During the political roller coaster ride of Election 2010, plenty of Democrats and a few Republicans lost their jobs in Congress, and President Obama saw his political fortunes shift ominously with the November shellacking of his party. But it wasn't a bad year for everyone. Here are eight American politicians who rose from obscurity to prominence.
1. Scott Brown
Brown shocked Massachusetts Democrats, and Washington, on Jan. 19 when he won the Senate seat left open by Sen. Ted Kennedy's death. Brown, an obscure state senator and former fashion model, beat the once-prohibitive frontrunner Martha Coakley, the Democratic state attorney general, thanks to a surge of Tea Party support and Coakley's campaign missteps. "Not since John Kennedy has a personality of Scott Brown's appeal emerged from Senatorial ranks," said Peter Worthington in the Toronto Sun. "He's not Ronald Reagan (yet), but he's an original who's captured the imagination of the nation."
2. Rand Paul
An ophthalmologist who had never held elective office, Rand Paul rocketed to prominence on May 18 when he won Kentucky's Republican primary against Trey Grayson, the handpicked candidate of the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell. Paul's winning coalition of Tea Party conservatives and fans of his father (libertarian-GOP icon Ron Paul) held together through an anti–Civil Rights Act gaffe and the media's discovery of a now-notorious college prank involving "Aqua Buddha." Paul trounced Democrat Jack Conway to become Kentucky's junior senator and a certified Tea Party star. After his Tea Party–fueled triumph, Paul earned "Scott Brown-like status as the Most Powerful Republican In The World," said Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic.
3. Chris Coons
In the race for Vice President Joe Biden's old Senate seat, Democratic Delaware county executive Coons was all-but-sure to lose to Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE)... until the moderate Castle lost his Sept. 14 Republican primary to Tea Party insurgent Christine O'Donnell. O'Donnell became a star in her own right that night, but Coons' easy win in November provided Democrats a rare bright spot. O'Donnell's "fresh-faced exuberance, matched only by missteps and gaffes," made her the media-coverage winner of the year, said David Gibson in Politics Daily, but the "wonkish" Coons won the only contest that really mattered.
4. Nikki Haley
Haley made history by becoming South Carolina's first female governor, and the second Indian-American governor in U.S. history, but her rise to political prominence was in May when a Republican political operative accused her of having an extramarital affair with him. A second affair allegation surfaced, but high-profile supporters like Sarah Palin stuck by her. Haley easily won the June GOP primary, then squeaked out a win in the Nov. 3 general election. "Only in South Carolina, the unmatched mud pit of Republican politics, can unproven accusations of extramarital affairs made by two different men boost a woman's standing in the polls," said Time's Michael Scherer.
5. Marco Rubio
The young, telegenic, "Reaganesque," Cuban-American Senator-elect from Florida took a big gamble by challenging popular, moderate Gov. Charlie Crist for the Republican nomination. And his first big win came in April, when his juggernaut campaign forced Crist to leave the Republican Party to run as an independent. Rubio easily won the resulting three-way general election, and conservatives immediately started throwing around the word "presidential." "This guy has serious momentum," said Will Heaven in The Telegraph, "comparable even to Barack Obama's leading up to the 2008 presidential election."
6. Heath Shuler
The former NFL quarterback and North Carolina Democrat was one of the few conservative Blue Dogs to keep his seat, but he went from backbencher to boldface name when he mounted a "quixotic bid" to unseat Nancy Pelosi as the top House Democrat. The effort didn't succeed, but it wasn't an "empty challenge," says Armstrong Williams in The Hill. Democrats will remember him as one of the few to see the "political reality" that Pelosi is leading the party "over a cliff.... Say what you will about the fella, but Shuler is no dummy."
7. Krystal Ball
Ball, a 28-year-old Virginia Democrat, didn't win her uphill House bid to unseat the Republican incumbent, but she won respect for her handling of leaked six-year-old Christmas party photos in which she's seen simulating oral sex on a phallic nose worn by her now-ex-husband. Feminists were "enthused," and a star was born, says Noreen Malone in Slate. "In her wholehearted embrace of femininity, her sense of entitlement, her bold jump to the front of the line, Ball may be the left's answer to Sarah Palin."
8. Chris Christie
The tough-talking Republican made waves in New Jersey right after being sworn in last January, when he declared war on public-teachers' unions. But he became a nationwide sensation and object of "serious — and sudden — infatuation" among Republicans and Tea Party activists thanks to YouTube. Christie's videos, consisting largely of him yelling at somebody in some public forum, have gone viral, to the point that he has become "the Justin Bieber of political media," says Slate's David Weigel. It's amazing that among politicians of both parties, only "Christie's team realize that winning fame as a national politician is not altogether different than winning fame as a budding Canadian pop star."
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