The Best and Worst of the 2012 Campaigns, Part II

by Stuart Rothenberg December 14, 2012 · 10:30 AM EST

My last column included awards for a number of 2012 campaign and candidate categories, including the luckiest candidate and the biggest upset. But those only scratched the surface in an election year during which candidate quality mattered a great deal. Part II of my guide of the best and worst of the 2012 election cycle features some usual and a few more unusual categories.

Favorite Candidate Interviews of 2012
I had a number of enjoyable candidate interviews this cycle, with both candidates who won and those who didn’t. My list certainly includes Hayden Rogers, a former chief of staff for retiring Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., who would have won if he had been running in 1978, not 2012. But times and the district’s makeup have changed, and Rogers’ party identification was enough to sink him in this western North Carolina district.

Incoming Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., proved to be an unapologetic conservative who understands that the nature of a legislative body means give and take, not “my way or the highway.” When I asked him whether he could compromise on big issues like the debt ceiling, he told me that, as a tax attorney, he never, ever got everything that he wanted.

I also really liked California Democrat Scott Peters and Ohio Democrat Joyce Beatty, both of whom got elected, and Arizona Republican Kirk Adams, who didn’t even get out of his primary. And I’d give high marks to New York GOP Rep. Chris Gibson, who won a second term, and to Rep.-elect Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who is only at the beginning of what is likely to be a long career.

But two candidates truly stand out, and I’ll make them co-winners of this category: Florida Democrat Al Lawson and Indiana Republican Susan W. Brooks.

Though Lawson lost (and never really had a chance, given the district he ran in), I found him to be a likable, sincere person with a great personal story and a wonderful personality. If Brooks, who was a prosecutor and college administrator before winning last month, doesn’t rise quickly in GOP House ranks, party movers and shakers are nuts. She’s personable, articulate and has a good head on her shoulders — exactly what the Republican Party needs.

Least Favorite Candidate Interviews of 2012
OK, so not every candidate interview is a good one. Maryland Democrat Rob Garagiola, Florida Republican Connie Mack and Arizona Republican Jesse Kelly interviewed far worse than any other candidates this cycle, so they share this award.

Garagiola, who I believe is still my state senator, came off as arrogant and smug. Those two words also describe outgoing Congressman Mack, who seemed to have a chip on his shoulder even before we shook hands. And Kelly was the least cooperative candidate I’ve ever met, refusing even to reflect on why he had lost his previous congressional race.

Worst Hair of the Cycle

The nominees:
Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson
Stuart Rothenberg

Different problems, all involving hair or the lack of it. I have to disqualify myself from voting on this one. Let’s call it a four-way photo finish.

Most Overhyped Candidate of 2012
House and Senate campaign committees and political reporters tend to fall in love with some candidates who actually don’t live up to their billing. This cycle, the most obvious examples include California Republican wunderkind Ricky Gill, who lost by 9 points to Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney; Illinois Republican Jason Plummer, who didn’t come close to picking up an open seat Republicans assumed was theirs; and Arizona Senate nominee Richard Carmona, the only Democrat to come up short in a tossup Senate race.

But this year’s winner of the “Kay Barnes Overhyped Candidate Award” is Christie Vilsack, wife of Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor and current secretary of Agriculture. She drew just 45 percent of the vote against Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King.

Democrats made Vilsack’s challenge to the conservative King a cause célèbre, but she really didn’t get close. Maybe district voters had the same impression of her that I did when I wrote about her “rope-a-dope strategy on big, ideological issues” in my Oct. 28, 2011, column, “Think You Can Be a Political Handicapper?”

Best Name of an Incoming House Freshman

The runners-up:
Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla.
Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.
Ted Yoho, R-Fla.
Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.

OK, so those are all good names. In a normal year, Yoho would have been a slam dunk. But this year’s clear and convincing winner for best name of an incoming freshman is Beto O’Rourke.

Best Campaign by Someone Named Hernandez

The nominees:
Anthony J. Hernandez, R-Minn.
David R. Hernandez, R-Calif.
John S. Hernandez, D-Calif.
Jose M. Hernandez, D-Calif.

This was a tough year for candidates named Hernandez. All four lost, though at least former astronaut Jose ran a real campaign and lost by only a few points. By process of elimination, he is the “winner.” He’s already being mentioned as a possible candidate again in 2014.

Comeback Candidate of the Year
There is something appealing about a politician who loses or retires into obscurity and yet has the fortitude and tenacity to mount a comeback effort. It could be a never-say-die attitude or, possibly, simply a refusal to take no for an answer.

This year, there is a long list of winners who lost their previous races, including New Hampshire Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, New York Democrat Dan Maffei, Nevada Democrat Dina Titus, Arizona Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick and others.

But to win this category, a mere comeback isn’t enough. It has to be something special. So the co-winners are Texas Republican Steve Stockman and Minnesota Democrat Richard Nolan.

Stockman lost bids for Congress in 1990 and 1992 before winning election to the U.S. House in 1994. But, alas, Stockman’s career took a dive again two years later in 1996, when he lost a bid for re-election against Nick Lampson. And Stockman kept his streak going two years later, when he lost a primary bid for Texas railroad commissioner. But this year, 18 years after his lone victory, Stockman ran again and won himself a seat in Congress.

Nolan, who served three terms in Congress during the 1970s, simply walked away from the House in 1980 to “remake” his life, and he wasn’t on anyone’s radar when he decided to run this cycle to end his more than three-decade hiatus.

Though I wrote a column almost 18 months ago about his comeback bid, I certainly didn’t think he would win the Democratic nomination in Minnesota’s 8th District, let alone the general election. (See “30 Years Later, Nolan Consiers Comeback Bid” from June 7, 2011.) But he did, making for a truly remarkable comeback story in a remarkable political year.