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The best and worst campaigns of 2014 (+video)

We've laughed, we've cried, and we're glad the 2014 midterms are almost over. Here are our picks for the stars and duds of this campaign season. 

The 2014 midterms have been all about models – and we don’t mean Kate Moss or Kendall Jenner. We’re talking about the various algorithms out there that spit out probabilities for election outcomes, like FiveThirtyEight.com and TheUpshot.

They’re interesting, but early in a cycle, especially, they can miss an important element in a race: candidate quality. Eventually, polls catch up to the fact that Candidate A is charismatic while Candidate B has a habit of misspeaking. In some cases, what should be a close race all the way to Election Day will break one way or the other, sooner or later, because one of the candidates is either outstanding or subpar. Some races have one of each.  

This is not about policy positions. We’re talking about that certain je ne sais quoi that repels or attracts voters. Here’s a sampling of the stars and duds of the 2014 general election. First, the stars:

Joni Ernst, Iowa Senate candidate.

Ms. Ernst, a state senator and Iraq War vet, burst out of a crowded Republican primary field in June after a series of ads that attracted national attention. In one, she speaks of her farm childhood castrating hogs. In another, she’s riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle and shooting a gun. But the ads alone wouldn’t have been enough to make her a slight favorite in Iowa, a tossup state in presidential elections. She had to be authentic in person to attract swing voters, and she has succeeded. On paper, the race remains close, but Ernst has the momentum.

Greg Orman, Kansas Senate candidate.

Mr. Orman has never held office before, but he’s a natural as a politician – with a smile so big that even his opponent, Sen. Pat Roberts (R), complimented him on it in a debate. Orman has been called “the most interesting man in politics,” after running so strong as an independent he chased the Democrat out of the Kansas Senate race. If he wins on Tuesday, taking a sure-thing victory from a Republican in deep-red Kansas, he will be the “it” man of Washington, as each major party woos him to caucus with it.  

Kay Hagan, senator from North Carolina.

In a bad cycle for Democratic incumbents in the South, Senator Hagan is a potential bright spot. Her race is close, and she could lose, but she’s done everything in her power to put her opponent – state House Speaker Thom Tillis – on the defensive. Hagan has made the race about local issues, and Mr. Tillis’s tenure in the statehouse, where he has presided over a sharply conservative turn in a state that is trending purple.

Greg Abbott, Texas governor candidate.

Widely expected to win, Attorney General Abbott will make history as the first person elected governor in the US while in a wheelchair. But that’s only one noteworthy aspect of his campaign. Pundits applaud him for his highly disciplined campaign – a race he could have misplayed against state Sen. Wendy Davis (D), a national icon for abortion rights. “Abbott has not veered off script, and that script is designed to maximize support among swing voters and motivate hard-core Republicans,” writes Rick Dunham, a former Texas political reporter.

Gwen Graham, Florida House candidate.

Democrats have limited options for defeating a sitting Republican member of Congress, but Florida’s Second Congressional District is one such opportunity. Ms. Graham, a county school administrator, learned politics from a pro: Her father is former Florida Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham. But political pedigree only gets you so far. She’s outraised her opponent, incumbent Rep. Steve Southerland (R), and out-hustled him. Congressman Southerland has also helped Graham by making gaffes, such as the time he wondered out loud whether she had ever attended a women-only “lingerie shower.” 

Seth Moulton (D) and Richard Tisei (R), Massachusetts House candidates.

Mr. Moulton, an Iraq War veteran and newcomer to politics, probably saved the Bay State’s Sixth Congressional District from near-certain Republican takeover by defeating scandal-tarred Rep. John Tierney in the Democratic primary. Moulton is also noteworthy for having won medals for valor – a fact he kept secret until The Boston Globe broke the story in October. Mr. Tisei, his opponent and former minority leader in the state Senate, is also noteworthy: If he wins, he will be the first openly gay Republican elected to Congress as a non-incumbent. Tisei is socially liberal, and could help expand the GOP tent.

Now, some of the less-than-stellar candidates of 2014:

Pat Roberts, senator from Kansas.

Winning as an incumbent Republican senator in a conservative state should be easy, right? Not so for Senator Roberts. He started by admitting he didn’t really live in Kansas anymore, after 34 years in Congress, and his political future has been on the rocks ever since. After barely surviving a tea party challenge in the primary, Roberts limped into the general election with lackluster fundraising and organization. National Republicans sent in top political talent to boost his campaign, and he may yet survive against his young, charismatic, independent opponent – but only because Kansas is solid red.  

Martha Coakley, Massachusetts governor candidate.

State Attorney General Coakley (D) started the race famous for losing the 2010 special election for the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat to a little-known Republican, then-state Sen. Scott Brown. Her missteps were legion: She wouldn’t campaign outside Fenway Park in January because it was cold out. She suggested in a radio interview that storied Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan. Now she could blow another statewide race in deep-blue Massachusetts with another lackluster performance.

Terri Lynn Land, Michigan Senate candidate.

Ms. Land, the former secretary of state for Michigan, entered the race for the open Senate seat with decent prospects. Michigan is a Democratic-leaning state, but this is a Republican-leaning year. And she drew a beatable Democratic opponent, Rep. Gary Peters, whose campaign floundered initially. But Land got off to a bad start last May in a media scrum at Mackinac Island when, with microphones in her face, she said, “I can’t do this.” She also flip-flopped on a key issue for Michigan – the federal bailout of the auto industry. Polls show Congressman Peters comfortably ahead.

Bruce Braley, Iowa Senate candidate.

Congressman Braley (D) has committed one gaffe after another. He started his campaign in March by dissing farmers in farm-rich Iowa. Speaking to a group of trial lawyers in Texas, he was caught on tape describing Iowa Sen. Charles  Grassley (R) as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law.” In August, Braley got caught in a dispute over his neighbor’s chickens. Last year, Braley complained in a radio interview about the lack of towel service in the House gym during the government shutdown.

Wendy Davis, Texas governor candidate.

State Sen. Davis (D) gained national fame in 2013 for her filibuster over abortion restrictions. But her campaign has been disorganized, and national Democrats decided not to invest in her race. Then she ran an ad that called her political judgment into question: It accused Abbott of hypocrisy for denying legal settlements to others, even though he “sued and got millions” after the accident that left him unable to walk. The ad showed an empty wheelchair. If Davis had run a smart – if losing – campaign, she might have set the stage for another run at major office. Now that’s unclear. 

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