Over the weekend, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum bowed out of their races in Georgia and Florida, respectively. Gillum, standing next to his wife, congratulated governor-elect Ron DeSantis before speaking directly to disappointed supporters. "We want you to know that we see you, and we hear you, and that your voices will continue to power us as we still stand on the front lines right alongside you to make this a state that works for all of us," he said. Gillum also promised not to bow out of politics altogether: "This fight for Florida continues, and I just want to thank you all for being along with us for at least this part of the journey. But the journey continues."
A few hundred miles north, Abrams was a little less conciliatory—not a huge surprise, given that her opponent, outgoing secretary of state Brian Kemp, eked out the victory while presiding over an astonishingly brazen scheme of voter disenfranchisement—but not less hopeful. "The title of governor isn’t nearly as important as our shared title: voters," she said. "And this is why we fight on." Abrams wrapped by announcing the launch of "Fair Fight Georgia," an organization that will work to ensure greater transparency in the administration of future elections in the state.
For Democrats, these losses, along with Beto O'Rourke's in Texas, sting for a similar set of reasons: Each candidate is an exciting and inspiring politician in whom voters made real emotional investments. They all ran as as staunch progressives in races in which Democrats typically put up vanilla centrists who get shellacked on Election Day, and all they hoped to defeat particularly odious Republican opponents, and came much closer to doing so than pundits expected. Even one win here would have been an extra-satisfying exclamation point to a wave election, and sent a strong signal that good things are in store for Democrats in reddish-purple states. Coming up short in all three races feels a little more demoralizing than losing any three randomly-selected races probably should.
There are still reasons to be hopeful. Gillum, Abrams, and O'Rourke succeeded in prompting the type and scale of engagement that Democratic strategists know they need to win in reddish-purple states, but that had, until now, largely eluded them. In Georgia, early voting alone approached the total number of people who voted in the last midterm election, and many Texas counties needed only a few days to surpass their 2014 numbers. In Florida, midterm turnout usually hovers around 50 percent. This time around, nearly two-thirds of eligible voters showed up to cast a ballot. None of this is coincidence.
The challenge for politicians who are not Abrams, Gillum, or O'Rourke will be keeping this surge of voters engaged, which is by no means guaranteed. But these candidates built the all-important infrastructure that will allow future Democrats to connect with people who have been unable to or uninterested in participating in the democratic process—and to chip away at the built-in partisan advantage on which Republican power in these states depends. The 2018 election, as Gillum put it, was not just about who gets to be Florida's next governor; it was about "creating the kind of change in this state that really allows for the voices of everyday people to show up again in our government and in our state and in our communities." The fact that this change occurs incrementally does not mean that it does not occur.
They also made a difference in key races that were not their own. In Florida, freshman legislators Donna Shalala and Debbie Muscarel-Powell unseated Republicans in two South Florida swing districts, and voters approved Amendment 4, which will automatically restore the franchise to millions of ex-felons, by a decisive margin. In Texas, Colin Allred and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher beat a duo of Republican incumbents who had served a total of four decades in Washington. In Georgia, Lucy McBath flipped a GOP-held district that a Democrat lost by four points just last year; in an adjacent district, Republican congressman Rob Woodall, who took home 60 percent of the vote in 2016, is ahead of Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux by fewer than 1,000 votes. (That contest is likely headed for a recount.) These are all good candidates and worthy causes, but the presence of strong, competitive Democrats further up the ballot helped them succeed where predecessors had come up short.
Lastly, the results have important implications for the 2020 presidential election, even if Gillum and Abrams and O'Rourke all choose to sit it out. The traditional model for Democrats has been to secure the party's nomination and then tack to the middle of the political spectrum in order to coax proverbial (and possibly apocryphal) swing voters to move to their column. At the very least, these three proved that candidates do not need to do so in order to succeed, because authenticity matters, and enthusiastic progressive voters can make up for whatever centrists candidates lose by not watering down the more ambitious aspects of their platforms. If more Democrats say what they actually believe instead of what they think people want to hear, the party is going to get better candidates at all levels—and win more elections—because of it.