The Beto O’Rourke campaign has been a big energizer in national politics, especially in Texas where he mobilized a large supporter and donor base. While his charisma, grassroots campaign style and unabashedly progressive platform are unique, Rep. O’Rourke is part of a larger group of Democrats running for office in the South and rebuilding the party bench.
This group has been building since Trump’s election. Initial wins came in progressive mayoral campaigns from Chokwe Antar Lumumba in Jackson, Miss. and Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Ala. Some cast these as expected victories, as both men represent predominantly black cities, but the success of these progressive mayors over entrenched establishment candidates was not assured.
Last year also saw the shocking victory of Doug Jones over sexual abuser Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race to replace Jeff Sessions. Though Jones, buoyed by black electoral support, beat Moore by a very small margin, it was still an unbelievable feat that a pro-choice Democrat, not a Blue Dog, won statewide in Alabama at all. He was the first Democrat in 25 years to be elected to one of the state’s two Senate seats.
Now, there exists a much more demanding lift: winning statewide offices across the South in elections where the Republican candidate is not an alleged child molester. Democrats are running credible Senate campaigns in Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi, while facing a contested reelection campaign in Florida. Tennessee is the only example where the Democrat, Phil Bredesen, is quite conservative. But the popular former governor has been elected statewide as a Democrat twice before and is currently leading in many polls, giving Democrats a chance in a state that Trump overwhelmingly won.
A similar dynamic has emerged in gubernatorial races in Florida and Georgia, where progressive black Democrats are competing to succeed against term-limited Republican governors. The popularity of Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida is remarkable for two reasons. First, there is a real possibility that both could win. Gillum has been beating his Trump-loving opponent, Rep. Ron DeSantis, in the polls since the day he was nominated. The second reason is that both candidates will empower other Democrats on the ballot and help the campaigns of congressional candidates trying to retake the House and recover legislative offices in their respective states, where Democrats have barely a foothold in state government.
The South has changing demographics, and this is clearly a positive sign for Democrats. However, simply relying on the determinism of Latino voters is wrong. Democrats need to engage Latino communities and better represent the black electorate in many Southern states. They can only do that if they have candidates who actually offer change to the voters who have long been taken for granted by the party, a fact Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez recently admitted.
Such candidates did emerge this year, but they did not come out of nowhere. They were mayors and state legislators. The competitiveness of these candidates shows the importance of building a bench, a process that has a positive feedback loop.