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The Point's best candidate of 2017

In 2017, two states -- Virginia and New Jersey -- chose new governors. There were seven special elections in the Hous...

Posted: Dec 31, 2017 5:48 PM
Updated: Dec 31, 2017 5:48 PM

In 2017, two states -- Virginia and New Jersey -- chose new governors. There were seven special elections in the House and one big one -- Alabama -- in the Senate. Big cities like New York, Atlanta and Boston held mayoral elections.

In that slew of races, a handful of candidates stood out -- some for how good they were, others for how, um, not good they were.

Below I've picked the single best political candidate of 2017 -- and a few who deserve honorable mention as well. Stay tuned for the "winner" of the worst candidate of 2017 in a separate, future post.

WINNER: Ralph Northam

Lots and lots of people underestimated Northam in 2017. I was one of them.

As long as three years ago, influential Democrats in Virginia were fretting to me about the idea of Northam as their gubernatorial candidate in 2017. The sitting lieutenant governor had the bad rap of being a boring guy from the wrong part of the state. He would lose a race that should be winnable for Democrats in the increasingly blue commonwealth.

When former Rep. Tom Perriello announced he would meet Northam in a primary, there was an expectation that it would be a very close race -- despite the fact that Perriello got a very late start and faced almost united establishment support for Northam.

Polling in the run-up to the June primary suggested Perriello had momentum. Turned out that wasn't the case. Northam cruised, 56% to 44%, over the talented Perriello.

Northam's convincing primary win didn't turn doubters into believers, however. (Me included!) There was considerable hand-wringing that the matchup between Northam and the more polished Ed Gillespie (R) would work against Democrats.

In the final days of the general election, Democrats openly worried that Northam was blowing the race -- from his strangled explanation of his position on sanctuary cities to his seeming hedge on Donald Trump just months after he had called the President a "narcissistic maniac."

Here's what I wrote on the day before the general election:

"For months, the assumption has been that Ralph Northam would be elected Virginia governor on Tuesday night. Now, with just hours remaining before polls open in the commonwealth, the race suddenly looks like a toss-up between Northam, the Democratic lieutenant governor, and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie."

Swing and a miss!

Northam beat Gillespie by 9 points -- a far wider margin than most people (and most polls) had expected.

Northam's 2017: two races, two overperformances. Why? This quote, from a smart Democratic insider to me in the final days of the general election, nails it: "[Northam] is running a campaign that is true to him. Mainstream, practical, continue Virginia's progress."

Northam knew who he was -- low key, steady -- and hewed to that throughout the year. He didn't waver when Perriello got into the race. He didn't panic when polling suggested Gillespie was within striking distance. He just kept running as a man comfortable in his own skin.

And he won. Twice. Easily.

Honorable mentions

* Doug Jones: Yes, Roy Moore was a terrible candidate, beset by serious allegations of wrongdoing. But to focus solely on all the things Moore did wrong is to give short shrift to the quality campaign Jones ran to become the first Democrat elected to the Senate in Alabama in more than two decades. Jones kept his focus relentlessly on the state and what he could do for it in Washington, a move that made it difficult for Republicans to cast him as a shill for national (and liberal) Democrats. And perhaps most importantly, Jones was not afraid to go straight at the sexual allegations against Moore -- most effectively, to my mind, in this ad.

* Archie Parnell: Unless you follow politics really, really closely, you likely never heard the name "Archie Parnell" in 2017. But Parnell ran the best race of any Democrat in a House special election this year -- coming within 3,000 votes of pulling off a massive upset in the South Carolina 5th District seat previously held by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. (Trump carried the district by 18 points in 2016.) That's a remarkable showing for someone who had never run for elected office before. How did he do it? Wrote Politico's Bill Scher in a piece touting Parnell's as the best Democratic campaign of 2017: "By staying out of the line of fire. He was positive. He was humble. And Republicans barely knew he was there." As Scher notes, Parnell's self-effacing, anti-politician ads also helped. And yes, Parnell is running again.

* Kirsten Gillibrand: No, the New York senator didn't win any actual race in 2017. But she did herself a massive amount of good in the so-called "Invisible Primary" -- the race before the race for the Democratic nomination in 2020. Gillibrand became the face of the #metoo movement in Congress and orchestrated a successful effort to push Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign following a series of allegations from women that he had groped and forcibly kissed them. Those efforts led Gillibrand's profile to soar among the very donors that will soon begin to choose their horses for 2020.

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