Here are my picks for the best campaigns/candidates of the year.
Winner: Rob Portman
There are a lot of reasons Republicans held the Senate this fall. But Portman's candidacy in Ohio is the most important one. Portman took a seemingly competitive race in a swing state and put it out of reach by Labor Day, allowing money that was ticketed for his state to be in other races such as those in North Carolina and Missouri, where less-skilled Republican incumbents held on for wins.
At the start of the campaign, Portman looked to be in real trouble against former governor Ted Strickland — particularly given that the Trumpization of the GOP was the direct opposite of the buttoned-down, establishment poster boy Portman.
What did Portman do when faced with this series of unexpected challenges? He went out and raised a ton of money and used it on ads slamming Strickland and casting himself as a pragmatic, nonpartisan problem solver. Ads like this one, highlighting Portman's work to end human trafficking, were indicative of the sort of results-oriented, politics-aside campaign he ran:
“Of anybody, he has had the toughest tightrope to walk between [John] Kasich, [Hillary] Clinton and [Donald] Trump,” Randy Evans, a Republican national committeeman, told the National Review's Eliana Johnson in September. “Somebody should write a textbook just based on his campaign, because that is how you run a Senate campaign.”
Absolutely right. Portman's 21-point margin over Strickland is a stunning accomplishment. Along with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Portman has now proven himself to be the best candidate Senate Republicans have.
Although Portman took the crown for best campaign, there were some other very good ones worth noting. Here's my list of honorable mentions:
* Ted Cruz: Rewind to the end of the 2014 campaign. Everyone knew the senator from Texas was going to run for president. Almost no one gave him any chance. Turns out that Cruz was the only Republican candidate with any ability to beat Trump. The fact that Cruz lost — and that he was booed when he did not endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention — obscures the quality of the campaign he ran. Cruz raised more money than anyone thought he could. His super PACs were well organized and executed on their mission. Cruz was an incredibly disciplined candidate who understood early on just how much people hated Washington, and how his unpopularity even among Republicans in the nation's capital could work to his advantage in the presidential race. Dismiss Cruz at your peril. He won't be 50 years old until December 2020.
* Jason Kander: No one — and I mean no one — had the Missouri Senate race on their radar at the start of this election cycle. So when Kander, the secretary of state, announced he was running, no one paid much attention. He was overshadowed by the likes of Strickland in Ohio and Evan Bayh in Indiana. But Kander turned into the best candidate Senate Democrats had — catching Sen. Roy Blunt by surprise and turning the race into less a partisan affair than an insider vs. outsider race. To that end, this ad was the single best one run in this campaign:
Kander didn't win. The strong Republican wind in the state — Trump carried by the state by 19 points — was too strong to overcome. But Kander ran such a good campaign that he will be at the top of Missouri Democrats' candidate wish list in 2020 and beyond.
* Bernie Sanders: Let me paint a picture for you: A 74-year-old democratic Socialist from Vermont runs for the Democratic presidential nomination against one of the best-known, best-funded and best-organized candidates in the party in decades. Your presumption is that said candidate never gets beyond a few percent of the vote in any early state and certainly never challenges the other candidate for the nomination, right? And yet that's exactly what Sanders did over the past 18 months. His campaign turned into a movement in ways that no one, not even Sanders, could have foreseen when he decided to run. And although he lost, Sanders had a huge influence on the direction of the Democratic Party — pulling Clinton to the left on issue after issue. The Sanders movement continues; some supporters are urging him to run for president in 2020 — when he will be 78! That almost certainly won't happen, but the very fact that it's something that's being talked about is evidence of the power of what Sanders built.
* Patrick J. Toomey: Sen. Toomey (R-Pa.) is one of the most underrated politicians in the country. Winning once in a Democratic-leaning state — as Toomey did in 2010 — might be a fluke. Winning twice — as Toomey did this fall — isn't. (Yes, Pennsylvania is still a Democratic-leaning state despite Trump's win there on Nov. 8.) Democrats could barely contain their joy when Katie McGinty, an also-ran in the 2014 governor's race, beat 2010 Senate nominee Joe Sestak in this year's primary. McGinty's victory, they believed, would make the campaign entirely about Trump and Toomey — a loser for the incumbent. Toomey did everything he could to avoid the national conversation about Trump — with mixed results. But that focus on what he needed to do to win the race led to a focused campaign in which Toomey, like Portman, talked almost exclusively about things his position in Washington had done for people in Pennsylvania. It was a campaign about deliverables, not partisanship.