-level governing experience plagues all four.”

Marshall observed that with one exception each of these candidates would be afflicted by the same problem — the fact that, while they could have been contenders had they won in their red states, the hard truth is that they lost.

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“With the exception of Gillum, who came achingly close in a key swing state, Abrams, O'Rourke and Ojeda all ran impressive races in solidly red states. Had any of these candidates won, they would be hot political properties. But they didn't, so it's hard to see why Democrats would pin their hopes on any of these candidates in the presidential race,” Marshall explained.

Marshall also pointed out that, if the Democrats wish to win in 2020, they need to focus on moving beyond their core constituency.

“The most important quality the next Democratic nominee should have is the ability to expand the electoral map,” Marshall pointed out. “To build on their midterm successes, Democrats need candidates who can win college-educated suburbanites alienated by Trump and reduce their losing margins with blue-collar and rural white voters. These candidates should be pragmatic rather than dogmatically ‘progressive’ and have crossover appeal with mainstream voters across the nation's vast midsection. To find candidates like this, Democrats should look beyond the media's fixation on Washington-based politicians from deep blue states who supposedly ‘excite the base’ but have little power to expand the party's base.”

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Kondik offered a somewhat contrasting view.

“I would think that the nominee will have to be liberal on hot-button social issues: gay rights, abortion, and gun control,” Kondik explained. “I also wonder whether the Democratic electorate will be looking to nominate someone who is not a straight white male in order to provide a contrast to Trump and his largely white coalition. Presidential voters also are generally looking to be inspired, so I would think some oratorical talent will be needed to stand out in what seems likely to be a very crowded field.”

For one more perspective, I asked Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who is himself considering a run for president in 2020.

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"I’ve spent a lot of time getting across the country, not just to the early primary states but places like Alabama and Indiana and going to places that Democrats don’t necessarily always go," Swalwell told Salon. "What I see, whether it’s in Huntsville, Alabama or Columbus, Indiana is that people want new energy, new ideas and a new American confidence. I don’t think we can count on the same old leaders to solve the same old problems, so that’s why I’m considering it. I’ve been in Congress going on four terms."

Each of these candidates has qualities which Democratic primary voters would be wise to seek in their eventual nominee, whether he or she comes from this list or is absent from it.

Abrams has an inspiring personal story, would break a major glass ceiling as America’s first female president and has a credible claim to having been cheated out of a major election win. Gillum was able to appeal to the most humanitarian policy aspirations of the Democratic Party base, a potential motivation for apathetic would be voters. Ojeda is able to articulate populist economic ideals in a way that doesn’t scare red state voters and, as a military veteran, can claim that his patriotism is beyond question. And O’Rourke has an Obamaesque capacity to inspire.

In other words, there is no reason for Democrats to think that they don’t have good options in 2020 from the crop of 2018 losers. Like the mythical phoenix, from the ashes of defeat strength rises.

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Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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