It’s been a good year for very bad campaigns. But there also have been some very, very good efforts put forth by candidates across the United States, including a few who have surprised the political establishment and the Pundit Elite.
Here are my picks for the ten best campaigns of 2014 — whether they win on Election Night or not.
1. Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz
How would you like to have been the interim senator appointed by a governor so unpopular that he was defeated in his party’s primary by more than two to one? And how would you like to have been forced to run in that same primary election against the anointed successor of the late and much-loved Democrat you replaced, Daniel Inouye?
Well, that was the predicament faced by Brian Schatz, Hawaii’s former lieutenant governor and now the second-youngest senator at age 42. He worked smart, worked hard, and won — barely — in the primary against Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.
“I was not overconfident that we were going to be successful,” he said after escaping the primary by seven-tenths of one percentage point. Now he’s coasting to a general election win against Republican Cam Cavasso.
2. Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker
The Bay State may have voted Democratic in every presidential race except one in modern times, but it has an independent streak when it comes to picking its governors. Republican Mitt Romney was chosen by Massachusetts voters back when he was a moderate. And this time a Republican healthcare executive with business bona fides and an independent streak from his party on abortion and same-sex marriage is poised to win a surprising victory.
Charlie Baker, who was defeated by outgoing Gov. Deval Patrick four years ago, has run a campaign so steady that he won the endorsement of the iconically liberal Boston Globe. Indeed, the Globe praised his track record of “steady management and proven results.” He’s also been helped by the mistakes of Democratic nominee Martha Coakley, who is poised for another come-from-ahead defeat.
3. New York Rep. Chris Gibson
It’s not comfortable being a Republican congressman representing a New York district carried twice by President Obama. But two-term Republican Chris Gibson has done it through hard work, skillful constituent service and strategic moderation on issues such as arts funding and gay rights. (The retired Army officer is a Republican co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act designed to protect GLBT Americans from workplace discrimination.) One recent poll shows him 20 percentage points ahead of his Democratic rival in a district that Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo will win handily.
4. Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott
The Texas Attorney General has run the most disciplined governor’s campaign the Lone Star State has seen since George W. Bush toppled Ann Richards in 1994. Abbott has not veered off script, and that script is designed to maximize support among swing voters and motivate hard-core Republicans. With the national press corps hoping against hope for a dramatic storyline this year — Texas is “turning blue” or famous filibusterer Wendy Davis pulls off a miracle in the Land of Bush and Perry — Abbott has taken all of the drama out of Democratic dreams.
5. Colorado Senate candidate Cory Gardner
The Colorado Senate seat held by freshman Democrat Mark Udall wasn’t on many lists of vulnerable seats at the beginning of 2014. But Republican congressman Cory Gardner has been a nightmare for Democrats from Denver to Washington. He’s run an anti-Washington campaign designed to appeal to the swing state’s large bloc of disquieted independents, as well as populists peeved at the sophisticated population of the state capital. Gardner’s campaign site boasts that he is running “to represent all of Colorado, not just those from a particular city or political party.” Take that, Denver.
Democrats have tried to paint Gardner as an extremist and a harsh partisan. But it hasn’t seemed to stick to a candidate known for his high energy and hailed by DC media outlets as a Republican rising star.
6. North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan
From all the Republican TV commercials, you’d think that “Barack Obama” is the name of the Democratic nominee for Senate in North Carolina. But rather than accept southern-fried doom in an anti-Obama year, the first-term Democratic senator has turned the tables on Republican nominee Thom Tillis, and has put him on the defensive about his role as state House Speaker in the extremely unpopular ongoings in the state capital of Raleigh. Contrast Hagan’s competitiveness in final pre-election polls with the flailing efforts of the two other Democratic Senate incumbents in the South, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
7. West Virginia Senate candidate Shelley Moore Capito
The last Republican to win a Senate seat in West Virginia was six decades ago. That’s going to change this year as longtime Rep. Shelley Moore Capito sweeps to victory to succeed Democratic legend Jay Rockefeller.
While West Virginia has swung Republican at the presidential level in the past four election cycles, it has favored Democrats for most statewide offices. The 60-year-old Capito, an influential House member, is considered by many to be a pragmatist, conservative on social policies, strong on guns but not hostile to organized labor. Her campaign has been pitch perfect. No wonder Kyle Kondike, the managing editor of the University of Virginia’s Sabato’s Crystal Ball, calls her the “best Republican Senate candidate this cycle.”
8. Virginia Senate candidate Ed Gillespie
Win or lose — and he will probably lose — Republican Ed Gillespie has run an exceptionally good Senate campaign in Virginia against a popular Democratic incumbent, Mark Warner. Gillespie has worked harder than just about any candidate in the country, has highlighted a future-oriented set of issues, and has built a statewide organization out of the ashes of Republican defeats in recent years. His efforts have paid off as he has trimmed Warner’s lead significantly over the past two months.
Sen. Warner, you may recall, also was defeated in his first Senate campaign by a venerable incumbent, Republican John Warner, before going on to win the governorship. Gillespie’s excellent campaign should move him to the front of the line of GOP candidates for governor in 2017.
9. Florida congressional candidate Gwen Graham
This is a year of promise for the children of former Florida governors, In Texas, Republican Jeb Bush’s son George is about to become the Lone Star State’s land commissioner. And in the Sunshine State, Democrat Bob Graham’s daughter Gwen is in a tight race with incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Southerland.
Graham has learned the basics of political campaigning from her masterful dad. She has raised more money than the Republican — something very few Democratic challengers have done this year. She has out-organized the incumbent and has mobilized early voting that favors Democrats by 14 percentage points. She has called in dad’s chits and got a campaign visit from former President Bill Clinton. Victory is far from assured, but a strong campaign has given Graham a decent chance in a tough Democratic year.
10. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s worst nightmare is coming true.
Yes, he may lose his job as Majority Leader if Republicans can pick up at least six seats. But he might be seeing the specter of 2016 defeat in Nevada in the person of Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. The incumbent governor is running 25 percentage points ahead of his 2014 Democratic opponent. He may just keep on running.
Sandoval, the first Latino to serve as a federal judge in Nevada, would be a good bet to roll the dice against Reid. It would be hard for the Democratic senator to convince voters that Sandoval, who has presided over education reform and a slowly improving economy, is a fringe extremist like 2010 GOP nominee Sharron Angle.
From pornographic emails to pervasive plagiarism, this has been a good year for bad candidates. We’ve seen hubris, laziness and monumental incompetence.
That’s not really something new in American politics.
What may be new is that some of the campaigns are so bad that even partisan news outlets like Mother Jones and Fox News have called out the perpetrators.
So who has run the worst campaign of 2014? There are lots of candidates in contention for runner-up status but we already have a clear winner of that dubious achievement:
1. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor
A Hall of Shame horrible campaign. Overconfident. Out of touch. The future House Speaker became a former House member with the help of an obscure but spirited Tea Party activist. Cantor is crying all the way to the bank as he cashed in on the capital’s revolving door culture by getting a nice Wall Street-ish job.
2. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts
Win or lose, the veteran Kansas senator, who lives in Washington, was caught napping. He survived a primary scare that he didn’t see coming and then trailed badly against an independent in early general election polls. With the GOP establishment circling the wagons — and hardline conservatives like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz seizing the moment — Roberts has finally gained some momentum, at least for the time being. But win or lose, he’s evidence of what happens when you catch Potomac Fever and don’t keep up with the folks back home.
3. Montana Sen. John Walsh
Democrats were on the defensive from the moment longtime Montana Sen. Max Baucus resigned his seat to become envoy to Beijing. But Dems had high hopes for John Walsh, an Iraq veteran, former adjutant general of the Montana National Guard and former lieutenant governor. Those hopes evaporated when the New York Times reported that Walsh had “plagiarized large sections of the final paper he completed to earn his master’s degree at the prestigious Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.”
Walsh quickly made a bad situation a lot worse. According to the Times, Walsh initially “expressed no contrition for the plagiarism.” Even when withdrawing from the race two weeks later, he remained in denial, saying that the paper “has become a distraction from the debate you expect and deserve.” The Army War College thought it was much more serious, revoking his master’s degree. But he’s still a senator, however lame a duck he may be.
4. Texas gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis
National Democrats thought they had found an instant superstar when the telegenic Fort Worth state senator staged a filibuster against a draconian Republican anti-abortion law in 2013. The party raised tons of money from her pro-choice passion and pink sneakers and shipped almost all of it out of state. It then somehow convinced the celebrity senator that she could be elected governor in one of the most reliably Republican states in the Union. All you had to do was read my 2012 statistical analysis of Texas demographic and electoral trends to know that true partisan competitiveness was from eight to 12 years away.
To make a difficult situation worse, Davis’ campaign has been inexplicably tone-deaf. They seem to be running the kind of a campaign a Democrat would run in Massachusetts or Illinois, not Texas. (In contrast, the last Texas Democrat to be elected governor, Ann Richards, knew how to appeal to the good-ole-boy and good-ole-girl vote without sacrificing her basic principles.)
Final exclamation point, a new television ad that tried to paint Republican Greg Abbott as a hypocrite but ended up making him a victim. Even liberal standard-bearer Mother Jones called it, “to be blunt, bullshit.”
“If Wendy Davis Thinks She Can Win an Election by Pointing Out Her Opponent’s Disability, She’s Wrong,” declared the MoJo headline.
“It’s offensive and nasty and it shouldn’t exist,” wrote Ben Dreyfuss. “She’s basically calling Abbott a cripple.”
That’s what her friends are saying. Texas Democrats should be saying, “Wait ’til next year.” Or is it “next decade”?
5. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett
This is not the kind of headline you want on Fox News’ web site if you are a Republican incumbent:
Porn scandal involving former staff puts Pa. governor on defense in already-tough race
It’s not a question of whether Tom Corbett will lose, it’s by how much he will lose. In a very good year for Republican candidates, the GOP incumbent is a very bad candidate. Whether it’s his ties to the Penn State football program’s child sexual abuse cover-up or the scandal involving pornographic emails sent by staffers, the news is relentlessly negative for the embattled incumbent. Democratic nominee Tom Wolf is breezing to victory. The only question is whether Corbett’s margin of defeat is larger than the 20 percentage point repudiation of then-Senator Rick Santorum in 2006.
It’s a hard time to be a GOP spinner in the Keystone State. “This is not an Anthony Weiner situation,” one Republican consultant said on Fox News, trying to put the best face on a very bad situation.
6. Ohio gubernatorial nominee Ed FitzGerald
It’s never good when a headline in the Washington Post declares:
The remarkable implosion of Ed FitzGerald
Especially not if you are an Ohio Democrat and Ed FitzGerald is your nominee for governor. Democrats had high hopes for unseating Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose edgy personality and hard-driving policy agenda had alienated a fair number of voters. But their candidate, a local elected official with precious little big league experience, proved truly minor league. A typical lowlight was the revelation of a 2012 incident when he was approached by a police officer while in a parked car with a woman who was not his wife.
How bad have things gotten? With the campaign winding down, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that “the beleaguered Democrat is altering his strategy in an attempt to ensure his troubles don’t doom his party’s entire statewide ticket.” At least he’s not playing stupid “spin” games and trying to convince us that he still is in contention.
7. South Dakota Senate nominee Mike Rounds
Republicans thought this was a sure thing when Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson announced his retirement. Red state. Popular ex-governor. Anti-Obama electorate. Good Republican year. Can’t lose.
Well, yes you can.
Rounds has exhibited a severe case of overconfidence and has run a lackluster campaign (to be generous). Toss in a wild card — the independent candidacy of former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, the only politician to say no to the “American Hustle” hustlers — and you have the South Dakota road show version of the venerable musical “Anything Goes.”
I’ll still be shocked if Rounds loses. But he’s trying his best.
8. Michigan Senate nominee Terri Lynn Land
Like Texas Democrats, Michigan Republicans thought they had a chance to pull an upset on hostile partisan turf by nominating Terri Lynn Land for the Senate seat long held by retiring Democrat Carl Levin. Now, national Republicans will tell you it is one of their biggest disappointments of the year. Land’s campaign has been mediocre, at best, lacking imagination, energy and an overarching strategy. She’s been on the defensive, like her attempts to counter perceptions that her policy positions were “anti-women.” She aired an ad that was described by Republican political consultant Frank Luntz as the worst of the election season (which is saying a lot). In the ad, she drank coffee and looked at her watch and said that, as a woman, she knows more about women than her male opponent. No discussion of any issues.
The “Really?” ad, aired in May, sought to reject claims that Land is anti-woman because of her opposition to abortion and federal legislation known as the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Luntz criticized the commercial on “Fox & Friends” for failing to “give any message” or “communicate any sense of substance.”
No wonder Democrat Gary Peters — once considered a “tough sell” — has been consistently leading in the polls for months.
9. California congressional candidate Carl DeMaio
In the category of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, we take you to San Diego, where Republicans have been talking all year about their strong candidate against endangered Democratic incumbent Scott Peters.
Let’s just say the talk has shifted all of a sudden. After all, how many candidates for the House of Representatives find themselves in the bizarre position of denying that they masturbated in front of a staff member? Or groped his genitals?
That’s the plight of Carl DeMaio, a highly touted Republican candidate who had been leading in many polls in California’s 52nd Congressional District. Let’s just cut to the Oct. 10 CNN interview with his former aide, Todd Bosnich.
Bosnich: “I saw his hand —— his penis in his hand. He had a smile on his face. And as soon as I came over, he was looking at me.”
CNN reporter Chris Frates: “So there was no mistaking what was happening?”
Bosnich: “There was no mistaking whatsoever.”
According to TalkingPointsMemo, Bosnich has accused his ex-boss of “making inappropriate advances, massaging and kissing his neck, and groping.”
I should note that DeMaio categorically denies his ex-aide’s account and held a press conference to condemn it as “an outrageous lie” that has been dismissed by law enforcement authorities.
“This is an individual that was let go by our campaign manager for plagiarism, a well-documented plagiarism incident of taking a report from the National Journal and passing it off as his own work,” the candidate told CNN. “He was terminated. He admitted that he plagiarized.”
At his press conference, DeMaio went further: “It’s absolutely untrue and it’s unfortunate that an individual who is the prime suspect in the break-in at our campaign office would manufacture such an outrageous lie.”
Someone is lying. But no candidate wants to be denying this kind of thing in the final weeks of a campaign. Or ever.
10. Texas Agriculture Commission loser Kinky Friedman
Once considered a serious (or at least semi-serious) candidate for governor of Texas, this singer/songwriter/author has been failing downward. This year, he ran an erratic campaign for Texas Agriculture Commissioner and was defeated in the Democratic runoff by “not Kinky Friedman,” a.k.a., an unknown guy who was the other name on the ballot. Kinky’s top campaign issue this year was legalization of marijuana.
“I want to make this election into a referendum on lifting the prohibition on pot and hemp,” Friedman told KHOU 11 News during a campaign event in Houston. “This is about the future of Texas.”
It certainly wasn’t about Kinky’s political future.