Last year, I inaugurated the Americana Awards — a list of superlatives, celebrating the best performances in politics, with no actual prizes whatsoever. There was less on the ballot this year, and fewer surprises.
The education gap, which replaced the class gap between the major parties years ago, shaped nearly everything, from Donald Trump’s recovery in the GOP race and Democratic over-performance in state court campaigns to the chart-busting success of Oliver Anthony, Jason Aldrean, and “Sound of Freedom.” Conservatives sometimes won cultural victories where they couldn’t win votes; the boycotts of Bud Light and Target worked, but anti-wokeness didn’t do much for Ron DeSantis or down-ballot Republicans.
Best winning campaign (non-candidate): Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom, a coalition that beat the anti-abortion movement in the red state twice. In August, it mobilized to defeat a Republican effort to limit voter-passed constitutional amendments by 14 points; in November, it won again, passing a “reproductive freedom” amendment by nearly the same margin. Republicans, who run all but one statewide office, campaigned against them; Secretary of State Frank LaRose let abortion foes craft the final ballot language. None of that worked, and the abortion rights side twice won hundreds of thousands of votes from people who’d abandoned the Democratic Party.
Best winning campaign (incumbent): Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, winning re-election by 5 points over a Republican who looked like the future of his party. He outspent Daniel Cameron $40 million to $30 million, and benefited from an expensive GOP primary. But to win, he needed to convince more than 100,000 Kentuckians who were voting Republican down-ballot to support a Democrat at the top, as Cameron ran ad after ad featuring his Trump endorsement. Beshear ran on the booming state economy and tripped up Cameron over the state’s abortion ban. (More on that later.)
The race was also a case study of how the GOP’s anti-trans messaging fell flat. “I can’t tell you how many parents that I’ve talked to said their kids weren’t exposed to those things in schools or libraries,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear told Semafor after he won, referring to Cameron’s ads that warned of child gender surgery and sexual material in schools. “They were exposed to that through his commercials.”
Best winning campaign (challenger): Louisiana Gov.-elect Jeff Landry, who won his race without a runoff, and arguably locked it up long before that. Landry was always the favorite to replace Gov. John Bel Edwards, but he and his allies went on the air early, reintroducing himself as a former cop who would countermand liberal DA orders in the state’s biggest urban parishes and make juvenile criminal records public. He coupled that with appeals to Black voters on crime and shared values, winning some Democratic votes as their party’s turnout collapsed.
Best losing campaign: Glenn Youngkin and his Spirit of Virginia PAC, which came within a few thousand votes of capturing both houses of the state legislature. A simpler way to say that: They lost. But they did so while running very close to Youngkin’s 2021 vote and carrying every seat that backed Joe Biden by less than 8 points, a feat that escaped Republicans elsewhere.
Best Campaign Ad: Andy Beshear for Governor, “Unthinkable.” The viewer is locked in from the very first sentence: “I was raped by my stepfather.” Hadley Duvall’s straight-to-camera ad put a face on the state’s abortion ban, which Cameron had defended. It also rattled the Republican nominee, who suddenly said he could support exceptions to the law.
Worst Campaign Ad: Never Back Down, “Trump Attacks Iowa.” On first glance, it’s just a misguided attack ad that had no effect on its target. Trump was bad-mouthing Gov. Kim Reynolds for holding events with other candidates, and NBD’s polling found that he might be vulnerable on that, but it wasn’t all that important to caucus-goers. But why does Trump’s voice sound so tinny? It was an AI reconstruction of a post he’d written, creating a bad news cycle for no good reason. By the end of the year, DeSantis allies had abandoned NBD and were counting on a new PAC to run more effective, error-free ads.
Worst Best Friends: Talkative mega-donors, whose freelance advice and criticism created time-wasting news cycles for Youngkin, DeSantis, and Tim Scott. Thomas Peterffy couldn’t stop gabbing about how flipping the Virginia Senate could launch a Youngkin presidential bid, a take that helped the governor raise money — while helping Democrats sound the klaxons and raise even more. Ken Griffin let it be known that DeSantis had made a mistake by signing a six-week abortion ban. And Larry Ellison didn’t even bother helping out Scott when he needed it most.
Best Bet: Donald Trump’s decision to skip the GOP primary debates. It wasn’t unprecedented, but it wasn’t obvious to everyone that Trump could ignore the RNC-sponsored events. Would he look weak? Would it raise questions about his acuity? No and no: Trump blew off his hand-picked party chair, denied his former vice president the confrontation he craved, and let the other candidates sling oppo at each other while he held rallies. By November, Trump was diverting media outlets from the Miami debate to his own event, down the road; by December, DeSantis was scrapping a donor event around the fourth debate, deep-sixed thanks to low interest.
Worst Bet: Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s promise to “oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard.” The anti-abortion movement’s problems have been overrated; it executed a long-planned strategy to ban and limit the practice everywhere it could after the fall of Roe. But its demand for clarity from GOP presidential candidates was a flop. Donald Trump refused to play along, and Nikki Haley came to SBA Pro-Life’s headquarters to undermine the whole idea, telling the audience that “no Republican president will have the ability to ban abortion nationwide.” The candidates who did embrace a 15-week limit — Tim Scott and Mike Pence — dropped out before any votes were cast.
Best Political Book: “The Squad,” by Ryan Grim. His reporting at The Intercept and his interviews on “Breaking Points” have consistently produced some of the best stories and interrogation of the post-2016, Bernie Sanders-era left. Grim’s book incorporated all of that and built it out, telling the left’s side of campaign and policy fights that was often spun against them in initial coverage.
Best Presidential Biography: “An Ordinary Man,” by Richard Norton Smith, the definitive study of Gerald R. Ford. Smith has been writing the stories of “Modern Republicans” — the post-New Deal moderates who would be swept aside by the conservative movement — for a generation. This is his best work yet, packed with color and insights, dynamiting the caricature of Ford as a dunce who stumbled into power.
Best (Almost) Presidential Biography: “Romney,” by McKay Coppins, built from the senator’s personal papers and many probing interviews with the author. The 2012 GOP nominee is haunted, frustrated, and sometimes catty; Coppins is fair, not hagiographic. It’s a good companion to the Ford book — a class in how Romney accidentally helped create a party that didn’t want him.