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For political stars like Beto and Stacey, powerful brands outshine losses

Why We Wrote This

Stacey Abrams will deliver the Democratic response to the State of the Union tonight, while Beto O’Rourke will be interviewed live by Oprah – a sign that political influence is increasingly about maintaining a compelling narrative, in or out of public office. 

Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Stacey Abrams speaks during the Georgia Democratic Convention in Atlanta in August. Ms. Abrams was named to deliver the Democratic rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night – a role usually extended to sitting members of Congress or governors.

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If political campaigns were once seen as zero-sum games, these days they’re more about building a brand – in which even a loss becomes just another chapter. Tuesday night, two of the biggest Democratic stars of the 2018 midterms will be in the spotlight once more, despite the fact that both lost their respective bids for office.

Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia state representative who became the first black woman to be a major-party nominee for governor, will deliver the Democratic rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address. Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke, a former US congressman from Texas who smashed fundraising records and electrified Democratic voters in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz will be in Times Square for a live interview with Oprah Winfrey.

It shows how candidates who construct a compelling narrative are finding that their influence lives on, as long as there’s an audience interested in the story they have to tell. “It’s about a notion of authenticity,” says Gordon Stables, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. “We’re engaged in the personality of the individual rather than their approach to governance.”

They’re two of the biggest stars of the 2018 midterms, making their first major public appearances since November on the exact same night. And in a sign of the political times, both have retained their star power – despite losing their respective bids for office. 

Stacey Abrams will be delivering the Democratic rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday – a historic role usually extended to sitting members of Congress or governors. Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke will be in Times Square for a live interview with Oprah Winfrey, part of a celebrity-studded lineup that includes Bradley Cooper and Melissa Gates.

Ms. Abrams, a former Georgia state representative, and Mr. O’Rourke, a former US congressman from Texas, drew national attention during the 2018 midterms, electrifying Democratic voters in their respective Southern states. Abrams became the first black woman to be a major-party nominee for governor. O’Rourke broke fundraising records even as he pledged not to take money from political action committees (PACs) in his bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz.

Both narrowly lost their races. 

But in the months since the election, their activities have kept them in the headlines – enough so that Abrams is now being touted as a potential 2020 challenger to Sen. David Perdue (R) of Georgia, while O’Rourke is considered a top prospect in the presidential rumor mill.

If political campaigns were once seen as zero-sum games, these days they’re more about building a brand, in which even a loss becomes just another chapter. In an age of social media, candidates who construct a compelling narrative and give people someone to root for are finding that their influence – political, but also social and cultural – lives on, as long as there’s an audience interested in the story they have to tell. 

“You can send a message to the people you want to reach. You have a fundraising model that is disruptive. And if you become a star, then you have [traditional] media amplifying you,” says Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, a social welfare organization. “It’s a new ecosystem.” 

Abrams, who would have been the first black woman governor had she won, ran a progressive campaign advocating Medicare expansion and public education reform. After the votes came in, she refused to concede defeat, accusing now-Gov. Brian Kemp (R) of efforts to disenfranchise black voters in the state. (Governor Kemp, who refused to recuse himself as secretary of State during the election, has denied the charge.)

She has since doubled down on the cause, starting Fair Fight Georgia, an anti-voter-suppression organization. She promoted the group in a Super Bowl ad and has joined the board of a liberal think tank. When asked about the decision to have Abrams deliver the Democratic rebuttal, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York referred to her as “a dynamic leader who has delivered results on the bedrock of all issues: voting rights.”

“I couldn’t think of a better choice,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "She’s an amazing person with an amazing story.”

Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News/AP
Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) of Texas, shown here debating Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in San Antonio on Oct. 16, 2018, is often mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, despite the fact that he lost his bid for the US Senate.

Meanwhile O’Rourke – or Beto, as everyone seems to call him – is best known for raising a whopping $38 million, mostly in small-dollar donations, despite his no-PAC pledge. He exudes “everyday dude,” the kind of guy who would talk border issues with his dentist on Instagram. In January he set off on a solo weeklong road trip across the Great Plains and the Southwest, sleeping in motels, lunching at diners, and chatting with voters. He charted his progress – and his personal feelings – via beatnik-inspired blog posts on the publishing platform Medium.

“Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk,” he wrote from Liberal, Kan., in what was probably his most-quoted post. “Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure ... I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.”

Later, from another small Kansas town: “I listened to the radio until the station would start to fade, try to find another one, or just turn it off and sing to myself, think, or zone out.”

And from New Mexico: “It was lunchtime. Pepperoni and cheese pizza. Ice cream for dessert.”

The blog has led to some eye-rolling, mockery, and a parody Twitter account. But it’s also inspired strong defenders, while elevating an argument for authenticity in leaders – and further driving the conversation around what candidates and officials, including a president, can and should be allowed to say. “O’Rourke combines aspirational politics with a bluntness that [President] Obama rarely ventured,” Francis Wilkinson wrote in an op-ed for Bloomberg. “His defiant optimism is bigger than Texas.”

Gordon Stables, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, points out that recent campaign cycles have been redefining long-held notions of what a statesman looks or sounds like. Race and gender are a big part of that change, but so are more elusive things, like what kind of emotions candidates show on the trail, and how they speak to their supporters.

Abrams and O’Rourke, each in their own way, have helped open up those categories, Professor Stables says. By staying true to, and keeping their audiences engaged in, their personal narratives, they come across as transparent and knowable – traits that, until the modern media age, hadn’t been considered all that important in public officials.

“It’s about a notion of authenticity,” he says. “We’re engaged in the personality of the individual rather than their approach to governance.”

But this new reality can also be divisive, encouraging the public to view politics through the lens of personal narratives: good versus evil, heroes versus villains. “Democrats who found Beto O’Rourke” – whether or not they were in Texas – “were cheering because it was David and Goliath,” says Karen North, a USC communications professor who specializes in psychology and social media. 

“Politics has become polarized, contentious, and entertaining,” she says. “Each side clings to their symbolic heroes, who are fighting against the ‘dark side.’ ”

There’s also the risk of oversaturation. When the video of O’Rourke at the dentist surfaced, it prompted a lot of chatter about what is too much information. Does anyone really need to see a public figure getting their teeth cleaned?

And some pundits wondered if he was maybe a little too comfortable sharing his doubts, uncertainties, and half-baked policy plans. “It would not be a positive development were he to continue in this mode indefinitely – to run for president on a platform of being nice and listening to other people’s ideas without asserting any practical ideas of his own,” Ben Mathis-Lilley wrote for Slate.

For Abrams, the concern is whether she’ll be able to survive her new assignment with her dignity intact. The last few politicians to deliver their party’s rebuttal made headlines, and not in a good way (see Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s awkward water break from 2013, or Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy’s shiny lips last year).

Indeed, it’s possible the pendulum may swing back at some point. People are still adjusting to the idea that they can reach out to their officials on platforms that feel personal and intimate. But new tech – and its impact on daily life and society – has always been exciting, right up to the moment it becomes outdated.

“We’re in a very polarized moment, with very compelling characters in our political world,” North says. “In a less exciting, less entertaining moment, maybe people will not want to hear this much, this often, from our elected officials.”

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