Truly transforming this country requires more than winning the White House. While Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum, and Stacey Abrams would all be amazing presidential candidates—and probably excellent presidents—they are each uniquely suited to advance the larger cause of political transformation by running again for the offices they just recently sought and fell short of attaining.
With the 2020 presidential race heating up, potential candidates staffing up, and political anticipation amping up, there is an unprecedented breadth of potential candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. More than 40 people have been mentioned or are mentioning themselves as potential candidates to date. Much of the most breathless recent speculation has centered on the possibility of El Paso, Texas’s (soon to be former) US Representative Beto O’Rourke throwing his hat in the ring, with articles describing him as the political heir to Barack Obama. Beto himself has opened the door and fueled such speculation, after previously ruling out that route during his bid for the US Senate. Two of the other rising stars from 2018 who captured the popular imagination—Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Florida’s Andrew Gillum—have also been floated as possible contenders, albeit in less fawning fashion than with Beto.
In order for the progressive movement to avoid perpetuating the same kinds of implicit racial bias that it seeks to eradicate in society at large, the question must be asked, “Why is Beto getting so much more adulation than Gillum and Abrams?” All three ran inspiring grassroots campaigns, performed exceedingly well in states Democrats have recently or regularly lost, and all, in different ways, have the “It” factor that captures imaginations and inspires enthusiasm. And in terms of who is the next Obama, it is actually Abrams and Gillum who can more accurately lay claim to that mantle, since they, like Obama, captured their nominations with overwhelming support from African Americans. In terms of winning back the White House, high levels of enthusiasm among African Americans are absolutely essential (had Clinton received the same level of support as Obama, she would now be president). Noted Brookings Institution demographer William Frey noted in his book Diversity Explosion that voters of color “were largely responsible for [Obama’s] wins.”
But as we ponder the psychological and sociological dimensions of why Beto’s smile makes Democratic hearts swoon, while the natural twists in Abrams’s hair do not, the bigger question is “How do we turn around and transform the entire country?” That work happens state by state, and that is why all three should run again in their respective states.
It is exceedingly difficult to attain progressive power at the state level, especially in the former slaveholding states. Political analyst Ron Brownstein describes the political battle in America as a struggle between the Coalition of Restoration, comprised of those who are fearful of and resistant to the country’s demographic transformation, and the Coalition of Transformation, which is largely what I call the New American Majority of people of color allied with progressive whites. The fundamental racial divide that has defined our nation’s politics for the past 400 years—and resulted in a bloody Civil War in the 1860s—is still playing out in our politics today. It is no accident that Trump followed the first black president, and the racial backlash to the browning of America is the engine that drives the current president’s political power. And race-conscious obstacles to democracy and political power were on full display in the 2018 midterm elections. From the outright voter suppression employed by the then-sitting secretary of state in Georgia, to racist appeals and mobilization in Florida, enormous barriers stood—and will continue to stand—in the way of winning elections in those states.
To win any statewide election requires widespread name recognition among the voters, a dedicated and geographically dispersed network of volunteers and organizers, and the ability to raise money, which is necessary to communicate with and mobilize voters. It usually takes many years to assemble such an operation, but now all of these elements are in place in Florida, Georgia, and Texas (as well as other red or purple states such as Arizona). For the long-term prospects of building progressive power, it is imperative to maintain, nurture, develop, and deploy those resources, first in the 2020 presidential election, followed quickly by 2022 rematches. In Texas, Beto doesn’t even have to wait until 2022, as Republican Texas Senator John Cornyn’s seat is up in 2020.
One painful lesson from the Obama era—one for which we are still paying the price—is that it’s not enough to just win the White House. You have to also build power at the state and local level. That’s how irreversible revolutions unfold. Democrats lost 968 state legislative seats and 13 governorships during the Obama era because there was no investment in the progressive electoral apparatus and many left-leaning voters were not inspired to participate when Obama wasn’t on the ballot.
Some believe that Democrats need a singular figure in order to defeat Trump. Mathematically, that actually isn’t true. Democrats have a significant structural Electoral College advantage, and the Coalition of Transformation is bigger than the Coalition of Restoration. That was even the case in 2016: Too often ignored is the fact that Clinton beat Trump by nearly 3 million votes, and Trump did not even attain a majority of the vote in the states that tipped the Electoral College—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The increase in the vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in Michigan was larger than Trump’s margin of victory in that state (Stein’s total jumped by nearly 30,000 votes over her 2012 showing, and Trump won the state by just 11,000 votes). What happened in 2016 was that the Coalition of Transformation fractured, splitting between Clinton, Stein, and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. Also, black voter participation plummeted, dropping below the levels of even John Kerry’s bid in 2004. But in 2020, that New American Majority coalition will be even bigger, as nearly 16 million young people will have turned 18 in the time since Trump took office, and so will be eligible to vote; close to half of them are people of color. And as we saw in the midterm elections, this baseline mathematical advantage can get even larger if suburban women, repulsed by the current president, side with Democrats.
With the legal walls closing in around him just as Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, it should not be taken as a given that Trump will even be the Republican nominee. Solely seeing the 2020 contest as a personality battle with Trump would be a profound miscalculation.
Taking back this country is a team effort that will involve winning back the White House and also winning state power in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, and other states. There is no shortage of credible and strong contenders for the presidency. What Democrats don’t have are candidates who are perfectly positioned to be the next senator from Texas, governor of Georgia, and governor of Florida. Attaining progressive power and leadership in those and other states—and then working hand in hand with a Democratic 46th president—is the best way to achieve the kinds of deep-rooted and long-lasting structural changes that this country desperately desires and deeply needs.