In politics, losing isn’t always a career ender. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush both lost U.S. House contests before winning statewide office. President Biden, of course, ran and lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for president twice before his 2020 win. For years, the saying went that in order to win statewide in Ohio you first had to lose. Former Ohio Senators John Glenn, Howard Metzenbaum and George Voinovich all lost at least one senate race in the state before ultimately succeeding.
In recent years, however, thanks to the increasing nationalization of our politics, down-ballot candidates can quickly build a brand that goes far beyond the borders of their state. In 2018, liberal Democrats across the country were wearing BETO for Senate t-shirts and sending contributions to a Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate named Stacey Abrams. Hungry for an antidote to Trumpism, and worried about an Electoral College map that depended heavily on retaining a “blue wall” of industrial states and their white, non-college voters, Democrats across the country saw in these young, dynamic candidates the possibility of a path forward. Even as they lost their bids, Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams proved that Democrats could turn fast-growing and diverse Sunbelt states blue.
Today, however, Democrats’ most lauded loser is a white guy from Ohio who gave Democrats some hope of winning back their blue-collar followers. Democratic Senate nominee Tim Ryan ran just a couple points ahead of Biden’s showing in the Buckeye state, but his strong campaign operation helped down-ballot Democrats win in key House races in the state. He also reminded Democrats that the path to both the White House and Senate control still runs through the Midwest.
Before Ryan there was Jason Kander. In 2016, the former statewide elected official and Afghanistan veteran ran for the Senate in Missouri and attracted a national following with his strong political skills and a buzzy campaign ad featuring him assembling a gun blindfolded. Like Ryan, Kander refused to concede a once swingy midwestern state to Republican dominance and provided Democrats a model for winning back to their blue collar voters.
But, Kander, Abrams and O’Rourke learned that sustaining that ‘brand’ is very difficult to do. Beto quickly pivoted to a run for President. While he had all the momentum behind him, it became clear very quickly that he wasn’t ready for the job. His 2022 run for Governor ended with a whimper as well.
Abrams resisted entreaties to run for the Senate in 2020. No one can know if she would have succeeded, but she was at the height of her popularity and strength at that point. Two years later, she faced a stronger-than-expected Gov. Kemp and a much more dire political environment.
After his loss in 2016, Jason Kander was heavily recruited to run for president and openly contemplated it. He ultimately declined and opted to run instead for Kansas City Mayor. But, just a few months into that campaign, Kander dropped out, citing his struggles with PTSD. Kander now runs a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting veteran suicide and veteran homelessness.
What does Ryan do with his newfound fame? For now, the path to the White House is closed. And, there are no obvious opportunities back home either. The state’s remaining statewide Democratic officeholder, Sen. Sherrod Brown, has said he is running for re-election in 2024. His former congressional district was won by a Democratic state Rep., Emilia Sykes. Instead, if he is going to find a political future he may, like Obama and Bush before him, have to wait for more than just one cycle before the opportunity presents itself again.
In fact, the types of ‘losers’ that Democrats have become attached to in recent years tells us more about what the party is most hopeful or worried about for the upcoming election than it does about the future for these up-and-coming candidates. In 2018, Democrats saw in Abrams and O’Rourke a pathway to opening up the sunbelt. Two years later, Democrats hold both senate seats in Arizona and Georgia, and hold the Governor’s seat in Arizona. At the same time, hopes of turning Texas and Florida blue have been deflated. In 2022, as was the case in 2016, Democrats are more focused on keeping their midwestern bunkers intact. It may not be possible to win back Ohio, but Democrats now see midwestern governors like Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania as their best potential presidential contenders for the near future.
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