Why 2022 Could Be ‘The Year of the Political Comeback’

Why 2022 Could Be ‘The Year of the Political Comeback’ 1

Every election year, American politicians find new and ever more brazen ways to disprove that old F. Scott Fitzgerald adage—that there are “no second acts in American lives.”

Next year’s pivotal midterm elections feature a raft of political figures nationwide who are trying to do just that, attempting to regain their former power and glory, avenge past defeats, move past scandals, or in one very prominent case, do all three.

Here’s a sampling of those determined pols who are seeking their second—or third, or fourth—acts:

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks during his weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 27, 2020.

Mark Wilson

Kevin McCarthy

Yes, there are two Republican leaders on Capitol Hill who are hoping to get their majorities back in 2022. But only one has been on a patient, tortured quest for the speakership for the better part of a decade.

In 2015, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), then the GOP majority leader, was heir apparent when Speaker John Boehner announced his retirement. But amid suspicion from the right that he was not sufficiently conservative—and beset with simmering rumors of infidelity—McCarthy bowed out. Paul Ryan, reluctantly but inevitably, ascended.

Since 2018, the affable, backslapping Californian has helmed the House GOP ship with a single-minded goal of guiding them out of the wilderness and back into power. He stands now on the brink of triumph, with Republicans heavily favored to win the House majority in 2022.

If the GOP succeeds in taking the House, McCarthy will largely be credited as the architect of the Republican takeover. But that doesn’t mean he’s on a glide path to finally realizing his speakership dreams.

Much of McCarthy’s chances of becoming speaker rests on just how many seats Republicans win in the 2022 elections. If it’s just enough to propel them to the majority, McCarthy could have a very tough time. Even a 20-seat margin could be tough for the California Republican. But a true red wave—say, a 40-seat majority—would go a long way to getting him the job. Still, there are plenty of other factors.

Just in the last year, political and personal tensions have roiled the GOP conference—and McCarthy’s inability to contain them has raised serious doubts among some Republicans about his ability to govern as Speaker.

Notably, McCarthy has largely given up on reining in a squad of far-right lawmakers whose sometimes violent and bigoted rhetoric has obliterated boundaries of acceptable conduct and fomented a toxic environment in the GOP ranks.

Instead, a leader known best as a tireless people-pleaser has tried to please everyone, calling for truces as his member swap f-bomb insults and threats at each other. That may not be enough for McCarthy when the speaker vote is called in January 2023.

Also looming over a possible McCarthy comeback is Donald Trump—the man on whom his fortunes rise and fall. The ex-president may have never quite forgiven “My Kevin” for supposedly turning his back on him on Jan. 6.

McCarthy has tried assiduously to repair that breach—a major threat to his hopes, given Trump’s continued vice grip on the GOP. Ultimately, if he succeeds, McCarthy could be the House GOP leader for years to come. But a well-timed Trump knifing, which is even expected by some Republicans, could dash his dreams for good.

Why 2022 Could Be ‘The Year of the Political Comeback’ 2

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Georgia Republican Senate candidate David Perdue (R-GA) speaks to the crowd during a campaign rally with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on Dec. 20, 2020 in Cumming, Georgia.

Jessica McGowan

David Perdue

Few politicians have had a rougher couple of years than the former U.S. senator from Georgia.

In November 2020, Perdue barely failed to avoid a runoff election against his Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff. Then, he watched as Donald Trump’s obsession with fake election fraud drained Republicans’ faith in the system and galvanized Democrats. Facing the stiffest political headwinds of his career, he proceeded to skip his only debate with Ossoff and took out ads reminding voters he was “totally exonerated” from, well, all this.

The result: On Jan. 5, 2021, Georgia voters fired Perdue—a former Fortune 500 CEO and Georgia brand name—in favor of a 33-year old journalist and former Capitol Hill aide.

But Perdue—who is sometimes described by Republicans as having an almost Trumpian inability to just move on—was not ready for a quiet retirement on the Georgia coast. Instead, in December, he chose the complete opposite: launching a scorched-earth primary campaign against his former ally, Gov. Brian Kemp, in a bid to win the Peach State’s governorship.

If Perdue pulls off his comeback next year, it will be a vindication of the MAGA movement. His platform is, essentially, solely about re-relitigating Trump’s baseless fraud claims. And that alone could presage comebacks and first starts for many more ambitious Republicans willing to toe the Trump line.

Why 2022 Could Be ‘The Year of the Political Comeback’ 3

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Stacey Abrams speaks onstage during the 2021 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Award Gala on Dec. 09, 2021.

Monica Schipper

Stacey Abrams

The final—and perhaps most formidable—obstacle to a Perdue comeback isn’t another Republican but a Democrat: Stacey Abrams. If she pulls it off, 2022 could be the year that the Georgia Democrat wins a comeback of her own, vaunting into the echelon of power and political notoriety she’s tried, and failed, to reach for years.

In 2018, Abrams narrowly lost to Kemp in the Georgia governor’s race. In the aftermath, Abrams was reluctant to concede, but quickly set about laying the groundwork for Democratic gains in traditionally red Georgia. She founded a nonprofit, New Georgia Project, to register thousands of voters and build up a volunteer army—a strategy that was essential to Democrats’ 2020 victories in the state.

These days, Abrams—who has been out of the highest office she’s held, the Georgia legislature’s minority leader, for four years—is about as beloved a figure there is among national Democrats, and is reviled among Republicans.

The 48-year old clearly harbors ambitions beyond Georgia. But she will have to win in Georgia first. And in November, she made official what had been expected for years: another campaign for the governorship.

2022 is shaping up to be a rough year for Democrats nationwide, and despite their 2020 wins, Georgia is far from favorable terrain for the party. But Abrams will unquestionably raise piles of money and make this a top-tier contest for both sides.

An Abrams victory would be a bright spot for the party and ensure the ascent of one of its brightest stars. But a second consecutive defeat for this office would cast real doubt on her future in politics.

Why 2022 Could Be ‘The Year of the Political Comeback’ 4

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Beto O’Rourke speaks with the press at a campaign rally on Nov. 16, 2021.

Jordan Vonderhaar

Beto O’Rourke

No, no—this is the year Texas goes blue.

So say the state’s hopeful Democrats, who appear to be preparing themselves once again to get behind former three-term Congressman Beto O’Rourke.

O’Rourke, who ignited the hopes and hearts of Lone Star liberals in 2018 with his blockbuster run at Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), officially threw in last month for the Texas governor’s race.

Despite the baggage he carries from that loss, which he followed up with a sputtering 2020 presidential primary campaign, Beto is the presumptive Democratic nominee and banner-carrier for what is sure to be a historic bout to unseat arch-conservative Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX). It’s also certain to be one of the most expensive contests in the country—O’Rourke, whose 2018 haul famously shattered records, faces a possibly more formidable fundraiser in Abbott, whose campaign committee has quietly amassed a $55 million stash.

Despite taking those political licks, O’Rourke remains popular among state Democrats. Republicans, of course, don’t share the same view of the avowed gun control advocate, but more importantly, neither do the state’s critical independent voters, with whom O’Rourke registered a 22 percent to 48 percent favorability deficit in a poll earlier this month.

Former Texas state lawmaker and Democratic fundraiser Wendy Davis said that, while it’s natural to see O’Rourke’s bid as a comeback, he’s not signaling that he’ll frame his candidacy that way—it’s shaping up to be less about him than about the larger context in the state, such as the backlash to Abbott’s prohibitive abortion bill this fall, and failure to handle the deadly statewide power failure last winter.

“In 2018, Beto wanted to appeal to something noble inside all of us and chose not to take Cruz head-on, but it’s clear he’s made a different decisions this time. Not that he’s given up on the idealism, which is just part of who he is, but he’s not going to pull any punches this time, I don’t think,” Davis told The Daily Beast.

But for the moment, Abbott, who enjoys a wide lead in polling, appears more comfortable pitting his campaign against President Joe Biden. After O’Rourke launched his candidacy, Abbott put out a video morphing his opponent’s face into Biden’s. He followed up with billboards doing the same.

Why 2022 Could Be ‘The Year of the Political Comeback’ 5

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Eric Greitens addresses a crowd at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery on February 22, 2017.

Michael Thomas

Eric Greitens

The former Republican Missouri governor’s comeback shot will test voters’ forgiveness—or, at least, their memories.

Greitens stepped down in 2018 after a series of scandals sparked criminal and legislative investigations. Those probes included allegations stemming from an affair with his hairdresser, who claimed that Greitens—cheating on his then-pregnant wife—had physically and sexually abused her, then blackmailed her with revenge porn.

He rode out those investigations, however, and gave up the governor’s seat in exchange for the dismissal of felony computer tampering charges related to campaign fundraising.

Now, Greitens, falsely claiming “exoneration” of the sex and blackmail scandal, has entered a cramped field of Republican Senate hopefuls. The competition includes several sitting officials: two GOP House members—Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long, both of whom objected to the 2020 election results—as well as Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

Greitens must also contend with right-wing St. Louis lawyer Mark McCloskey, who made headlines last summer when he and his wife wagged guns at social justice protesters walking past their mansion. At the end of September, the political newcomer had already pulled nearly $1 million.

But while Greitens has come out swinging, styling himself a Trumpian bully-victim, some conservatives aren’t so sure he can beat the bad press. Right-wing commentator Hugh Hewitt, who still defends the former governor, noted in an interview with Greitens this spring that the phrase “half-raped and blackmailed” would certainly seem to make for a pretty effective attack ad.

And, as The Daily Beast’s Erin Ryan noted last spring, “Missouri voters have rejected unqualified conservative men who don’t know when to shut the fuck up.” She pointed to former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s 2012 victory over Republican Todd Akin, on the heels of Akin’s remarks that “legitimate rape” can’t lead to pregnancy, because the “female body” has ways to “shut that whole thing down.”

Why 2022 Could Be ‘The Year of the Political Comeback’ 6

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Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL), a candidate for Governor of Florida, speaks with South Florida AFL-CIO union leaders and workers on Nov. 23, 2021.

Joe Raedle

Charlie Crist

The former Republican governor of Florida is back to take another crack at the governor’s mansion—his second comeback attempt in eight years.

Crist, now a Democratic congressman, lost his two previous statewide races after he stepped down as governor in 2010 in favor of a failed Senate run against Marco Rubio. Four years later, Crist, who by then had left the GOP, tried to return to Tallahassee, but could not unseat then-Gov. Rick Scott.

Those failed runs have helped Crist maintain name recognition statewide, but early signs suggest that this alone won’t be enough to carry the 64-year-old white man through the 2022 primary.

He dodged one bullet this summer when Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) declined an anticipated gubernatorial bid in favor of making a run at Rubio’s seat. But Crist still faces another in current Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat. As the gubernatorial field took shape this spring, Crist’s trusted political team went through a shakeup, with some allies prepared to side with Fried, Politico reported.

But Crist, a longtime Biden ally, appears to be replicating the president’s 2020 primary approach, leaving the progressive lane to Fried as the Sunshine State shifts to the right, and angling instead to a broad base of moderate and traditional Democrats.

The winner would take on sitting GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis in the general, and while DeSantis is said to be mulling a 2024 presidential challenge, he almost certainly won’t bow out of the 2022 race.

And if Crist completes his comeback, it would likely be the most remarkable of 2022—only three other governors in history have won election in their home state as members of different parties.

Why 2022 Could Be ‘The Year of the Political Comeback’ 7

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Nina Turner speaks during a ‘Get Out the Vote’ canvassing event on August 02, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Michael M Santiago/GettyImages

Nina Turner

After taking one on the chin this August in a primary special election loss to Rep. Shontel Brown (D-OH), progressive firebrand Nina Turner has been eyeing a 2022 rematch. The month after that stinging defeat, Turner filed a statement of candidacy in the district, Cleveland.com reported. And while the filing does not compel a Turner comeback run, it established the option.

The primary winner in the heavily Democratic district was all but certain to hang onto the seat held by outgoing Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) in the November general election, so the primary became a supercharged proxy battle within the national party, pitting progressives against traditional Democrats for influence in the House.

The off-year fight grew so contentious that it roped in national figures—Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) weighed in for Turner from the left, while Brown scored endorsements from Hillary Clinton, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), and the Congressional Black Caucus.

The contest also attracted millions of dollars in out-of-state funds and dark money—including for Turner, one of a number of apparent contradictions to the progressive’s own platform and pledges.

The race also exposed old wounds in the party, which Turner, a progressive bomb-thrower who ahead of the 2020 election likened voting for Biden to eating half of “a bowl of shit,” hasn’t appeared eager to heal. She has continued to bash Brown and “corporate Democrats” in appearances and interviews, as Brown comes into the 2022 race with the endorsement of the CBC.

Turner is reportedly withholding an announcement until after redistricting. The state legislature is expected to pull more of Cleveland into the district, which would appear to work in Turner’s favor, though the primary turnout in those areas was low.

Should Turner launch a comeback bid, the race will be fierce, but, Turner hopes, it will also attract a little less national attention: With the full slate of House and Senate races in 2022, “you can’t concentrate all that firepower on only one seat,” she told The Intercept shortly after filing her candidacy.

Why 2022 Could Be ‘The Year of the Political Comeback’ 8

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Former President Donald Trump waves prior to Game Four of the World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves on October 30, 2021.

Michael Zarrilli

Donald Trump

OK, so he may not officially be on the ballot in 2022. But, make no mistake, the upcoming midterm elections will reveal much about the twice-impeached former president’s clear ambition to return to the White House in 2024.

For one, 2022 will show just how durable Trump’s sway is among GOP voters. He is set to endorse dozens and dozens of candidates in primaries nationwide. If Trump critics like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) survive primary challenges, and if a number of his endorsed candidates in key House and Senate races lose in primaries or in November, you can bet that other Republicans with 2024 ambitions will start planning their White House bids. A MAGA midterm sweep, however, will only cement his dominant status in the party.

The coming year will be crucial for Trump in other ways as well. He may no longer be president, but in Congress and in the courts his lengthy trail of controversies, scandals, and mysteries are being probed—and significant revelations could come in 2022.

Just on Dec. 14, a federal judge ruled that Trump could not block Congress from obtaining his tax returns, which he worked tirelessly to shield as a candidate and as president. Meanwhile, a criminal investigation into Trump’s business practices, led by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, is entering its home stretch, and New York State Attorney General Letitia James is seeking to question Trump directly for a separate investigation.

Then there’s the select House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which is zeroing in on the ex-president and his cronies’ conduct and communications before, during, and after his mob of supporters tried to forcibly keep him in power. Organizers of the rally are cooperating with investigators, and Congress has voted to hold key Trump allies—like Steve Bannon and Mark Meadows—in contempt for not cooperating.

The panel is holding private depositions and issuing subpoenas at a brisk pace. Leaders plan to hold public hearings next year laying out what they found—all ahead of Election Day 2022. If there’s more of what they revealed at a meeting in mid-December—like texts from Don, Jr., to Meadows on Jan. 6 urging him to rein Trump in—it could be explosive.

Amid it all, Trump could announce a presidential bid at, well, anytime—and had to be talked out of doing it in 2021. Buckle up.