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.
Tippecanoe … and Taylor, too?
As a history major, I’ve always struggled for an explanation for the surprisingly bad string of American presidents who served between 1840 and 1860.
This motley crew was politically inept. Think Millard Fillmore. James Buchanan. Franklin Pierce. Zachary Taylor.
The group also had a very high mortality rate. William Henry Harrison died one month after assuming office in March 1841. James Polk (he of Texas annexation and “Manifest Destiny”) died shortly after leaving office. And Zachary Taylor, the old (and I emphasize old) Mexican War hero died less than a year into his term, leaving Americans saddled with Fillmore, who later unsuccessfully sought to return to the presidency as the nominee of the aptly named Know Nothing Party.
I will claim some academic expertise in this period of history. My master’s thesis at the University of Pennsylvania was on the 1844 Philadelphia economic elite, which included Polk’s vice president, George Mifflin Dallas. The city of Dallas, Texas, is named after this Philadelphian who might — just might — have become the nation’s 12th president if Polk had died a few months earlier, while still in office.
With apologies to Alexis de Tocqueville, the stretch of dysfunctional democracy in America had many causes, including the implacable division between North and South over fundamental social issues, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and the triumph of extremism (and mediocrity) on Capitol Hill.
Sound familiar to your 2014 ears?
Historians have written lots about the political debacle in ante-bellum America. But they haven’t written as much about the health debacle in the White House. That’s why the story that appeared in the April 1 edition of the New York Times (it’s no April Fool’s joke) is so important.
The piece outlined speculation about the cause of William Henry Harrison’s death. Conventional wisdom has held (for 173 years) that old Tippecanoe, the oldest man to be sworn in as president until Ronald Reagan, died of pneumonia after catching cold while delivering the longest inaugural address in American history. (I think it may have equalled all four of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speeches combined. He had nothing to fear but pneumonia itself.)
But it turns out that pneumonia may not have caused Harrison’s death. The Times article casts a credible finger of blame at the potentially toxic supply of drinking water consumed by American presidents during the time before indoor plumbing:
In those days the nation’s capital had no sewer system. Until 1850, some sewage simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh; the White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for “night soil,” hauled there each day at government expense.
That field of human excrement would have been a breeding ground for two deadly bacteria, Salmonella typhi and S. paratyphi, the causes of typhoid and paratyphoid fever — also known as enteric fever, for their devastating effect on the gastrointestinal system.
According to the Times piece, Harrison’s eventual case of pneumonia is consistent with enteric fever and may just have been one of the manifestations of acute poisoning.
“As he lay dying, Harrison had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, two classic manifestations of septic shock,” Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak wrote in the Times. “Given the character and course of his fatal illness, his untimely death is best explained by enteric fever.”
Harrison was the first of three U.S. presidents to die in office (or shortly after leaving office) within a span of only nine years. I’d say that’s reason for some serious “cold case” sleuthing.
Mackowiak, a scholar-in-residence at the University of Maryland and author of “Diagnosing Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the World,” took up the challenge, joined by San Antonio writer McHugh.
They made a strong case for tainted water as being the cause of Harrison’s death, and suggested that Polk and Taylor may have been its victims, too. They noted that the 11th and 12th presidents “developed severe gastroenteritis while living in the White House. Taylor died, while Polk recovered, only to be killed by what is thought to have been cholera a mere three months after leaving office.”
There’s further evidence to suspect that Mackowiak and McHugh are onto something. The president’s quarters on the second floor of the White House did not get running water until 1853 — Fillmore is given credit by some history books for this major technological advance. After Millard’s move, no president contracted gastroenteritis or died of natural causes. (We’ll leave the mysterious 1923 death of Warren Harding to another blog post.)
So we can’t blame the failure of Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan on tainted water. Just tainted politics.
One of the realities of living in China is that I must communicate differently with friends and family.
No more drinks at the National Press Club. Cell phone calls and individual emails are an inefficient way to communicate with a large number of people.
So how have my communications methods evolved? Here are my five most frequently used sources — dominated by social media.
It is my lifeline. It is how I share my life experiences and travelogue through words and images. It reaches a large audience instantaneously. And it is my primary method of chatting with friends in America and Europe. The only problem is that Facebook is blocked by the Chinese government, so it is necessary to climb the Great Firewall of China to use it. That occasionally means some unplanned days of Facebook blackout.
I had never heard of WeChat when I arrived in China. I knew that Weibo was the Chinese combination of Facebook and Twitter. But I quickly learned (taught by my students) that WeChat is far superior. Almost nobody uses email in China. WeChat is the preferred means of communicating. Its “moments” feature allows you to post updates and photos like Facebook. And group chats allow me to communicate instantaneously with everyone in my class — or with a group of friends heading to dinner. It’s great. And there’s nothing in the U.S. quite like it. Yet.
I hadn’t realized just how much drivel gets posted on Twitter until I left the United States. So many American political reporters post so many unimportant updates. So many politicians have nothing to say. So many words (140 characters at a time). So little value. When I came to China, I spent a month “unfollowing” people who offered little insight and added some of the best tweeters in China. Now, once again, Twitter has value to me. But it is no longer my number one social media source, like it was when I was a reporter in search of breaking news, 24/7.
In the past week, I have Skyped with people in Africa, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Texas and France. It is the most cost-effective way for me to do my job as an academic. The quality is usually decent, though, as with everything in China, technology is hit or miss. But Skype allows me to see Pam regularly and to communicate with friends from America to Europe to Asia. I also spend less on long-distance calls today than I did as a college student at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you, Skype.
My students don’t use email. My colleagues rarely use email. Email is a very “Y2K” thing. But I still use it. It’s the best way to send documents or memos. And it’s the best way to have lengthy exchanges. It’s the only “old-fashioned” way I communicate.
Funny thing: None of these five methods of communication had been invented when I started my career as a journalist. My, oh my, how technology has changed our world.
The Texas political landscape has been transformed in 2013.
No, the state hasn’t gone from red to blue. But it’s gone from old to new.
Here are some of the politicians who have benefited — or suffered — from the transition:
Began the year as a U.S. Senate newcomer. Ended the year as the leader of the national Tea Party movement.
Began the year as an establishment Republican nervous about a 2014 Tea Party primary challenge. Ended the year with most leading conservative groups either on his side or on the sidelines.
Began the year as a junior member of a minority party in the Texas Senate. Ended the year as a national figure and a ballyhooed Democratic candidate for governor.
Began the year waiting for Rick Perry to decide what to do. Ended the year as a virtually unopposed Republican candidate for governor.
Began the year as a House newcomer in the minority party. Ended the year as one of his party’s rising stars on Capitol Hill and a guest on Meet the Press. Oh, he got married, too.
Began the year as a presidential longshot. Ended the year as a president longshot — and a lame duck governor.
Began the year as the most powerful person in the Texas Senate. Ended the year fighting for his political life in a re-election battle against stalwart conservatives.
Rick Perry’s UT Regents
Began the year trying to topple the university’s president and football coach. Ended the year an educational embarrassment and a political liability for the Texas Republican Party.
Began the year as an off-the-wall right-wing congressman who talked about terror babies and presidential birth certificates. Ended the year looking downright boring compared to Steve Stockman.
Began the year itching to end Fort Worth congressman Marc Veasey’s tenure after a single term. Ended the year on the sidelines as Veasey appears to be cruising to re-election.
Little by little, there are signs that I’m adjusting to life in China. I still speak terrible Chinese, but I’m making (slow) progress. Some other signs point to a shorter-than-expected period of adjustment in my new country. A few examples:
- At my apartment, I’m eating more meals with chopsticks than with forks, knives or spoons.
- I take the subway and wander the streets of Beijing without fear of getting lost.
- I venture off campus on my bicycle into the chaotic swirl of Chinese traffic.
- I add money to my subway fare card without the help of my Teaching Assistant.
- I price things in yuan and don’t convert to dollars anymore.
- I leave my passport at home when I go out.
- I don’t get upset when the Internet connection is really slooooooooooooooooooow. Like the Texas weather, just wait an hour and it’ll change.
- I don’t get upset when a car is driving down the wrong side of the road and appears to be heading straight for my bike.
- I’m posting on Weibo as often as on Twitter.
- I’m beginning to understand the difference between the four Chinese speech tones.
- I’m beginning to understand a few street signs. In Chinese.
- I’m starting to get the hang of sign language. Or maybe charades.
- I’m starting to think it’s normal to ride your bike after dark without any lights.
- I’m starting to say “ni hao” to people rather than “hello.” (With Caroline Ward, it’s still “ni howdy!”)
- I can introduce myself as “DOO-NUH REE-KUH” rather than “RICK DUNHAM.” (I’ll pass along my real Chinese name when my colleagues show me the spelling.)
- I don’t check the Internet every day to see what’s happened to the Phillies … or Nats … or Eagles … or Redskins.
- I come home every night and turn on CCTV in English to discover what good deeds President Xi has done today. And what’s new in Turkmenistan.
- I thank my lucky stars that I took this job.
People who know me well know that I don’t possess one of the larger egos in American journalism. So I’m a tad apologetic for the blatant boosterism that follows. But I wanted to do it to thank all of my friends and the public officials who took to social media to respond to this announcement.
Breaking news, Twitter friends: I’m leaving the @HoustonChron to run a graduate journalism program at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
— Rick Dunham (@rickdunham) August 13, 2013
My co-director job at Tsinghua’s Graduate Business Journalism program will allow me to pursue my love of multimedia journalism and training.
— Rick Dunham (@rickdunham) August 13, 2013
— Rick Dunham (@rickdunham) August 13, 2013
The overwhelming — and rapid — response reminded me of the power of social media. Twitter and Facebook have transformed our means of communication in just a few years. (Six years ago, when I left Business Week for the Houston Chronicle, I had to send emails to all of my friends just to let them know what had happened.)
Just like we do on Texas on the Potomac, I’ll start with Capitol Hill reaction:
Best wishes in your next journey @rickdunham Thank you for the years of professionalism
— JohnCornyn (@JohnCornyn) August 13, 2013
Congratulations to @rickdunham and thanks for your years of service! Wishing you all the best in your next endeavor.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) August 14, 2013
Even former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who’s had to deal with my questions since my days as a young pup at the Dallas Times Herald, weighed in:
— Kay Bailey Hutchison (@kaybaileyhutch) August 14, 2013
In the polarized American political world, there was bipartisan agreement — for once.
.@RickDunham, TX & DC are losing a great reporter and a true pro with your departure. You’ll be missed. All the best in your new adventure.
— Ricardo A. Ramírez (@rramirez44) August 14, 2013
— Rebecca Acuna (@racunatx) August 14, 2013
— Rich Galen (@richgalen) August 13, 2013
.@rickdunham Best of luck on your new journey. Thanks for your service to our community. Keep us informed.
— Aaron For Texas (@AaronForTexas) August 14, 2013
@rickdunham Rick, going to miss your coverage & insight! But, can you do all of us a favor and take Steve Stockman, among others, with you?
— John Weaver (@JWGOP) August 14, 2013
Reaction poured in from around the world, Helsinki to Beirut to Shanghai:
— Kristiina Helenius (@AmChamKristiina) August 14, 2013
Congratulations @rickdunham. Lucky students.
— Ayman Mhanna (@AymanMhanna) August 13, 2013
— Daniel Wright (@DanSWright) August 13, 2013
In Austin and Manhattan journalism circles, disbelief:
— Jay Root (@byjayroot) August 13, 2013
@rickdunham Wow. Just wow.
— Harold Cook (@HCookAustin) August 14, 2013
— Andrea Stone (@andreastonez) August 13, 2013
It was nice to hear from my colleagues:
@rickdunham Bummer for us, good for you! Congratulations!
— dwight silverman (@dsilverman) August 13, 2013
— Lisa Falkenberg (@ChronFalkenberg) August 14, 2013
— Carla Marinucci (@cmarinucci) August 14, 2013
— Melissa Aguilar (@MelissAguilar) August 13, 2013
Yes, Melissa. Definitely.
I’m especially grateful for the kind words from my former interns who have made me proud over the past six years.
Congrats to @rickdunham on his move to Beijing’s Tsinghua U. Those journalism grad students are lucky they’ll get to learn from him. I was.
— Priya Anand (@Priyasideas) August 13, 2013
— Alan Blinder (@alanblinder) August 13, 2013
big loss for DC print scene. will miss you rick! RT @rickdunham I’m leavingto run a graduate journalism program at Tsinghua University
— Elizabeth Traynor (@ektraynor) August 13, 2013
@rickdunham Congrats!!! What an adventure. You will be missed.
— Mackenzie Warren (@MackWarrenTV) August 13, 2013
— Emily Wilkins (@emrwilkins) August 13, 2013
— Samuel Rubenfeld (@srubenfeld) August 13, 2013
— Al Weaver (@alweaver22) August 14, 2013
— Hailey Branson-Potts (@haileybranson) August 13, 2013
And I’ll leave you with the words of that ancient Chinese philosopher Wayne Slater:
@rickdunham Wow, sorry to see u leave but what a great opportunity. A great reporter. Like the proverb: May you live in interesting times.
— Wayne Slater (@WayneSlater) August 14, 2013