Democrats Keep Falling for ‘Superstar Losers’
In the early 2000s, the Japanese racehorse Haru Urara became something of an international celebrity. This was not because of her prowess on the track. Just the opposite: Haru Urara had never won a race. She was famous not for winning but for losing. And the longer her losing streak stretched, the more famous she grew. She finished her career with a perversely pristine record: zero wins, 113 losses.
American politics doesn’t have anyone quite like Haru Urara. But it does have Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams. The two Democrats are among the country’s best-knownpolitical figures, better known than almost any sitting governor or U.S. senator. And they have become so well known not by winning big elections but by losing them.
Both Abrams and O’Rourke have won some elections, but their name recognition far surpasses their electoral accomplishments. After serving 10 years in the Georgia House of Representatives, Abrams rose to prominence in 2018, when she ran unsuccessfully for the governorship.
before running unsuccessfully for the Senate, then the presidency. And they are both running again this year, Abrams for governor of Georgia, O’Rourke for governor of Texas. They are perhaps the two greatest exponents of a peculiar phenomenon in American politics: that of the superstar loser.
The country’s electoral history is littered with superstar losers of one sort or another. Sarah Palin parlayed a vice-presidential nomination into a political-commentary gig, a book deal, and a series of short-lived reality-TV ventures. The landslide defeats that Barry Goldwater and George McGovern suffered made them into ideological icons. I’m talking about something a little more specific: candidates who become national stars in the course of losing a state-level race. There have been far fewer of these. There was William Jennings Bryan, who lost a race for the Senate in 1894, then ran unsuccessfully for the presidency three times. And there was the greatest of all the superstar losers, the one-term representative from Illinois whose unsuccessful Senate campaign nonetheless propelled him to the presidency two years later: Abraham Lincoln.
But never before has such small-scale loserdom so often been sufficient to achieve such large-scale stardom. Apart from Abrams and O’Rourke, there have also been other examples in recent years. Jaime Harrison made an unsuccessful bid for the DNC chairmanship, then an unsuccessful bid to unseat Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, and then a second bid, this time successful, for the DNC chairmanship. MJ Hegar, a Texas Democrat, lost a close House race in 2018, then a not-so-close Texas Senate race in 2020. Amy McGrath likewise used a close loss for a House seat, hers in Kentucky, to launch a Senate campaign against Mitch McConnell that ended in a 20-point loss. This, it seems, is the golden age of the superstar loser.
Superstar loserdom has not been historically tracked, so it’s hard to say with certainty whether it’s really on the rise. But the general sense among the experts I spoke with was that it is. “I do think it is something that we’ve seen more of,” John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, told me. Why, exactly, is a complicated question, the answer to which involves various conspiring forces, some technological, some political, some demographic.
Let’s start with Lincoln. His 1858 Senate race against Stephen Douglas produced some of the most celebrated rhetoric in American political history, but without the advent of shorthand, stenographers could not have taken down the hours-long Lincoln-Douglas debates word-for-word. Without the country’s new railroad and telegraph networks, those transcripts could not have been transmitted all across the country.
“Earlier in the century, Lincoln couldn’t possibly have become a national figure,” Pitney told me. “He might have made the same brilliant arguments, but nobody outside of Illinois would have ever heard them.” In that sense, his superstar loserdom—and his eventual ascent to the presidency—must be credited as much to the technological advances of the preceding decades as to the power of his speeches.
The same might be said of today’s superstar losers. 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.
Candidates also have other tools to thrust themselves into the spotlight in a way they never have before—cable TV, podcasts, social media. Both Abrams and O’Rourke are skilled at using social media, and he in particular is a master of the viral moment (see his interruption of a press conference that Governor Greg Abbott held after the Uvalde shooting or his recent outburst at a heckler). Even when the campaign ends, no one can stop you from posting. Unlike a generation ago, “there are lots of avenues in the media today for former candidates to keep having their views known and to continue to be a spokesperson,” Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, told me. (Neither the Abrams campaign nor the O’Rourke campaign agreed to an interview for this story.)
It would be wrong, though, to chalk up the staying power of superstar losers entirely to their social-media dexterity or telegenic appeal. In the end, “politics is a lot of What have you done for me lately?” Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University, told me. And both Abrams and O’Rourke are also top-notch party builders. O’Rourke may not have secured a Senate seat in 2018, Azari said, but he has been credited with helping Democrats pick up seats in the Texas statehouse. Abrams, meanwhile, has founded an organization to protect voting rights and raised millions of dollars to organize and register voters. Largely as a result, she has been hailed as the driving force behind Democrats’ 2020 success in Georgia. “Anyone can tweet,” Azari said. “But the two of them behind the scenes, I think, have actually walked the walk and helped other people win, helped other people develop their campaign apparatus.”
Even though Abrams and O’Rourke have been helpful to their party, the golden age of superstar loserdom is closely tied to our current era of what Azari has called “weak parties and strong partisanship.” For one thing, vilification of the opposition allows challengers to especially despised candidates to quickly become household names. Even in extreme-long-shot races, donors have shown a willingness to pour vast amounts of money into these boondoggles. McGrath burned $90 million on the way to her 20-point loss. Harrison raised $130 million in his Senate race and fared only slightly better. In his contest against Ted Cruz, O’Rourke raised $80 million, including $38 million in a single quarter, the most of any Senate candidate in history—all to no avail.
Whether because they outperform expectations or because of what they’re up against, these candidates and their supporters are then able to frame the losses as moral victories. Sometimes, as for Abrams supporters, that means framing a defeat as the outcome of an unjust system. Other times, as for O’Rourke supporters, that means framing an unexpectedly good performance in an unfavorable state as a sign of things to come. This, perhaps, is one reason superstar loserdom has so far skewed Democratic, political scientists told me: Democrats desperately want to take advantage of some red states that have been trending purple. Or perhaps the disparity is a product of our post-Trumpian moment. Or perhaps something else entirely.
For now, polls suggest that things are not looking great for either O’Rourke or Abrams. Superstar-loser status, it seems, does not convert easily into electoral wins. Still, this is likely far from the end of superstar loserdom. Both Abrams and O’Rourke emerged during the 2018 midterms cycle, when Democratic voters energized by opposition to Donald Trump turned out in large numbers to break Republicans’ stranglehold on Congress. This year, Republican voters energized by opposition to Joe Biden will probably turn out in large numbers to break Democrats’ majority in Congress. This election could produce Republicans’ answer to Abrams and O’Rourke. But John James, the Michigan conservative who has made two failed bids for the Senate and was the one contemporary Republican superstar loser political scientists mentioned to me, seems poised to win his congressional race this year.
A meaningful defeat may be the most Abrams and O’Rourke can hope for: not so much superstar losers as losers with legacies. But losers have a special utility. Winners have to deal with the unglamorous minutiae of actual governance. They have to figure out how to translate campaign promises into concrete policies. They make mistakes, and people get disillusioned, and approval ratings decline. Losers are spared these indignities. Politically speaking, they don’t survive long enough to let anyone down. Unsullied by compromise, losers can be made into lodestars. Look at Goldwater or McGovern. Everyone, it turns out, can get behind a lost cause.