The 2014 Against the Grain Awards

Grading the best and worst of the campaigns at the election cycle’s halfway point.

Sen. Scott Brown holds up a photo of a fishing boat owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 15, 2014, 1:46 p.m.

There’s no All-Star break in polit­ics, un­like in base­ball this week, even though we’re close to the mid­point of the elec­tion cycle. And with more than half of the primar­ies com­pleted, most gen­er­al-elec­tion match­ups are set and cam­paigns are be­gin­ning to en­gage. There’s already been a lot of ac­tion this year: Eric Can­tor be­came the first House ma­jor­ity lead­er ever to lose a primary, a “kiss­ing con­gress­man” re­tired and then un-re­tired, and Sen. Thad Co­chran just com­pleted one of the most un­likely primary comebacks in re­cent memory.

So to mark the un­of­fi­cial start of the gen­er­al elec­tion, here’s my list of the good, the bad, and the ugly from the 2014 elec­tion so far.

Most sur­pris­ing can­did­ate: Joni Ernst (R), Iowa Sen­ate nom­in­ee

What a dif­fer­ence a year makes. The early con­ven­tion­al wis­dom on Iowa’s Sen­ate race was that Re­pub­lic­ans lacked top-tier can­did­ates and faced a high risk of nom­in­at­ing a too-con­ser­vat­ive, less-elect­able can­did­ate. After com­fort­ably win­ning the primary, Ernst is prov­ing that she’s one of the top Sen­ate re­cruits in the coun­try. Her farm­ing back­ground and mil­it­ary ex­per­i­ence are ma­jor bio­graph­ic­al as­sets, al­low­ing her to draw a sharp con­trast with Demo­crat Bruce Bra­ley, an at­tor­ney. And Demo­crats haven’t found any dam­aging oppo against her (yet), while Bra­ley has struggled to get past his video­taped com­ments at a fun­draiser mock­ing Sen. Chuck Grass­ley for be­ing a farm­er without a law de­gree.

HON­OR­ABLE MEN­TION: Geor­gia Sen­ate can­did­ate Michelle Nunn (D); Kan­sas gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee Paul Dav­is (D)

Most dis­ap­point­ing can­did­ate: Former Sen. Scott Brown (R), New Hamp­shire Sen­ate can­did­ate

There’s plenty of time for Brown to things to turn around, but the former sen­at­or from Mas­sachu­setts hasn’t been able to trans­late his brand-name iden­ti­fic­a­tion and mod­er­ate per­sona in­to mak­ing the race against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen truly com­pet­it­ive. He holds a net un­fa­vor­able rat­ing, ac­cord­ing to a Ju­ly Gran­ite State poll, with 40 per­cent view­ing him neg­at­ively and win­ning only 38 per­cent against the in­cum­bent. Shaheen, mean­while, is still very pop­u­lar even as the pres­id­ent’s low ap­prov­al rat­ings threaten to drag down her fel­low Demo­crats. It’s look­ing like it will take a Re­pub­lic­an wave to bring Brown back to Con­gress.

HON­OR­ABLE MEN­TION: Michigan Sen­ate can­did­ate Terri Lynn Land; Iowa Sen­ate can­did­ate Bruce Bra­ley

Dav­id Brat (Jay Paul / Getty)Biggest up­set: Dave Brat de­feat­ing House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor (R)

The scope of the Ran­dolph Ma­con eco­nom­ics pro­fess­or’s vic­tory over the ma­jor­ity lead­er was as im­press­ive as the up­set it­self. Brat won 56 per­cent of the vote, and he car­ried six of the 10 counties in Can­tor’s dis­trict, in­clud­ing the con­gress­man’s home base of Hen­rico.

HON­OR­ABLE MEN­TION: Rep. Dav­id Jolly (R) de­feat­ing Alex Sink (D) in FL-13 spe­cial elec­tion; Dav­id Young’s (R) con­ven­tion win in IA-03

Best ad, non-pig-cas­tra­tion di­vi­sion: Mark Be­gich (“Fath­er to Son”)

Be­gich’s in­vent­ive ad cam­paign, led by Demo­crat­ic me­dia strategist Mark Put­nam, has fo­cused on his long-stand­ing Alaska roots. This sen­ti­ment­al bio­graph­ic­al spot con­nects Be­gich’s ser­vice to the state with his fath­er, Nick, who died in a 1972 plane crash while serving as Alaska’s at-large rep­res­ent­at­ive. The ad, nar­rated by his wife, fea­tures old cam­paign foot­age from his fath­er, while un­der­scor­ing his in­de­pend­ence from Wash­ing­ton. Run­ning in a deeply Re­pub­lic­an state, Be­gich needs voters to view him more than just an­oth­er Demo­crat­ic vote in the Sen­ate — and this ad set the stage de­fin­ing him in a per­son­al way that few oth­er polit­ic­al ads man­age to achieve.

HON­OR­ABLE MEN­TION: Ore­gon Sen­ate can­did­ate Mon­ica We­hby (R) ad: “Trust”

Worst ad: Terri Lynn Land (“Really?”)

Terri Lynn Land’s Ad (You­Tube)In April, as she en­joyed a small lead in polls, Demo­crats cri­ti­cized GOP Michigan Sen­ate can­did­ate Terri Lynn Land for her op­pos­i­tion to equal-pay le­gis­la­tion. In re­sponse, her cam­paign aired an ad mock­ing the no­tion that she was wa­ging a “war on wo­men” by hav­ing her sip a cup of cof­fee and check­ing her watch. The goal of the spot was to point out the ri­dicu­lous­ness of the at­tack. But by not en­ga­ging in the ar­gu­ment, she may have un­wit­tingly ac­cep­ted the premise — at least in the eyes of view­ers.

In­deed, a new NBC/Mar­ist poll shows Land isn’t get­ting any polit­ic­al ad­vant­age be­cause she’s fe­male: Demo­crat­ic Rep. Gary Peters leads Land by 13 points, 46 per­cent to 33 per­cent among wo­men.

HON­OR­ABLE MEN­TION: GA-12 can­did­ate John Stone (R), shoot­ing a can­non

Most ef­fect­ive sur­rog­ate: Former Pack­ers QB Brett Favre, on be­half of Sen. Thad Co­chran

Brett Favre didn’t play the biggest factor in Sen. Thad Co­chran’s come-from-be­hind Mis­sis­sippi Sen­ate run­off vic­tory against Chris McDaniel, but his ad en­dors­ing Co­chran’s clout stood out in a cluttered ad­vert­ising land­scape. The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, which com­mis­sioned the ad, has a Favre-like re­cord in con­gres­sion­al primar­ies this cycle, go­ing un­defeated so far.


Dead man walk­ing: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R)

Tom Corbett (Mario Tama / Getty)It’s hard to over­state how much trouble Corbett is in. A Frank­lin and Mar­shall poll re­leased this month shows him trail­ing Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger Tom Wolf by 22 (!) points, 47 per­cent to 25 per­cent. Barely a ma­jor­ity (55 per­cent) of his own party’s voters sup­port his reelec­tion. While oth­er tar­geted gov­ernors, like Flor­ida’s Rick Scott and Michigan’s Rick Snyder, have seen their ap­prov­al num­bers im­prove re­cently, Corbett’s have headed stead­ily down­ward since his elec­tion. The biggest ques­tion re­main­ing for the gov­ernor is if he’ll be able to sur­pass San­tor­um’s reelec­tion mark of 41 per­cent in 2006 — one of the low­est totals for any in­cum­bent not plagued by scan­dal.

HON­OR­ABLE MEN­TION: Rep. Mi­chael Grimm (R) of New York, Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R) of Michigan, Sen. John Walsh (D) of Montana

Most dam­aging early oppo hit: Mary­land gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Doug Gansler, pho­to­graphed at beach week

Mary­land At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Doug Gansler star­ted out as a strong con­tender for high­er of­fice but nev­er was able to shake off the per­cep­tion that he wasn’t quite ready for prime time. After a photo of him at­tend­ing his teen­age son’s wild beach-week party sur­faced last Oc­to­ber, Gansler found him­self on the de­fens­ive throughout the cam­paign. He nev­er was able to catch up to front-run­ning Mary­land Lt. Gov. An­thony Brown, who now is likely to be­come the state’s next gov­ernor.

HON­OR­ABLE MEN­TION: Ore­gon Sen­ate can­did­ate Mon­ica We­hby (stalk­ing charges); Mis­sis­sippi Sen­ate can­did­ate Chris McDaniel (sup­port­er break­ing in­to nurs­ing home)

Biggest bell­weth­er: North Car­o­lina Sen­ate race

Kay Hagan (Alex Wong / Getty)The con­test between Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and Re­pub­lic­an Thom Tillis is as likely as any to de­term­ine who con­trols the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity in 2015. Un­like many of her red-state col­leagues, Hagan doesn’t have the ex­per­i­ence (she’s a fresh­man) or fam­ily con­nec­tions (a la Pry­or, Landrieu, Be­gich) to over­come a dif­fi­cult polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment for Demo­crats. But in Tillis, she’s fa­cing the speak­er of the state House whose con­ser­vat­ive agenda has po­lar­ized the elect­or­ate and could drive Demo­crats to the polls. Demo­crats boast a deep field op­er­a­tion in the Tar Heel State, seek­ing to turn out voters who don’t re­li­ably vote in midterm elec­tions — single wo­men, Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, stu­dents. If they suc­ceed in North Car­o­lina, it’s an en­cour­aging sign for Demo­crat­ic pro­spects else­where.

HON­OR­ABLE MEN­TION: Col­or­ado Sen­ate race, Col­or­ado’s Sixth Dis­trict, Iowa’s Third Dis­trict

The play­ing un­der pain award. Mas­sachu­setts gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Steve Gross­man (D)

No con­test here: Gross­man, the Mas­sachu­setts state treas­urer, par­ti­cip­ated in a 90-minute Demo­crat­ic for­um in March while passing a kid­ney stone. His epic per­form­ance spurred a par­ody Twit­ter ac­count @gross­mans­stone, but it didn’t help him in the polls against front-run­ner Martha Coakley.

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