The Art of Losing: A Beto O'Rourke Story, Part II
The story of the first Presidential campaign to claim divine right to rule.
On my time on the internet, I’ve seen people go out of their way to defend some strange things, not the least of which are failed political campaigns. There are some obvious ones, of course: Bernie’s efforts in 2016 and 2020 for those on the left, Clinton’s ill-fated Presidential campaign in 2016 for those more to the right. There are people who swear by efforts that failed to get off the ground at all, from Kamala Harris to Elizabeth Warren to Pete Buttigieg. There are those who look into the past to litigate campaigns that haven’t been litigated in a generation: people who have made the point that John Kerry’s electoral coalition in 2004 was actually quite efficient, give credit to Gerald Ford’s miraculous near-comeback against Jimmy Carter in 1976, and pointed out how close Hubert Humphrey came to defeating Richard Nixon in 1968 with everything stacked against him.
And these are just campaigns in living memory. I’m certain that if you look hard enough, you’ll find people out there running defense of the likes of DeWitt Clinton and Benjamin Harrison. However, there has proven to be one exception to this seemingly limitless capacity for the politics-obsessed to take up lost causes. I have, to this date, never seen a single person come to bat for Beto O’Rourke’s failed campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2020. Of course, his campaign had supporters—some very memorable supporters, in fact. But ever since the quiet death of his candidacy, I have yet to see someone defend his effort.
As far as a consensus can be established, everyone recognizes that his campaign was an utter disaster. Every aspect of it in the collective memory is something embarrassing or bizarre. From the way he announced his campaign, to the way he campaigned, to even his most basic attempts to appeal on policy, he seemed to make, if not the worst, the strangest possible moves at every turn. All of it culminated into one of the primary’s signature flame-out efforts. Even to those not particularly invested in Texas politics or O’Rourke’s career, there is a clear understanding of what this failure meant: the end of his career.
The verdict is still out on that part. But either way, it is undeniable that O’Rourke’s decision to run for President in 2020 was the principal inflection point of his career so far. And to truly understand his run, why it happened, what it says about his brand of politics, and its consequences for the future of Texas, you have to travel all the way back to November 6th, 2018: election night, when the fate of O’Rourke’s career was in his hands for the last time.
Midnight at 8PM
For most Presidential campaigns that fail as early as O’Rourke is, one of the greatest challenges can be figuring out why they decided to run in the first place. This is not the case for O’Rourke. He ran for a clear reason: he gained a lot of attention over the course of his Senate run, and he pulled through with a very solid performance against a well-funded incumbent. Looking at the results in Texas, even years after the fact, you can still see why liberals were excited and intrigued by him. But benefitting also O’Rourke, perhaps even more than his actual performance, was how his performance was perceived.
This is an important distinction. While often overlooked, the manner in which results come in on an election night can be just as important in determining how people remember an election as the actual results themselves. A classic example of this is the 2020 Presidential election. While Biden would ultimately win with a decisive electoral college majority, his victory is mostly remembered for how long it took to be called, along with his come-from-behind victories in several major swing states. This most obviously resulted in a massive wave of election denial and far-right conspiracizing, but also had a more subtle effect of reducing Biden’s perceived mandate, as the election was thought to be much closer than it actually was.
In the 2022 elections, this occurred in the reverse. Major Democratic victories in marquee contests were called within hours of the polls closing. At the same time, slow counting in Western states left the House undecided for a full week. As political media grappled with the results over the subsequent days, Republicans were bereft of even a single signature flip to champion. By the time the House was officially called for the party, a consensus had already been firmly established that the election had was an utter disaster for them. This made figures like Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp, whose races were called much earlier, look that much stronger relative to the national party.
But of all the elections in recent memory, there has perhaps been no larger gap between how the results were initially perceived, and what they ultimately were, than 2018. Trump’s first and only midterm election, was, as we all know now, a smashing success for Democrats. They flipped dozens of House seats, over half a dozen governorships, and won 24 of the 35 Senate seats on the ballot. But mostly forgotten now is that when the results first came in, they were seen as poor for Democrats.
Very poor, in fact.
Timing would massively obfuscate Democratic strength for a significant period of time. It started from the very beginning, when the polls first closed in Indiana and Kentucky. Those watching cable news at these early hours were presented with two major races in these states: incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana’s bid for re-election against Mike Braun, his Republican challenger, and retired Lieutenant Colonel Amy McGrath’s bid against incumbent House Republican Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th district.
The party immediately got off to a rough start. The first counties to be fully reported in Indiana were in the rural south of the state, and Donnelly was massively underperforming his numbers from 2012. In Kentucky, it was clear that McGrath wasn’t receiving the numbers she needed out of Lexington, while Barr was holding strong in the surrounding rural counties: an ominous sign that sealed off what many Democrats had hoped would be the party’s first flip of the night.
Liberals barely had time to process what was happening before the clock struck 7, marking the closing of the polls in Virginia, Georgia and Florida. This was the big time. Kentucky and Indiana were one thing, but now it was getting real. All three states of these states were highly diverse, highly suburban, and idolized as the future of the Democratic Party ever since its collapse in the Midwest in 2016. They contained a bevy of House districts and statewide offices the party was hoping to flip.
But as the results came in, things hardly seemed any better. In Georgia, where the count progressed slowly, rural counties reported first, providing Republicans a massive lead in the state that persisted throughout the night. In Florida, on the other hand, the count progressed rapidly, providing a clear picture of the state early on. It also just so happened to be that Florida would end up being one of the strongest states for Republicans in the entire country that year. Their nominee for Governor, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, had led in the polls by significant margins, but was locked in a dead heat with his Republican opponent…with entirety of the panhandle still yet to report. The state’s sitting Democratic Senator, Bill Nelson, seen as even surer of a thing than Gillum, was also on the brink.
It was this moment, at around 8PM, that would be the Dark Night of the Soul for the nation’s well-informed liberals. As the count in Florida came closer to completion, many of the districts in the state thought to be competitive before the election turned out to be clear Republican wins. The most important of these was the state’s 15th district, stretching from the outskirts of Tampa to the outskirts of Orlando. This district was factored in almost every model and election board as a bellweather tossup race. But the Republican candidate was winning solidly. More than just another ominous sign for the party, the information from this one specific district began significantly affecting live models of the election—one live model in particular.
FiveThirtyEight had given Democrats overwhelming odds to flip the House for the entire election. But now, it suddenly reversed course. It wasn’t just projecting that Democrats wouldn’t have a wave election. It wasn’t even saying that Republicans had a slightly better outside shot at holding their ground. It was projecting the unthinkable.
It had Republicans favored to win the House.
And it was right then, at this moment, when the results started coming in from Texas.
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