In November of 2018, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, ended his concession speech to Republican incumbent Senator Ted Cruz by exclaiming “I am so fucking proud of you guys.” Abrupt and unfiltered, this conclusion embodied the heart and soul of the O’Rourke Senate campaign.
O’Rourke’s efforts to win a seat in an elected position have not gone unnoticed by the media, or by the public. His usage of social media and community involvement are what have made him notable, and, while not successful at the ballot box, he has been successful in changing how campaigns are run.
In the last five years, O’Rourke has staged political runs as a man of grassroots ties — knocking on doors and speaking directly to the people he aims to represent. His 2018 Senate run against Cruz, his 2020 Democratic primary hopes and his current campaign against Gov. Greg Abbott hold this same core — the strategic message of “Powered by People.” In fact, these hands-on efforts did make a difference: the O’Rourke Senate campaign was an intensely close call, with only a 2.6% difference between O’Rourke and Cruz.
The other notable characteristic of the efforts of O’Rourke and multiple other Democrats is their shared goal. Young, fresh-faced politicians want a seat at the table because they want to make change and directly help their constituents, but, in recent election years, the true goal of hopeful Democrats seems to be voting Trumpism out of office.
The primary goal of Democrats in the 2016 election was to prevent Donald Trump — a new brand of conservative, a right wing populist — from becoming president. That hope was replicated in 2020, with the Democratic establishment again aiming to stop Trump from winning re-election. The general election was no different — Democrats fought hard to take back the Senate by defeating Republican officials particularly supportive of Trump.
Congressional Democrats and political hopefuls like O’Rourke find themselves split by ideology — with the progressive and moderate sides of the party continuously challenging one another on the party’s legislative agenda. Disagreement leads to lack of action, and in recent months the Democratic Party has been often described as ineffective in their efforts to enact substantive policy. Though not united ideologically, the Democrats continue to collectively oppose the Trump-wing of the Republican Party.
American voters have become more polarized in recent election cycles. Trump’s position in the political framework has intensified this division, and a focus on defeating him has made people defensive of their party, whether Democrat or Republican. People still vote based on issues of importance and who is best fit to serve their interests, but with campaigns becoming much more candidate-centered, politicians — specifically Democrats — have made changes in their campaigning efforts. It has become less about who is the best candidate to serve their constituents or who may best achieve these policy goals and more about preventing other parties from taking control. This mindset actively works against the interests of those they are meant to represent.
O’Rourke is making his third attempt in the past five years to represent the people of Texas. By effectively and personally communicating his goals with voters, O’Rourke, like many other Democratic candidates, comes across as well-acquainted with the role of public office and the importance of constituent service. But having tried and failed two times to defeat a Republican incumbent, ulterior motives may be detected: is this about service, or is it about preventing Republicans who share Trump’s ideology from holding office?
It is commendable to continue to run for public office after multiple defeats. But, at some point, candidate and party-based motives are not enough to run on, and they can, in many cases, do more harm than good. Being opposed to a certain candidate or party does not make a campaign popular, and repeated attempts to unseat Republicans — without any meaningful policy goal after they are defeated — are counter to a “progressive” agenda. O’Rourke’s close race in 2018 gave him the confidence to continue campaigning, but, over the years, it has become less about him being the best candidate for the people and more about defeating a Republican. In an era when intensified political and social issues have become central to the identity of people, voting a certain type of politician out of office is no longer reasonable: the act of voting a certain type of politician into office is most important. Democratic communications strategy, rightfully, mobilized to eject Donald Trump from office and combat his wrongdoings. But this communications strategy seems to be sorely inept at combating Republicans post Trump Presidency.
Democrats are struggling to stay afloat with this philosophy in mind. With the midterm elections quickly approaching, they have to begin to rethink their strategy. Focusing on the past is counterproductive, and calling out former presidents on the campaign trail is not the call to action they think it is. There must be a concrete agenda for candidates to follow: an effective compromise between the more progressive and moderate wings of the party. The American people want direct aid from their representatives. They want constructive policy that makes their lives better — not speeches dedicated to discussing a politician who no longer holds public office.
“Voting Trumpism out of office” won’t work anymore; it won’t get constructive Democrats elected. Hopefuls such as O’Rourke must focus less on being the opposite of Trump and his allies and more on being a representative for their constituents. Elections may be about victory, but not for one’s self or party — for the constituents they represent.
Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org