Early next year, a Democrat will be sworn in as governor of red Montana. A Democrat will take her Senate seat in red North Dakota. Republican governors will gear up for reelection bids in blue Michigan and Wisconsin. They all won in spite of unfavorable political landscapes because candidates, and their campaigns, matter. A strong campaign and a sharp candidate can overcome long odds, while a weak campaign can wilt even with the wind at its back.
This year gave us a host of top-notch and subpar examples from whom to draw lessons. Below is our roster of the most consequential candidates--not the best, not the worst, but the candidates who proved that politics is more than a science, it's an art.
Mitt Romney: The Republican lost the White House, but there's an argument to be made that he should have won Time magazine's Person of the Year award--an award that went to President Obama instead. After all, one could make the claim that no one mattered more in the race for the presidency, not even Obama.
At a moment when the unemployment rate stood at historic highs, a pessimistic pall hung over the country and the incumbent president was unpopular, Romney needed to reinforce those feelings and place the blame squarely on Obama's head. The race practically begged to be a referendum on Obama's first four years in office, and the national atmospherics looked like that was a winning strategy.
Obama's own team acknowledged this dynamic, and sought to change the conversation. It spent tens of millions of dollars defining Romney early as the out-of-touch, heartless, and unacceptable alternative. The two best advertisements the Obama campaign ran didn't feature their candidate. They featured an off-key Romney singing patriotic songs alongside his bank accounts in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, and Romney musing on the 47 percent of America who would never vote for him.
Obama's best message, in other words, was Romney himself.
Richard Carmona: Sometimes a team plays itself into a game. Other times a team plays itself right out of contention. Richard Carmona, the Democratic Senate candidate in Arizona, did both.
The race to replace retiring Sen. Jon Kyl looked like a cakewalk for Rep. Jeff Flake. But Carmona's inspiring life story--high school dropout, Army Special Forces, self-made doctor, and SWAT leader, U.S. surgeon general--put Republican-leaning Arizona into play. Carmona's television advertisements featured news footage of the candidate dangling from a helicopter as he was saving a gunshot victim.
The race tightened, to the extent that some Democratic internal surveys showed Carmona leading. Virtually the only arrow Republicans had in their quiver was a report from a former supervisor that he had banged on her door in the middle of the night once, and that he had a problem dealing with female superiors. The attack didn't gain much traction--until Carmona made an ill-advised crack comparing a male debate moderator to CNN's Candy Crowley.
Carmona's biography was his campaign's best asset. He had to run the perfect campaign to win in a red-hued state; the candidate's own gaffe may have cost him the race late. Flake won by 4 points.
Raul Ruiz: California went through the last decade with such precisely gerrymandered districts that only one House member lost his seat. That meant both national parties hardly paid attention to the state. So when a new, independent redistricting board threw as many as a dozen races into contention, neither side really knew what to expect.
Democrats believed the growing Hispanic population in the Inland Empire was their key to unlocking an area that had stayed stubbornly Republican. Ruiz, the son of migrant farmworkers who put himself through Harvard Medical School, was the Democrat best able to take advantage of that shifting population. While Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack coasted toward an expected reelection, GOP strategists became increasingly worried about her chances.
Those fears were well-founded. On Nov. 6, Ruiz became the first Democrat to win the Palm Springs-based district. His campaign will serve as a model to Democrats trying to oust Republicans like Reps. Jeff Denham and Gary Miller, and Rep.-elect David Valadao.
Shelley Berkley, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock: Obama cruised to an unexpectedly large 6-point win in Nevada, and Sen. Dean Heller won a smaller number of votes there than Romney did. Every Republican tested was polling ahead of Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri. And Mourdock only needed to appear in the same ballpark as Romney in Republican Indiana to keep the seat.
But in each case, a candidate's self-inflicted wound cost them. The House Ethics Committee's investigation of Berkley gave Heller all the fodder he needed to run a blistering series of advertisements questioning Berkley's integrity; Heller won by just 12,000 votes. Akin's comments on rape turned off moderates and threatened the national Republican brand so much that his own party pulled funding out of the race. And Mourdock's own comments at a debate late in the race gave Donnelly the opening he needed to score the surprise upset.
Without an active ethics investigation and two bone-headed comments, Berkley, Akin, and Mourdock might be senators-elect today. Instead, they're looking for new jobs.
Rob McKenna: McKenna represented Washington state's best Republican candidate in years. A technocrat without an ideological bent, McKenna even had a base in King County, the biggest source of Democratic votes in the state. Republicans were confident that McKenna would become their first nominee since 1980 to win the governorship.
McKenna even ran a pretty solid campaign. But he fell about 70,000 votes--and 2 percentage points--short. And if McKenna couldn't do it, it's hard to imagine any Republican winning statewide in Washington. Four years from now, when Gov.-elect Jay Inslee runs for reelection, he's unlikely to face the onslaught of outside spending Republicans directed his way this year.