2022 midterns

No, Stacey Abrams Is Not a ‘Superstar Loser’

Win or lose in 2022, Stacey Abrams is the most successful Democratic gubernatorial candidate of this century. Photo: Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

It’s a stressful time of year for us political scribblers, so on doctor’s orders, I try not to react emotionally to anything I read. But I have to make an exception in responding to Jacob Stern’s piece in The Atlantic chiding Democrats for “falling for” candidates he calls “superstar losers,” like Beto O’Rourke, Amy McGrath, Jaime Harrison, and … Stacey Abrams.

Stern makes some entirely valid points, especially this one: “Online fundraising platforms such as ActBlue and WinRed give even state-level candidates the ability to draw support from — and build a following among — donors all across the country, a phenomenon that David Karpf, a political scientist at George Washington University, told me has nationalized local and state races.”

So these newly minted national celebrities now have the financial wherewithal to overwhelm potential primary competitors in the same states in which they lost elections but won a gold-plated donor base. That could at least partially explain McGrath’s ability to put together one of the most expensively unsuccessful general-election campaigns ever, her 2020 Senate challenge to Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, after losing a House race.

But O’Rourke of Texas and Harrison of South Carolina ran financially viable statewide candidacies in places where Democrats had all but given up hope, helping down-ballot candidates (as Stern acknowledges) and generally throwing some fear into the GOP (which had to counter-spend like drunken sailors to beat O’Rourke in 2018 and Harrison in 2020; this has some value of its own).

To be very clear, Abrams isn’t a recycled loser who would have been forgotten in Georgia without her national fame and fundraising power. In narrowly losing in 2018, she was the most successful Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate of this century — and the first woman and first Black person to win a gubernatorial nomination in Georgia — and built both the financial and strategic infrastructure for the Democratic Party that carried the state for Joe Biden and flipped two Senate seats, giving Democrats their trifecta in Washington. Who else are you going to run for governor in 2022?

I know Stern didn’t explicitly say this, but his implication is that “superstar losers” are selfishly blocking the careers of other Democrats who might fare better than they have in their post-defeat comeback tries. There’s nothing selfish about Abrams. She could almost certainly have been a U.S. senator in 2020 or dedicated herself entirely to the flourishing national political career she was indeed enjoying. But she wanted to finish what she had started in Georgia, and Georgia Democrats were joyful, not resentful, that she wanted another shot at Brian Kemp.

Yes, she’s trailing in the polls as the general election approaches, but Georgia’s majority-vote requirement means she may get another chance in a December runoff, just as Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff did after the 2020 election. She has without question been unlucky this cycle. No one could have anticipated that Kemp would so easily dispatch the primary opponent Donald Trump had recruited to purge him, leaving the incumbent with a united GOP, a much better image among swing voters and even Democrats, and a healthy state budget surplus that has given him many ways to buy popularity. Add in the national pro-Republican breeze blowing across the electoral landscape and there’s no question Abrams has been fighting an uphill battle.

In any event, people in politics should not be so hasty to dismiss those who fail to win an election or two as “losers” of any variety. Stern mentions Abraham Lincoln (who lost the 1858 Senate race in Illinois before winning the presidency in 1860) as an early example of a successful comeback candidate who earned national fame while losing. An awful lot of other presidents made comebacks too. Grover Cleveland famously won, then lost, then rewon the presidency. FDR was an unsuccessful vice-presidential nominee. LBJ lost his first presidential nomination bid, as did Ronald Reagan. George H.W. Bush lost two U.S. Senate races and a presidential bid before becoming vice-president and then president. His son George W. Bush lost an early House race — as did Barack Obama. Bill Clinton lost his first gubernatorial reelection contest. And long before social media or online campaign-finance sites, some politicians were repeatedly renominated for high office as a matter of principle despite their prior losses, including Democratic presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson (twice) and William Jennings Bryan (three times).

So let’s not be too quick to hang the L on any candidates if people still want to support them.

No, Stacey Abrams Is Not a ‘Superstar Loser’