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2014's political winners and losers

2014 was another banner year in American politics, from a rollicking midterm election to a series of international crises to an always-combustible Congress. And as the year unfolded, some familiar names saw their fortunes rise and fall in significant ways.

It's worth remembering that politics isn't a game -- that decisions made in Washington have a real impact on the daily grind of everyday Americans. But it can also be instructive to pause and take stock of the shifting political dynamics at the end of another busy year. If past is prologue, the year that's ending -- and the fate of the players in it -- could tell us something about what comes next.

With that in mind, here's a brief examination of 2014's winners and losers: who was up, who was down, and who's still in flux.


Mitch McConnell and John Boehner

Republicans gain control of the Senate

Republicans won big in the 2014 midterm elections, but for Sen. Mitch McConnell, that victory was especially sweet. The Kentucky Republican entered the year as one of the most endangered GOP incumbents, but he eventually trumped his Democratic challenger by 15 points and saw his caucus add nine members. He's poised to assume the majority leader's post next year (a job he's long coveted), and he'll have a Republican majority of 54 senators to confront President Obama and his administration.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, padded his majority by 13 members in the midterms, and despite some grumbling among the most conservative elements of his caucus, he's likely to face no serious challenge to his leadership in the next Congress. Plus, he no longer has worry about the mutinous machinations of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, who was ousted in a stunning primary upset in June.

In 2014, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate proved they can win elections. In 2015, they'll have to prove they can govern.

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush inches closer to 2016 White House run

In December, after months of consideration, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush acknowledged he's "actively" exploring a presidential bid in 2016, the first step announced by any major contender so far.

Bush's declaration vaulted him into the top tier of potential GOP candidates, and if he does run, it's likely he'll be a favorite among the GOP's donor class, owing to his family's deep roots in the party and his own tenure in Florida (though other potential center-right candidates like Gov. Chris Christie, R-New Jersey, and Mitt Romney could make a strong bid for establishment support as well.)

2015 is likely to bring a more intense scrutiny on Bush that could reveal more vulnerability than his well-received soft debut might suggest. But as this year draws to a close, the former governor is sitting pretty as he mulls a bid to become the third president from the Bush family.

Elizabeth Warren

For all her insistence that she's not running for president, it's clear as 2014 comes to a close that Elizabeth Warren might be the only viable primary challenger to Hillary Clinton, if both decide to mount a bid.

Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton sing each other's praises

This year, she was feted at progressive conferences like Netroots Nation. She was urged time and again to run for the White House by liberal activists, many of whom have even begun organizing on her behalf (Ready for Warren, anyone?)

Her populist crusades against income inequality and Wall Street excess have endeared her to the left wing of her party, which views Clinton with skepticism. The gravitational pull of Warren's message even lured Clinton into a gaffe, when the former secretary of state declared at a midterm rally in Massachusetts, "Don't let anyone tell you...that it's corporations and businesses that create jobs." Clinton had to walk back the remark, and her awkward phrasing demonstrated a lack of fluency in the language that most animates her party's core supporters. Warren speaks it as a first language.

Even if she doesn't run for president, Warren seems poised for a long and influential tenure on Capitol Hill: after Democrats' disastrous midterm showing, Senate Democratic leaders created a new leadership post for Warren as a kind of informal liaison to progressive activists. If she's not the next president, some believe she may become the next Ted Kennedy. And that's a pretty solid fallback.


Chuck Hagel

Flash Points: Why did Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel resign?

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was supposed to be the Republican who could ably steer the Pentagon through the most dramatic budget cuts the department had seen in a generation. Instead, he became the latest victim of a bureaucratic turf war between the Pentagon and the White House on matters related to national security.

Hagel's year was not without its high points. Standout accomplishments included a successful drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after more than 12 years of war, and the initiation of a process to reform the troubled U.S. nuclear force, which has been plagued by scandal in recent years.

But it just wasn't enough. As global crises from Ukraine to Syria blossomed, Hagel grew frustrated with the White House's micromanagement of national security decisions, and the White House grew frustrated that Hagel wasn't a more aggressive advocate of the president's positions. Mr. Obama ultimately lost confidence in his defense secretary, and Hagel submitted his resignation in November.

Harry Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, talked a tough game at the start of 2014, predicting confidently that Democrats would hold their majority in the Senate.

Suffice to say, Reid's forecast didn't exactly pan out.

Not only did Democrats lose their Senate majority, ceding nine seats to an ascendant GOP, they failed to take out Mitch McConnell, the Senate's Republican leader and Reid's rival, who takes over the title of Majority Leader from Reid come January.

Could Senate "nuclear option" backfire on Democrats?

Adding insult to injury, many of the victorious GOP candidates made Reid himself the issue, pledging to retire Nevada's senior senator from the majority leader's post and complaining about his stewardship of the upper chamber. Reid paralyzed the Senate to shield his members from tough votes, Republicans complained, effectively killing dozens of House-passed bills via inaction and limiting the amendment process during floor debates. In late 2013, he also undermined the rights of the minority by invoking the so-called "nuclear option," forbidding a filibuster on any votes aside from legislation and the confirmation of Supreme Court nominees. Though the move was controversial, it allowed Reid to confirm more presidential nominees this year for Mr. Obama than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton had confirmed at this point in their terms.

It was not a good year for Senate Democrats, and Reid will shoulder much of the blame for that. In 2015, as Senate minority leader, Reid will have to prove he can still leverage his influence in meaningful ways, or his remaining time atop the Democratic caucus may not be long.

Eric Cantor, Steve Scalise, and Michael Grimm

A trio of Republican lawmakers confronted political crises in 2014, and only one remained standing.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, was defeated by a tea party candidate in a shocking primary upset in June. Cantor's defeat was blamed, in part, on his national profile and a sense that he was detached from his district. The lesson for other GOP leaders was clear: Keep your eyes on the national stage if you must, but ignore the people who sent you there at your peril.

Michael Grimm apologizes for threatening reporter: “I overreacted”

Rep. Michael Grimm, R-New York, began the year inauspiciously when he threatened to "break" a local reporter in half and throw him off a balcony in the Capitol when the reporter had the temerity to ask him about a federal investigation into Grimm's 2010 campaign finances. In April, the congressman was indicted on 20 counts of tax fraud and other charges. In December, after he pleaded guilty to one charge, he announced he would resign from Congress.

And just this week, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, who jumped into the number-three GOP leadership post after Cantor's loss shuffled the deck, was revealed to have spoken at a conference for a white supremacist group in 2002 when he was a state legislator. Scalise owned up to what he called a "mistake" and said he did not know about the group's agenda when he spoke. GOP leaders have avoided calling for his ouster, and while he may yet survive the scandal, it's an ugly black eye for Scalise to absorb just as he begins his biggest job yet.

Secret Service

Julia Pierson was supposed to be the director who would reform the Secret Service after a series of high-profile missteps, including a 2010 prostitution scandal in Cartagena and a 2013 episode involving agents' public drunkenness in the Netherlands.

Report urges major overhaul of Secret Service

Instead, a series of fresh mistakes ultimately pushed Pierson out of the job and brought confidence in the Secret Service to record lows. In September, a man armed with a knife hopped the White House fence and made it all the way inside the executive mansion before he was detained by agents. During the investigation of that incident, the agency came under fire after it was then reported that an armed private security contractor with a criminal background rode an elevator with the president during a September visit to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. And then another damaging revelation came when the Washington Post reported that the Secret Service took four days to recognize that bullets struck the White House when a gunman opened fire in 2011.

An investigation commissioned in the wake of September's fence-jumping incident revealed systemic problems with the training, staffing, and resourcing of the Secret Service, which is supposed to be one of the nation's most elite law enforcement units. As 2015 begins, the embattled agency will need a strong director to right the ship.


Chris Christie

At the end of 2013, Gov. Chris Christie, R-New Jersey, was flying high: fresh off a strong reelection showing in a blue state, with many of the trappings of a GOP establishment favorite in the 2016 presidential primary.

Then came "Bridgegate" and Jeb Bush.

Chris Christie: Bridge scandal a "footnote" by time 2016 rolls around

As the year kicked off, several Christie aides and appointees were accused of orchestrating a crushing traffic jam in a northern New Jersey township in September 2013, shutting down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in an attempt to punish a local Democratic mayor who'd declined to endorse Christie's reelection bid. The governor fired the offending parties and declared his innocence in the matter.

Pundits were quick to write Christie's 2016 obituary, but the governor seems to have put the worst behind him. A series of investigations have uncovered no evidence that he knew about his aides' scheme, and barring a fresh revelation, the matter will likely be a non-issue by 2016.

The likely entrance of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush poses the bigger threat to Christie's 2016 ambitions, particularly if Bush is able to siphon the support of a Republican establishment that was previously very receptive to the New Jersey governor. But Christie remains perhaps the best retail politician in the Republican Party, and it would be shortsighted to count him out before giving him an opportunity to light up the debate stage.

Moreover, Christie put quite a feather in his cap as the chairman of the Republican Governor's Association, overseeing record fundraising and a strong midterm election showing. The favors he earned from an incoming crop of Republican governors will surely count for something if the GOP primary drags on.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton remains the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination if she runs for president in 2016, and she continues to pose a strong challenge to most of her potential GOP rivals in early general election polls.

Will new grandma Hillary Clinton run for president in 2016?

But despite her obvious strengths, there are some early warning signs that her road to the presidency is not as clear as it may have seemed a year ago. There is a restless energy on the left wing of her party that, while unlikely to derail her march to the nomination, could produce a few headaches. And Republicans who assume their party will face Clinton in 2016 have already trained their fire on her, invoking everything from Benghazi to Monica Lewinsky.

The tour for her memoir "Hard Choices" was supposed to be a gentle foray back into the political press after four years out of politics, but sales of the book were lackluster and the media coverage largely focused on a series of gaffes related to Clinton's personal wealth.

Despite those lows, there were some highs for Clinton in 2014: She became a grandmother in September when her daughter Chelsea gave birth to a baby girl, Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky, and she managed to distance herself from some of the president's most unpopular decisions, particularly on foreign policy.

In short, despite some problems, her continued strong showing in early polls, her undoubtedly strong fundraising abilities, and her unparalleled name recognition make Hillary Clinton the one to watch in 2015. Her star is just a little tarnished, but still glowing.

President Obama

President Obama saw his party lose control of the Senate in a 2014 midterm bloodbath, and his administration was buffeted by international crises from North Korea to Ukraine to Iraq and Syria. He struggled to advance his agenda through a cantankerous Congress, and his approval ratings have been underwater all year.

Obama: "America's resurgence is real"

But he also presided over an impressive string of job creation and economic growth. His administration recovered from the rocky debut of his health care law in 2013, watching as enrollments rose, cost growth slowed, and the rate of uninsured Americans declined. He advanced significant portions of his agenda via executive action, including headline-grabbing moves on the minimum wage, immigration, and the environment. The administration continues to move detainees out of the facility at Guantanamo Bay at a relatively quick pace. And to close off the year, Mr. Obama stunned almost everyone by announcing the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years of hostility.

It was a rough year for the president, but he turned in a dogged performance nonetheless, moving his policies forward in fits and starts and proving that even a lame duck can still effect change. And with two years remaining in his presidency, it's likely there are a few more cards up Mr. Obama's sleeve.

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