The Democrats’ Beto Problem

Supporters of Democratic Texas Senate candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke react at his midterm election night party in El Paso, Texas, November 6, 2018. (Mike Segar/REUTERS)
Tuesday showed that the enduring deep-blue coalition of the future Democrats are always talking about still lies in the future.

The Democrats had a huge opportunity to unseat Ted Cruz last night. They blew it by thinking a gentry Hollywood-style liberal was the right candidate for Texas.

The not-overly-beloved Senator Cruz defeated Representative Beto O’Rourke by 2.6 percentage points in a race an incumbent Republican should have expected to win easily, on the same night Republican governor Greg Abbott won reelection by 13 points. Yet the Democratic reaction to O’Rourke’s loss is not, as far as I can tell, “Maybe we should have listened more closely to Texas” or even “I can’t believe we burned so much money on a longshot,” but “Losing narrowly is sort of a win.” As comedian-actor Ike Barinholtz put it on Twitter, “Ah sh*t Beto didn’t make it to the Senate. Oh well at least he’ll be president soon.” Only once has a sitting House member been elected president (James Garfield), but, hey, some Democrats point out, Abraham Lincoln was a congressman who lost a Senate race before being elected president. Yes, Democrats actually think comparing Beto to Lincoln is reasonable.

O’Rourke made no attempt to disguise his extremism during the campaign.

Like his funding, his ideas seemed to come straight from La-La-Land. He said he was open to the idea of abolishing ICE. He supports Medicare for All. He talked up gun control while opposing armed security officers in schools, an idea that enjoys 87 percent support in Texas. He praised NFL players who knelt during the national anthem. He openly called for impeaching President Trump, a position so tactically deranged that even Nancy Pelosi shies away from it. If he had simply pretended to swing right on such matters these past few months, he might have done what Barack Obama did: won over lots of moderates while liberals remained certain he was one of them. If you find yourself trying to win an election in Texas while swerving well left of Nancy Pelosi, you’ve become high on your own supply.

That’s the Democrats’ problem: They get so giddy about the next JFK that they don’t see the reality. Why should they? They live in enclaves where everyone is liberal. They get their information from media outlets in which illegal aliens are simply “migrants.” Within the bubble, everyone thought O’Rourke was a great candidate. The magazine profiles! The money pouring in from starstruck admirers! The shredding on a skateboard! The shredding on a guitar! By mid-October O’Rourke had raised an insane $70 million–plus and was outspending Cruz by two to one. Yet as a Politico pre-postmortem put it last weekend, “Democratic minds will want to know, what did he do with that $70 million? Why wasn’t he barraging persuadable Republicans with mail and phone calls and door knocks? . . . Did he consciously avoid playing on their issues, determining it was more profitable for his political future to lose as a liberal than compete as a moderate?”

The Democrats will point to the Senate losses of Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, and Claire McCaskill as evidence that being a moderate in a red state doesn’t really work anyway. Not counting the fluke winner Doug Jones in Alabama, there are now only two moderate red-state Dems left in the Senate: Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana. Still, moderates are the Democrats’ only hope in red-state Senate races. Apart from Jones, who seems determined to lose by 20 points in 2020, there aren’t any liberal senators in red states either. There’s little reason to think that the path to victory for McCaskill or Heitkamp would have been to go full Dianne Feinstein.

Democratic hopes for retaking the Senate rest on being more persuasive in red and purple states, not on guitar-and-skateboard cool activating the sleeping blue giant. The Democratic obsession with youth, glamour, and Hollywood served the party well when it wisely picked Obama over Hillary Clinton. But Obama, despite benefiting hugely from national exasperation with war and economic calamity, still needed to tack to the center to win the general election. Today’s Democrats simply think they can wander as far left as they wish and still hope to win in places such as Texas. Tuesday showed that the enduring deep-blue coalition of the future Democrats are always talking about still lies in the future.


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