WASHINGTON — In political parlance, 2013 was an off-off year.
With the presidential campaign in the rearview and no midterm elections on the table, this year’s political focus was mostly on the tedium of Washington, where President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans fought a lot but accomplished very little.
But with two big governor’s races, a handful of special congressional elections, a mayoral race in New York City and a Republican Party still struggling to find its footing, there was still plenty of action to keep campaign junkies occupied this year.
Here are the biggest campaign moments from 2013:
March 18: Republican National Committee releases ‘autopsy’
After Obama’s re-election, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned an independent task force to scrutinize the GOP’s failures in 2012 in hopes that the party might be able to fix its damaged brand and broken infrastructure before the next presidential race.
The report, unveiled with much fanfare in March after several months of research and consultation with party operatives, activists and elected officials, was blunt — even scathing. Its authors recommended that Republicans “change course” and “learn once again how to appeal to more people.” The GOP needs to be tougher on Wall Street, more sensitive to America’s booming Hispanic population and more appealing to a younger generation of voters, it said. The party must also fix its badly outdated voter contact and turnout operations, the report said.
For Republican pragmatists in Washington fed up with the metastasizing influence of hard-right activists in the party ranks, the so-called “autopsy” was a much-needed dose of straight talk. But for grass-roots conservatives, it felt like another attempt to impose a squishy, win-at-all-costs strategy on the party’s ideological base.
How much impact has it had? There were some exit poll bright spots for the GOP on Election Day 2013: Republican Gov. Chris Christie won a majority of Hispanic voters in New Jersey, and Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s Republican nominee for governor, won voters between the ages of 18 and 24. RNC officials used the races to test a range of voter contact strategies, and the committee installed a fresh batch of political operatives in states around the country.
But Cuccinelli lost his race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, in part because women were turned off by his staunch social conservative views on health care. Meanwhile, in Washington, House Republicans balked at passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill that might have repaired their standing among Hispanics. And tea party-aligned House members mounted an anti-Obamacare stand that resulted in a 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government and further crippled the party’s already weak standing in public opinion polls.
It’s too soon to measure GOP results against the autopsy. The first real test will come in 2014. But the 2013 election season showed that the party’s challenges are still very real.
May 7: The return of Mark Sanford
Mark Sanford’s political career was left for dead in the summer of 2009, when he mysteriously disappeared from the South Carolina governor’s mansion and later revealed in a tearful news conference that he had been in Argentina rendezvousing with a woman who was not his wife. Sanford served out his term in Columbia, but his future in national politics was over. So was his marriage.
A fierce fiscal conservative whose limited-government views presaged the emergence of the tea party movement, Sanford might have been a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 were it not for his affair.
He spent a few years in the wilderness and became engaged to his lover, but his ambition never wilted. He brazenly decided to return to public life this year, in a special congressional election prompted by former Rep. Tim Scott’s appointment to the Senate.
Sanford had many advantages: He was running in the same Republican-leaning district he once represented in Congress, and despite his scandal-tainted name, he had the twin assets of fame and money. Apologizing to voters for his past behavior and promising to fight spending in Washington, Sanford breezed past a little-known group of GOP primary opponents in April and then defeated comedian Stephen Colbert’s sister in a barely competitive general election.
Why does it matter? Sanford’s chances of being president are nonexistent, but don’t be surprised if the conservative takes a look at running for the Senate, or even his former gubernatorial seat, after a few more years of political rehab.
May 18: Virginia Republicans lurch to the right
The Republican ticket in Virginia might have been doomed from the start.
The conservatives who dominate the state party apparatus decided last year to nominate statewide candidates with a convention rather than a primary — a move designed to benefit state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a tea party hero and stalwart social conservative running for governor in 2013.
The decision meant that only a few thousand hard-core activists would be selecting the party’s candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general at the party’s state convention in May — effectively sidelining the more centrist candidates who stood zero chance of winning the GOP nomination under the circumstances.
All went according to plan: A few thousand passionate Republicans at the Richmond Coliseum tapped Cuccinelli, an outspoken controversial pastor named E.W. Jackson, and state Sen. Mark Obenshain to run in November. Candidates run independent of one another in Virginia, but taken together, it was the most ideologically conservative ticket ever nominated by Virginia Republicans.
How’d it work out in one of the country’s premier battleground states? Cuccinelli lost. Jackson lost. As for Obenshain, he lost the attorney general’s race by 165 votes and called for a recount that will begin later this month.
July 23: The Weiner news conference
Former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner’s political comeback attempt was looking pretty good this summer. After a scandal involving lewd pictures he shared with women he met online, and the ham-fisted coverup that followed, Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011. But the Democrat still had his eye on the job he had always coveted: mayor of New York City.
After image rehab that included some fawning media coverage about his time in the political wilderness and the improving state of his marriage to Huma Abedin, an aide to Hillary Clinton, Weiner was primed to jump back into the fray. And when he did, voters seemed willing to offer him a second chance. He soared to the top of the Democratic primary polls, leapfrogging the front-runner at the time, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
For a while, it appeared he could actually ride the momentum through Election Day. He was facing a weak field of opponents, was ideologically in tune with the Democratic primary electorate, and lacked any deep ties to the polarizing mayor, Michael Bloomberg. His brash personality might have turned off voters in any other corner of the country, but in New York, he fit right in.
Those hopes came crashing down in July when it surfaced that Weiner had continued his naughty Internet chats after leaving Congress and well into 2012, a timeline that didn’t square with what he had previously said. Adding insult to grave political injury, Sydney Leathers — the improbably named young woman he chatted with online — revealed that Weiner had used the alias “Carlos Danger” in their exchanges.
Weiner copped to his bad behavior in a nationally televised Manhattan press conference, with Abedin at his side, and pledged to remain in the race. But from that point on, Weiner’s campaign amounted to little — aside from some fiery confrontations with voters and tabloid copy about Abedin’s very noticeable absence from the campaign. Weiner finished in a distant fifth place in the September primary and once again vanished from the spotlight.
August 8: The Dante ad
Bill de Blasio this year became the first Democrat to be elected mayor of New York City since 1989. He has his son to thank for that.
De Blasio, the city’s public advocate and a former city councilman from Brooklyn, entered the mayor’s race as a long shot. He was a skilled political operator who had maneuvered his way up the food chain of New York City politics, but he wasn’t exactly Mr. Personality.
But de Blasio placed a prescient early bet that the city was souring on the Wall Street-friendly Bloomberg administration. Back in 2012, he outlined a tax-the-rich plan that would fund a universal pre-K program for city children. In May, he laid out a “tale of two cities” campaign theme that tapped into middle-class anxieties about income inequality. But voters still weren’t paying attention.
Enter Dante. The campaign decided to use de Blasio’s 15-year-old son in a simple campaign ad that would showcase the candidate’s mixed-race family — his wife, Chirlane, is black — while also touching on the campaign’s major themes.
Looking straight into a camera that perfectly framed up his signature Afro, Dante said his father was the “only Democrat with the guts to really break from the Bloomberg years” — and end the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk police tactics.
The ad struck a chord with the city’s Democrats and the candidate never looked back. Almost overnight, his support in the polls doubled, and he quickly overtook Quinn as the outright front-runner. At stop after stop throughout August and September, the de Blasio family was swarmed by adoring voters. De Blasio cruised to the Democratic nomination and overwhelmed his token GOP opponent to win the election in November.
November 6: Christie wins a majority of Hispanic voters
They won’t come out and say it, but Chris Christie’s political team, quietly laying groundwork for a likely presidential bid in 2016, had long hoped to use his sure-shot re-election bid in New Jersey to burnish his credentials as a Republican with crossover appeal.
They scored a huge talking point on election night. With national Republicans struggling to connect with Hispanics, a voting bloc that Mitt Romney lost by an almost 3-1 margin in 2012, Christie actually won a majority of Hispanic voters in New Jersey, clearing 51% in the exit polls.
Compared to his first race in 2009, Christie improved his performance among Hispanics by nearly 20 points.
The campaign spent over $1 million on Spanish-language television and radio and sent direct mail to Hispanic voters they had targeted as persuadable. Christie himself spoke to Latino groups and campaigned aggressively in urban areas, lining up endorsements from Hispanic leaders. Campaign aides point to the results out of the Hispanic stronghold of Union City as an indicator of his hard work: Obama thumped Romney in the city in 2012, but Christie won it in November.
Of course, Christie was running against a weak and underfunded Democratic opponent. And since his re-election, Christie has waffled on signing a “tuition equality” bill for the children of illegal immigrants that he said he supported during the campaign.
But that won’t stop his aides from touting his performance.
“His success among Hispanics in the campaign was an extension of how he governed the previous three years and the efforts he made,” said Christie adviser Mike DuHaime. “The campaign expended real resources, both financially and with the candidate’s time, to make sure the campaign did well among Hispanics. Winning them outright is a big achievement for any Republican.”
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