Top 10 political stories of 2014

In a year when Congress all but ground to a halt, the real political action took place elsewhere: on the other side of the world, on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., and New York, or in polling booths in battleground states across the nation.

Here is The Hill’s selection of the top 10 political news stories of 2014.

1. Midterms: GOP gains, Democratic pain

The midterms were a triumph for Republicans, as they routed Democrats in battleground states to reclaim the Senate majority.

2014 dawned with Democrats believing they had a fighting chance to keep the Senate and perhaps even narrow the GOP majority in the House. 

Things turned out very differently. Republicans took eight Senate seats on election night and added another when Rep. Bill Cassidy trounced Sen. Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Five unanswered questions after Trump's upset victory Pavlich: O’Keefe a true journalist MORE in Louisiana’s December runoff election. They also gained 13 House seats, giving them their largest majority in decades.

Reacting to the results, President Obama took solace in the fact that voter turnout was 36.4 percent, the lowest since 1942. But that was cold comfort for his party colleagues who will now be the minority in both chambers of Congress.

2. The police and the protesters

The deaths of two unarmed black men — 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and 43-year-old Eric Garner in New York — at the hands of police officers roiled the nation.

The Aug. 9 killing of Brown by police officer Darren Wilson sparked protests that lasted several days. There was also much debate over whether the initial police reaction to those demonstrations escalated the situation.

Further protests erupted in late November after a grand jury announced it would not indict Wilson in Brown’s death.

In early December, a grand jury in New York announced that it, too, would bring no charges against NYPD officers in the killing of Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold. The incident had been captured on video, as had Garner’s dying words — “I can’t breathe” — which became a rallying cry for protestors.

Liberals and conservatives alike were perplexed by the Garner decision. Former President George W. Bush declared it “hard to understand.”

Deepening tensions, two NYPD officers — 32-year-old Wenjian Liu and 40-year-old Rafael Ramos — were shot dead in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 20. The gunman, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, committed suicide immediately afterward. Social media posts suggested Brinsley harbored anger against police, in part because of the Brown and Garner cases.

3.  The rise of ISIS

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) expanded its territorial reach, committed widespread human rights violations and executed at least five Western hostages. Those who were killed included three Americans and two Britons.

Obama began the year by invoking a comparison that came back to haunt him. Referring to the relationship between ISIS and al Qaeda, Obama told The New Yorker, “if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

In August, Obama dug himself a new hole by acknowledging, “we don’t have a strategy yet” about military action against ISIS targets in Syria. 

That same month, the US had begun airstrikes against ISIS positions in Iraq.

By November, the administration was boosting US troop levels in Iraq to around 3,000. Those troops are not to be used in a combat role, a point that the Obama administration has stressed as it vows to put no “boots on the ground.”

4. Immigration: Inaction, then action

Obama postponed executive action on immigration for much of the year, at the behest of red-state Democrats who were struggling to hold their seats in the midterm elections. 

Two weeks after Election Day, Obama announced expansive steps.

Under the terms of his action, up to 5 million illegal immigrants are to have the threat of deportation lifted from them and become eligible to work legally. 

Republicans reacted with fury to Obama’s announcement. Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump wall faces skepticism on border No Congress members along Mexico border support funding Trump's wall Obama-linked group launches ads targeting Republicans on immigration MORE (R-Texas) told “Fox News Sunday” that Obama had “essentially … gotten in the job of counterfeiting immigration papers.”

Obama’s executive action came as the other immigration-related story of the year — the border crisis involving an influx of children, primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — receded from the headlines.

5. Ebola comes to America

The outbreak of Ebola was first reported by the World Health Organization in West Africa in March. But it flew under the radar in the United States until the first case crossed the Atlantic Ocean this fall.

Thomas Eric Duncan was confirmed to have the virus at a Dallas hospital on Sept. 30. The 42-year-old Liberian, who had been visiting relatives, died on Oct. 8.

The first U.S. case created an Ebola panic that subsided approximately one month later, when Craig Spencer, a New York City doctor who had contracted the virus, was declared fully recovered. Between those times, two nurses who had treated Duncan tested positive for the virus (both later recovered) and false alarms rang around the country.

6. The long war over ObamaCare

Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act entered the year reeling from the fiasco surrounding technical problems with HeathCare.gov.

A “tech surge” mounted by the administration, which had begun in late 2013, helped. In April 2014, the administration released figures showing that about 8 million people — approximately 1 million more than had initially been anticipated — had signed up through the exchanges.

The White House was dealt a setback in June, however, when the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 majority that some employers who had religious objections to paying for some types of birth control could opt out of doing so.

Even more worrying for supporters of the law was the court’s decision, announced in November, that it would hear a case on whether the tax subsidies for insurance issued via the federal government, rather than the individual states, were valid. If the justices rule against the administration, chaos may ensue.

7. Opening up to Cuba 

It was the big story that came out of nowhere. Obama waited until just after Congress had left town in December before announcing the biggest shift in U.S. relations with Cuba in a half-century. 

Under the plan, the United States would restore full diplomatic relations with the communist island nation, including opening an embassy in Havana. An American, Alan Gross, and a Cuban-born CIA agent, Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, were released by Cuba, while three Cubans convicted of spying were released from the United States

Obama presented the deal as a way to end an “outdated” and “failed” approach of isolation. But some politicians disagreed vehemently — and they weren’t all Republicans. Sen. Robert MenendezRobert MenendezTaiwan deserves to participate in United Nations The way forward on the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump Corruption trial could roil NJ Senate race MORE (D-N.J.) told a news conference that the agreement “stinks.” He added, “It’s a reward that a totalitarian regime does not deserve.”

8. Cantor Loses

The biggest electoral shock in years came in June, when House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric CantorBrat: New ObamaCare repeal bill has 'significant' changes Overnight Energy: Flint lawmaker pushes EPA for new lead rule House staffer, Monsanto vet named to top Interior posts MORE (R-Va.) was ousted in his primary by economics professor Dave Brat. Internal polling had shown Cantor coasting to victory.

In the end, Brat defeated the majority leader easily, racking up 56 percent of the vote to Cantor’s 44 percent. The Richmond Times-Dispatch declared the result a “political earthquake.”

Theories abounded to explain the outcome, the most popular being that Brat had successfully tarred Cantor as being too willing to support some kind of liberalization of immigration laws.

But Brat’s victory may also have been fueled by a sense that Cantor had “gone Washington.” He even spent most of the day of the primary in the capital, not in his district. Conservative commentators, notably radio host Laura Ingraham, also rallied activists to Brat’s side.

Brat won the general election very comfortably. Cantor in September announced he would join a Wall Street investment bank. 

9. Putin, Russia and Ukraine

The crisis in eastern Ukraine and Crimea bubbled up in the first quarter of the year and continues to simmer.

Russian troops began establishing a presence in Crimea in late February, immediately after the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, had fled amid demonstrations. Russia annexed Crimea the following month.

The U.N. general assembly passed a nonbinding resolution calling the annexation invalid. Sanctions were also announced.

But the crisis escalated further after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed in Ukraine in July causing the deaths of almost 300 people. Pro-Russian separatists were widely blamed.

Immediately afterward, Sen. John McCainJohn McCainTrump wall faces skepticism on border No Congress members along Mexico border support funding Trump's wall Treasury won’t grant Exxon drilling waiver for Russia MORE (R-Ariz.) accused the Obama White House of being “a cowardly administration that failed to give the Ukrainians weapons with which to defend themselves.”

In mid-December, Obama signed a bill authorizing still more sanctions against the Russian economy, which has begun to teeter amid plunging oil prices.

10. Bowe Bergdahl and the Taliban

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was released from captivity by the Taliban at the end of May — and then the controversy really began.

In order to secure Bergdahl’s release, Obama agreed to free five Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. They included a former minister of interior and a former deputy minister of intelligence. 

The administration did not inform Congress of the plan, citing concerns over Bergdahl’s safety. In doing so, however, it flouted a law that stipulates Congress needs to be informed of any proposed releases from Guantanamo at least 30 days in advance.

Further controversy surrounds how Bergdahl was captured. Some of his comrades have suggested he deserted. An Army inquiry into the matter has been completed but not yet released to the public.