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A Quarter-Century of the Best A Quarter-Century of the Best

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A Quarter-Century of the Best

A venerable political chronicle looks back.

In 1987, Republican Doug Bailey and Democrat Roger Craver set out to create a new kind of news service, mining hundreds of newspapers from across the country to bring together every scrap of political information. The result, The Hotline, went on to become a must-read for party leaders, industry professionals, and anyone who needs the in-depth coverage of the political campaigns that will shape the next governing class.

From the days of 12-hour shifts beginning at 2 a.m., early-morning runs to a distribution site in Southeast Washington, and reams of fax paper, to the digital era’s more humane 6 a.m. start time, Hotline has driven the political conversation by offering wisdom before it’s conventional. “It is galling to hear someone on Sunday regurgitating Friday’s Hotline,” the late Tim Russert once told the Los Angeles Times.


Today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reads The Hotline on his iPad. Rep. Chris Van Hollen says The Hotline helped him get out of bed in 2008, when he led his party to major gains as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—and then sent him back under the sheets in 2010, when Democrats lost the majority. When Mary Matalin and Dee Dee Myers hosted CNBC’s Equal Time, they held an on-air fundraising drive to collect pennies to afford their subscription. A generation of Capitol Hill staffers have competed to win the daily Swizzle Challenge in Hotline’s Last Call. And we’ve been the launch pad for a host of political journalists, such as CBS’s Norah O’Donnell, Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, NPR’s Ken Rudin, and Politico’s Jonathan Martin.

To Bailey and Craver, to our past editors Larry Tomayko, William Saletin, Robert Balkin, Craig Crawford, Chuck Todd, and Amy Walter, to the legions of Hotline staffers past and present, and most important, to the readers who make us a part of their daily lives, thank you for helping us mark a milestone at the center of an incredible political scene.

To celebrate our unique position, we’ve culled the best campaigns, the most important campaign innovations, and the most consequential campaign gaffes in our history. Visit us online for our roundups of the biggest upsets, the best advertisements, the biggest scandals, and more moments that have marked our 25 years in politics.



The Best Campaigns

By Reid Wilson and Chuck Todd

Working at The Hotline is like being a sportscaster for the most important game in town. For a quarter-century, we’ve had a courtside view of campaigns and elections as they’ve evolved and improved. Every year, at least one race stands head and shoulders above the rest—because of a brilliant strategy, doggedly effective tactics, or a candidate who by sheer force of will wins a race he or she probably should have lost. Here, in our view, are the 10 greatest campaigns of the past 25 years.



Long before Sarah Palin rose to national prominence as a conservative icon battling liberals, the national media, and her own party, her political career seemed to have hit a brick wall. She lost a 2002 bid for lieutenant governor, quit a state oil and gas commission, and drove an ethics complaint against another commission member—who happened to be the chairman of the state Republican Party. Then, in a state ruled by an old-boys club of Republican stalwarts, she decided to take on the sitting governor of her own party.

“Sarah Barracuda” not only beat Gov. Frank Murkowski in the primary, she destroyed him, taking 51 percent of the vote to his 19 percent. In the general election, she faced former Gov. Tony Knowles, who touted himself as the experienced hand needed to guide the state. Palin, the fresh-faced outsider at age 42, dispatched Knowles, 48 percent to 41 percent. In a year in which Democrats claimed a mandate after taking control of the House and Senate, Palin’s outsider-over-insider triumph may have been the real harbinger of the tumult to come in the following two election cycles.


California’s Gray Davis was one of the more unpopular governors in America. By February 2002, just 44 percent of Californians approved of the job the Democrat was doing. Worse for Davis, he faced the prospect of running for reelection against Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican with the money to fund a statewide race and the poll numbers to pose a real threat. (Riordan led Davis by 6 percentage points in that February’s Public Policy Institute of California survey, 46 percent to 40 percent.)

Then Davis wrote a playbook that other unpopular incumbents would follow for years afterward: He picked his rival. Davis ran so many ads slamming Riordan during the Republican primary that GOP voters opted for conservative businessman Bill Simon by a huge 18-point margin, 49 percent to 31 percent. Davis ended up facing the far weaker Simon in the general election, and he won in November, 47 percent to 42 percent. Tampering in the other party’s primary was Davis’s only hope of surviving, and he did it to perfection.

This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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