AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
Earlier this month, former presidential and U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke easily cruised to the Democratic nomination for Governor of Texas. However, with O’Rourke currently polling nearly 10 points behind incumbent Republican Governor Greg Abbott, it seems that the political career of a man once touted as “the future of the Democratic Party” may now be on life support. O’Rourke’s fall from grace is significant not only because it is indicative of a looming electoral disaster for Democrats this fall, but also because Beto represents, arguably, the last “heir to the Obama coalition.”
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign achieved mythic status within the Democratic Party and the national media. His 2008 and 2012 victories were hailed as a new Democratic majority that would dominate politics for the next century. His ascendency was seen as proof that a progressive message could bring together a diverse coalition of voters that could win national elections. As for the man himself, shortly after his inauguration, Evan Thomas, the editor at large for Newsweek Magazine, said Obama was “standing above the country, above the world, he’s sort of God.” And the media wonder why conservatives think they are biased (and often just plain looney tunes).
This glowing coverage and rhetoric from the media defined the Obama era. In many ways his presidency itself was a media creation. Even as his popularity declined and he stumbled on the national stage, the press continued to extol Obama as a divine figure. Though his reputation has soured with many Democrats in recent years as the party moved leftwards – even the once-darling of the left could not escape the clutches of cancel culture entirely – the media continued to embrace the mythology of his campaign and coalition.
Following former President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, Democrats and the media scrambled to anoint an “Obama 2.0” that would deliver the country from the supposed evils of President Trump. This candidate would recreate the “magic” of 2008 and 2012 and reinvigorate the party for decades to come.
Arguably, the first and most celebrated of those candidates was Beto O’Rourke. In 2018, the three-term Texas Congressman resigned his seat and raised almost $80 million to challenge incumbent Senator Ted Cruz in one of the most expensive Senate races in history. Fundraisers said of the candidate, “He’s Barack Obama, but white.” His “youthful energy” and “optimism” were all favorably compared to Obama. He told Democrats nationwide that one need not hide their liberal views to win traditionally Republican states. The courage to be openly progressive was a winning strategy, he insisted.
Then he lost the election.
Yet the mainstream media and Democrats were far from done with him. Similar narratives emerged about other 2020 Democratic primary candidates as well. Beto was joined by Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris as the most prominent supposed inheritors of Obama’s legacy. At some point in the 2020 campaign season, each one was anointed “the next Obama.” Each of them received glowing media coverage and flattering profile pieces. Ironically, one high-profile article proclaimed Kamala as “the next Obama” for her “deft vivisection of Joe Biden.” Meanwhile, Beto was memorably featured on the cover of Vanity Fair with the headline: “I want to be in it. Man, I’m just born to be in it.”
Yet something strange was happening despite all the positive coverage: on average, none of these candidates ever polled above 15% even with Democratic primary voters. The support from the mainstream media wasn’t helping them. In fact, in some cases, it appeared to be hurting their presidential prospects. Only two months after the glamorous Vanity Fair cover story, Beto apologized for the interview and said he “regretted” being on the front page. Fittingly enough, the man most dismissed by mainstream coverage was the one to carry the day. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the man dubbed the “Jeb Bush of 2020,” defeated all the Obama heirs.
The media’s failure to pick the “next Obama” appears to largely stem from their inability to understand the last Obama. Before the media decided in 2016 that “populism” was inherently rooted in “white supremacy,” “nativism,” and “xenophobia,” populism was central to Obama’s 2008 victory. He was largely dismissed as “inexperienced” and “too naive” to become president. It was former Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton whom the media and Democratic establishment thought was the obvious choice for the White House. Obama embraced populist policies like amending NAFTA, proscribing lobbying activities, and heavily criticizing Wall Street. Sadly, as one National Review correspondent put it, “all statements from Barack Obama come with an expiration date. All of them.” Obama soon proved to be as much a creature of the Washington political class as anyone else he shared a stage with in 2016.
Should Beto lose the Governor’s race this fall – which seems more likely by the day – he will have lost a major race in all of the past three election cycles. All told, Beto’s races have cost Democrats over $100 million (and counting – and that’s before the end of the Texas Governor’s race). Pete Buttigieg raised over $100 million in 2020 alone. Booker raised $25 Million, and Harris raised almost $10 million (and vastly more has been spent boosting her political profile by the Biden campaign and DNC). That means that, by the end of this year, the Democratic Party will likely have spent over a quarter of a billion dollars in frivolous attempts to find an heir to the “Obama Coalition”—all of whom have been roundly rejected by the voters. In their defense, each of these candidates garnered rapt media attention at various points. Yet none realized that what they were chasing was only a mirage. Kamala still seems unaware.
The Obama coalition was diverse in more ways than just race. Obama’s 2008 campaign attracted moderates. 49.5% of his voters were over the age of 45, and 70% were Christian. According to most polls, the current Democratic Party base of support is far more white, educated, and elitist than the one which elevated Obama to the White House. That diverse coalition of moderates who are sick and tired of business as usual in Washington still does exist. They’re just not Democrats anymore.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.