Campaigns are made up of consultants, pollsters and various other strategists, but it's the candidate that ultimately matters most. And the great ones make their supporting cast look very smart.
Today we are handing out The Fixy — the coveted political awards that we, well, made up — for the best candidate of the 2012 election. On Monday, we gave out The Fixy for the worst candidate of 2012, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R). (Don't miss our picks for the best and worst ads of the election!)
There were a lot of choices for best candidate, but one stood above all the rest. We are giving The Fixy for best candidate of 2012 to North Dakota Sen.-elect Heidi Heitkamp (D) for an unlikely win that defied the Republican tilt of her state.
Mitt Romney easily won North Dakota with 58 percent of the vote. But his margin of victory there over President Obama wasn't enough to boost Rep. Rick Berg (R) down the ballot. Heitkamp ran a remarkable 11 points ahead of the president to defeat Berg 50 percent to 49 percent.
While part of the disparity between the presidential race in North Dakota and the Senate contest had to do with Berg's flaws as a candidate, the strength of Heitkamp's candidacy was a major reason Democrats held onto a seat that once looked poised to fall into Republican hands.
When Sen. Kent Conrad (D) announced his intention to retire in January 2011, it looked like there was another ripe pickup opportunity for the GOP in an increasingly Republican state. In 2010, Republican John Hoeven succeeded Byron Dorgan (D) in the Senate, and Earl Pomeroy (D) was dislodged from the state's only House seat by Berg. Conrad's retirement "dramatically reshapes this race in the Republicans' favor," a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman said at the time.
Democrats didn't wave a white flag. Instead, they recruited Heitkamp, a former state attorney general and candidate for governor. While she began as a decided underdog against Berg, Heitkamp waged a savvy campaign in which she crafted a moderate profile.
In a state where the energy industry is vital to the economy, Heitkamp made all of the right moves. She blasted Obama's decision to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline and said the president was "wrong on energy."
Republicans routinely tried to link Heitkamp to Obama in campaign ads, but it didn't work as well as it did other places. Unlike many other Senate nominees, including Berg, Heitkamp didn't have a congressional voting record for opponents to tear into. Meanwhile, her own ad campaign, which was helmed by Mark Putnam, was among the very best. Her positive spots were effective countermeasures against the attacks she faced.
North Dakota was consistently near the top of Republicans' wish list for most of the cycle, and Heitkamp's win there was among the most stinging defeats for the GOP.
There were other impressive candidate performances during this election. Here’s a few that are deserving of honorable mention:
* Ted Cruz: It's difficult to overestimate how heavily favored Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) once was to succeed retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R). Dewhurst had widespread name identification, seemingly bottomless pockets, and the support of Perry (who despite a lousy national campaign, remains an influential figure in the Lone Star State). Cruz began his Republican bid as a little-known former state solicitor general facing long odds. But by sticking to a staunchly conservative message and delivering well-received speeches, the underdog — who has drawn comparisons to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — inspired conservatives in the state to support him and influential national conservatives such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and the anti-tax Club for Growth to spend money on his behalf. Cruz forced Dewhurst into a runoff after a three-way primary (the crowded field helped Cruz) and won the GOP nod at the end of July. The general election campaign was a virtual formality for Cruz in the heavily Republican state. He won easily on Nov. 6 and heads to Washington in January as one of the highest-profile new senators.
* Elizabeth Warren: While Warren was tripped up by her response to a story about her claim to Native American heritage, the Democrat steadied the ship under immense pressure to put Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass.) seat back into Democratic hands. She raised eye-popping sums of money, turned in some steady debate performances and erased Brown's edge in personal popularity — a big part of his political success. Yes, Massachusetts is a very Democratic state, but it's one that historically hasn't been favorable to female candidates. What's more, Brown was no pushover.
* John Barrow: Barrow — the only remaining white Democratic congressman from the Deep South — is a survivor. Redistricting made Georgia's 12th District more Republican, but that didn't prevent Barrow from winning a fifth term. The Democrat ran an effective ad campaign in which he didn't shy away from the votes he felt were helpful to his district and even maintained a sense of humor. He was candid about where he agreed and disagreed with Obama, and reached out to conservative white voters and liberal African Americans. Barrow was helped along by a flawed opponent, but that wasn't enough on its own for Democrats to hold the seat. Barrow had to run a top-notch campaign, which he did. It's not easy being a Democrat in the South these days, but as Barrow showed, it's not impossible to win as one, either.
* Jim Matheson: Like Barrow, Matheson is a survivor. Even as polls showed the Utah Democratic congressman trailing Republican Mia Love in the late stages of the race, he overcame the odds to defeat one of the highest-profile Republican House challengers in the country. Redistricting prompted Matheson to run in the new 4th District instead of his 2nd District, but he was still competing on conservative turf. Since being reelected, Matheson has sought to reinforce his image as a conservative Democrat, coming out once again in opposition to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's (Calif.) bid for another term at the head of the Democratic caucus.
Who did we miss?
— Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza contributed to this post.