It’s been a wild political year, and what better way to cap off 2010 than with the first annual “Against the Grain” awards?
Forget traditional categories like best campaign and worst candidate. I’ve assembled some, well, unconventional awards to the superlative and not so superlative.
Most Surprisingly Effective Campaign: Sen.-elect Ron Johnson, R-Wis., for coming out of nowhere with little establishment support and scoring one of the most impressive upsets against Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. When Johnson entered the race, leading GOP strategists barely knew who he was.
That quickly changed, after a string of effective commercials going after Feingold’s strength—his independence.
Honorable mention: Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R-Fla.); Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
Most Unlikely Member: Rep.-elect Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., for defeating one of the most entrenched members of Congress in Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn. In his 36-year congressional career, Oberstar routinely racked up vote totals higher than 70 percent. Oberstar wasn’t seen as remotely vulnerable until the campaign’s final weeks.
Honorable Mention: Reps.-elect Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.)
Most Damaging Scandal: California GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman, for employing an illegal immigrant as a nanny and then throwing her under the bus after her immigration status was publicized. Democrats pounced and it worked. Hispanics made up a greater share of the electorate this year than in even the last presidential election, and overwhelmingly backed Gov.-elect Jerry Brown with 64 percent of the vote.
Honorable mention: Ohio Republican congressional candidate Tom Ganley, Iowa Republican congressional candidate Brad Zaun
Rags to Riches: Rep.-elect Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, for being written off by strategists, pundits, and scribes alike and still beating Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick easily.
Honorable mention: Rep.-elect Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), Rep.-elect Tom Marino (R-Pa.)
Biggest Freefall: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, for starting out as a GOP recruiting star, getting presidential buzz for 2012, and is now a man without a party. By transparently switching positions out of political expedience, Crist alienated his allies, annoyed his enemies, and utterly failed to read the political climate that valued principle over pandering.
Honorable mention: Missouri Senate nominee Robin Carnahan, Illinois gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady.
Time to Hang It Up: Illinois Democrat Dan Seals, for losing for the third straight time for the seat of now-Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. In 2006, he fell short in a superb Democratic year for Kirk’s Democratic-leaning seat. In 2008, he ran down-ballot from President Obama—who cut an ad for his campaign—and still couldn’t win. With Kirk running for the Senate and Republicans privately pessimistic of holding the seat, Seals managed to do the impossible: lose three straight times with three favorable opportunities.
Honorable mention: ex-Rep. Mike Sodrel, New York congressional candidate Doug Hoffman
Most Bang for the Buck Award: Rep.-elect Joe Walsh, R-Ill., who eked out a 290-vote victory over Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Ill., after spending just $563,000 in a district where buying broadcast ads costs millions. He can thank Democrats for overlooking him, not airing ads attacking him, and buying expensive air time blasting GOP nominees in neighboring districts.
Honorable mention: Reps.-elect Farenthold, Cravaack.
Least Bang for the Buck: Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who spent more than $5 million—almost three times as much as GOP Rep.-elect Daniel Webster—and got only 38 percent of the vote. It was one of the worst showings for any incumbent, and a clear sign that money can only go so far in overcoming ideological baggage.
Honorable mention: Nevada Republican Senate nominee Sharron Angle.
Most Unlikely Tea Party Success: Gov.-elect Paul LePage in Maine, who outperformed compatriots running statewide for the Senate in Colorado and Nevada, all the while winning in a more liberal state. Part of it was thanks to the utter collapse of the Democratic nominee, Libby Mitchell, who won just 19 percent of the vote.
Honorable mention: Reps.-elect Allen West (R-Fla.), Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.)
The Jayson Werth Award for Overspending: Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon, for loaning herself more than $49 million and still getting shellacked by Democratic Sen.-elect Richard Blumenthal. McMahon knew her WWE background would be a tough sell for Connecticut voters, but had no qualms opening up the spigots. And now she’s looking at running again in 2012.
Honorable mention: Florida Senate candidate Jeff Greene, Whitman.
Teacher’s Pet: Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., for accomplishing the rare feat of a Republican winning the postgraduate vote, according to exit polling in Illinois. Kirk defeated Democrat Alexi Giannoulias by 10 points among those with graduate degrees. It’s a testament to how damaging the allegations of corruption surrounding Giannoulias’s family bank were—and a credit to Kirk’s appeal to suburban voters that often elude Republican candidates in Illinois.
Honorable mention: Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich (R), Sen.-elect Dan Coats (R-Ind.)
The Premature Declaration of Victory Award: Alaska Republican Joe Miller, who was so confident he had the Senate race wrapped up after defeating Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary that he tweeted he should do some “house-hunting” when in Washington, and added that he’d need a “name plaque” for his congressional office. You can’t talk trash if you can’t back it up at the ballot box.
Honorable mention: California Senate nominee Carly Fiorina.
And finally, The Throwing Your Mom Under the Bus Award: Failed Oregon congressional candidate Sid Leiken, who wrote a $2,000 check to his mom’s marketing business to ostensibly conduct polling, which was never accounted for. One major problem: His mother’s firm had limited background in polling, and couldn’t produce a copy of the poll. After Democrats raised questions about the arrangement, Leiken tearfully apologized, but it was too late. The episode made a once-credible recruit look like a laughingstock—and a mama’s boy, to boot. He didn’t make it to the Republican primary.