Why do failed Democrat candidates keep coming back for more?

Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have their share of celebrity candidates, but the Republicans’ celebrity candidates, if defeated, are likely to go away. The Democratic celebrity candidates of recent cycles, however, keep demonstrating a peculiar ability to turn their failures into greater fame and continue to reappear on the national stage.

This cycle, Republicans have gotten grief, some of it deserved, about “celebrity candidates.” Mehmet Oz is learning that running for Senate is harder than hosting a daytime television show, and Herschel Walker is finding that it was easier to evade linebackers than to lay out his positions clearly. (The outlook for both candidates has brightened somewhat in recent weeks.)

But if Oz or Walker fail in their bids this year, they will probably go back to private life, and you’ll never have to think about them again. (You’re not going to find many better opportunities in GOP politics than being the Republican nominee in an open-seat Senate race, in a state Trump won once, in a midterm-election year, with an unpopular Democratic president in the White House.)

Democrats have their own celebrity candidates, and they tend to come back, cycle after cycle — a bit like a not-sufficiently defeated horror-movie villain who somehow shows up in the sequel. Sure, the Democratic celebrity candidates have a little bit of experience in lower-level elected office, but that’s not really what they’re known for; they’re known as past Democratic rising stars, often a version of the Great Southern Democratic Hope archetype. And perhaps what’s most infuriating is that once you take away the media hype, the glossy profiles, the seemingly ubiquitous appearances on MSNBC shows, and the late-night-television shows . . . well, what are you left with?

It is as if, for several years now, the national media have been telling us that, “You will love Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke.” And while a large portion of Georgia and Texas Democrats — as well as plenty of Democratic grassroots donors across the country — do love those candidates, the evidence indicates that they don’t have enough support in their home states to win election to statewide office.

The last time Stacey Abrams was in elected office was August 25, 2017. For six years, she was the minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives; during that time, Republicans never held fewer than 116 of the chamber’s 180 seats, and for four years, the GOP enjoyed a nearly 2–1 margin minority.

Minority leaders don’t have a lot of say in what gets passed, but Abrams can point to a few genuine accomplishments. She derailed a tax increase on cable television, arguing it would amount to a net tax increase on most Georgians. She worked out a bipartisan agreement with Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, to overhaul the state’s Hope Scholarship program. State representative Mickey Channel, a Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee and who worked with Abrams on tax reform, told Governing magazine in 2014 that, “I find her to be a person interested in policy and the right policy. . . . I do think it’s refreshing to have somebody who can work across the aisle and do, hopefully at the end of the day, the best thing for Georgia.”

But that’s not what made Abrams famous. The country has at least 50 former state-house minority leaders who can point to a few legislative accomplishments. Stacey Abrams is famous because Democrats nationwide thought she would be elected governor of Georgia in 2018, and she came within about 54,000 votes. She then contended that she was the legitimate winner of the election and alleged illegal activity that was never proven, claiming that Georgia’s voting machines “erased 100,000 votes in 2018.” (Abrams’s arguments were later cited by infamous Trump lawyer Sidney Powell to buttress Powell’s contention that the 2020 presidential election was stolen by Joe Biden and the Democrats.)

Contending that her election victory had been stolen through corrupt election officials and rigged voting machines turned Abrams into a national Democratic Party superstar. She posed for a photo for the Washington Post in a superhero cape, surrounded by smoke. She made a cameo appearance in a Star Trek television show as the “president of United Earth.” Since her 2018 gubernatorial campaign, she has published a thriller, a standard-issue campaign book, a business-advice book, and two children’s books. Mark Ruffalo, best known for playing the Incredible Hulk, gushed, “Stacey Abrams is a real superhero. Once again saving us all.” During the 2020 presidential campaign, certain Democrats fervently argued that Abrams should be Biden’s running mate, and Abrams not-so-subtly campaigned for the job. (Biden reportedly did not have Abrams on his shortlist of ten female candidates for the job.)

The odd thing about Georgia is that it’s this once-ruby-red state that elected not one but two Democratic senators in a pair of runoffs in January 2021. Go figure: It turns out that having the president and the likes of Powell and Lin Wood arguing that the voting machines are rigged made a certain number of Georgia Republicans decide not to bother voting. Maybe Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff really were the candidates that Georgia Democrats had been waiting for . . . or maybe they just got lucky and ran in highly unusual circumstances against subpar competitors and eked out wins.

Last week, the New York Times noticed that while Warnock is running neck-and-neck with Walker, Abrams is consistently trailing incumbent Republican governor Brian Kemp. And the article offered two revealing assertions. The first, from the candidate:

In an interview last week, Ms. Abrams defended her strategy, noting that her Democratic turnout operation helped carry the state for Mr. Biden, Mr. Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff in the 2020 election cycle. “I imagine an electorate that is possible, not the electorate as if the election was held today,” she said.

Well, you had better have a backup plan to win among the electorate that exists today, no? It’s great to lead in the imaginary electorate, but the only votes that count are the ones cast in the real world.

And here’s the second eyebrow-raising assertion.

Ms. Abrams’s allies said the comparisons between her and Mr. Warnock overlooked stark differences. Ms. Abrams is a Black woman contending with sexist stereotypes about leadership, they note. She is also running against an incumbent governor with a well-built political apparatus, while Mr. Warnock’s rival, the former football star Herschel Walker, is a political novice. (Both Mr. Kemp’s and Mr. Walker’s campaigns declined to comment.)

This sounds like a preemptive excuse. When the candidate is a superhero and a superstar, her supporters aren’t supposed to fall back on, “It turns out that our state is just too sexist to elect a woman.” Also note that in the 2020 exit poll, 56 percent of Georgia’s voters were women, and 44 percent were men. In the 2018 exit poll, 54 percent of Georgia’s voters were women, and 46 percent were men. Abrams only won Georgia women by two points, 51 percent to 49 percent.

And Beto O’Rourke? The last time O’Rourke was in elected office was January 3, 2019. He isn’t famous for his time in the U.S. House of Representatives or his time on the El Paso City Council. He is famous for coming within three points of beating Ted Cruz in the 2018 Texas Senate race, and along the way generating the most insanely over-the-top, gushing national press coverage ever and the most out-of-state donations ever. Then, O’Rourke flamed out in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, as all of his jumping-on-tables, guitar-playing schticks from the Senate campaign two years started to feel gimmicky and slick. Despite a lot of “this year the political dynamics are different in Texas, and you can feel it in the air” coverage — and the flattering profiles, full of anecdotes about how using the word “mother******” energizes O’Rourke — he is consistently trailing incumbent Republican Greg Abbott in this year’s Texas gubernatorial race.

Meanwhile, some may argue that it’s unfair to put Charlie Crist on the list of celebrity candidates, as he’s actually been a governor before. But it appears that Crist has been getting in touch with his inner Alan Grayson.

A newly unearthed video shows Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee for Florida governor, comparing himself to Jesus Christ and calling Republican governor Ron DeSantis “DeSatan.” 

Earlier, he compared himself to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Look at that sign right there. You see the colors? The blue and the yellow. Does that remind you of any country that’s in the news?” he said.

After members of the audience said, “Ukraine,” Crist said, “Yeah, we’re fighting for freedom too. And Zelensky, President Zelensky, he’s amazing.”

Switching the topic back to DeSantis, Crist said: “It is crystal clear. He’s bad, we’re good.”

Charlie Crist may have once been a serious lawmaker, but he’s now rambling about how supporters of his opponent have “hate in their hearts” and how he doesn’t want their votes. Desperation for grassroots donor cash is making Crist sound like a furious MSNBC commentator, and that’s no way to win a state that’s turned red over the past 20 years.

Based on experience, does defeat really make Democratic celebrity candidates go away? Or do they just come back again, two years later, with one or two updates to their usual schtick?

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