Winners and losers of the year

Winners and losers of the year
© Greg Nash

It’s been a wild year in politics, both on the presidential campaign trail and in the halls of Congress.

But as 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to take stock of who saw their fortunes rise and who might want to put the past 12 months behind them.

WINNERS

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAssange meets U.S. congressman, vows to prove Russia did not leak him documents A history lesson on the Confederacy for President Trump GOP senator: Trump hasn't 'changed much' since campaign MORE

Love him or hate him, 2015 was the year of Trump.

His presidential candidacy, dismissed as a joke at its inception, became the biggest story in politics and transformed the Republican race. 

With only a month to go until the Iowa caucuses, the real estate mogul is the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination and shows no signs of slowing down.

His effect, not just on the GOP but on American politics more broadly, will be debated for years to come. Republican opponents of Trump fear he is corrosive to the party’s brand, given his deeply controversial comments about illegal immigrants, Muslims and women. 

But Trump’s support among voters angry with the Washington establishment has held firm, suggesting his candidacy may be no passing fad.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanGOP chairman to discuss Charlottesville as domestic terrorism at hearing Trump’s isolation grows GOP lawmaker: Trump 'failing' in Charlottesville response MORE (R-Wis.)

Ryan ends the year as Speaker, a job he neither wanted nor sought. 

House Republicans were in disarray in late September and early October after Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerIt's time for McConnell to fight with Trump instead of against him How Republicans can bring order out of the GOP's chaos Republican donor sues GOP for fraud over ObamaCare repeal failure MORE (R-Ohio) abruptly announced his resignation, heading off a growing conservative effort to oust him. 

The heir apparent, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), withdrew from the Speaker’s race at the last minute, leaving Ryan as the only figure capable of saving the party from a bitter and protracted leadership battle. 

Ryan ultimately assented to running and won the overwhelming endorsement of the conference soon afterward. Those events, and their aftermath, also sparked reams of positive media coverage for Ryan, which largely continued as he piloted a tax package and an omnibus spending bill through the House in December.

His name has even been floated as a potential GOP presidential nominee in the event of a brokered Republican National Convention next year, though his aides dismiss that idea.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersThe media couldn't be more blatant in distorting Trump's words on Charlottesville Road to renewable energy is filled with potholes of ‘magic thinking’ Bernie Sanders: Trump’s Charlottesville comments ‘embarrassing’ MORE (I-Vt.)

At the dawn of 2015, it was Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren: Education Dept lawyer may have violated conflict-of-interest laws Congress should think twice on the Israel Anti-Boycott Act Sanders plans to introduce single-payer bill in September MORE (D-Mass.) who was the nation’s leading liberal icon and the person to whom progressives looked as a potential challenger to Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAssange meets U.S. congressman, vows to prove Russia did not leak him documents High-ranking FBI official leaves Russia probe OPINION | Steve Bannon is Trump's indispensable man — don't sacrifice him to the critics MORE.

But Warren’s decision to stay out of the race presented an opportunity for the 74-year-old Vermont senator, and he seized the moment, launching a presidential bid that has drawn crowds of more than 10,000 to rallies in liberal strongholds such as Los Angeles, Madison, Wis., and Portland, Ore. He also set a startling fundraising pace, predominantly from small donors. 

Clinton has steadied her once-listing ship in recent weeks, but Sanders continues to lead her in New Hampshire polls. Even if ultimate victory is beyond his grasp, Sanders has hugely boosted both his profile and his reputation.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D)

Hillary Clinton looked like anything but a winner earlier this year. The presidential contender spent several months on the defensive after it was revealed that she had used a private email address and server during her time as secretary of State. 

The controversy reignited concerns about what Clinton critics view as her penchant for secrecy, while her campaign’s tentative response stirred unease even among Democratic ranks. 

But Clinton turned things around in the final quarter of the year. The pivotal moment was her strong performance in the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas in mid-October. Later that month, Clinton emerged unscathed after 11 hours of questioning from Republican members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi.  

Clinton ended the year hitting her stride, with her status as the overwhelming favorite for her party’s presidential nomination restored.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellTrump’s isolation grows Ellison: Trump has 'level of sympathy' for neo-Nazis, white supremacists Trump touts endorsement of second-place finisher in Alabama primary MORE (R-Ky.) 

McConnell, ever the tactician, played his cards well in 2015, always with an eye on maintaining the GOP majority in the Senate at the 2016 elections.

Twice during the year, he maneuvered successfully to avoid a government shutdown that could have damaged his party at the polls in 2016. Doing so involved heading off conservative rebellions over funding for the Department of Homeland Security and Planned Parenthood.

McConnell was a major player in passing a multi-year highway bill — something that hadn’t happened in a decade — that included $305 billion in funding for repairs and infrastructure.

Those achievements mean that McConnell should be able to avoid damaging or divisive fights in the upper chamber next year, when Republicans face a challenging electoral map as they try to defend their 54-46 majority.

Pope Francis

The leader of the Catholic Church arrived to massive fanfare when he visited Washington in September. 

The pope’s views on a range of issues, including climate change, wealth inequality and immigration, have a lot in common with American liberals, sparking predictions his visit would be most warmly received by Democrats.

But in the end, the pope managed to transcend partisanship, reiterating his views plainly while giving careful nods to both sides of the aisle.

Addressing a joint meeting of Congress, he spoke about the need for compassion toward people “who are led to travel north in search of a better lives for themselves and for their loved ones. ... Is that not what we want for our own children?”  

As he left, praise for Francis was widespread and criticism muted.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R)

The South Carolina governor, whose political fortunes had waned in recent years, found herself back on the national stage in trying circumstances.

She was thrust into the spotlight after nine people were killed at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C. The suspect charged in the massacre, Dylann Roof, was apparently motivated by racist views.

Haley was widely praised for her deft and sure-footed response in the wake of the mass killing, especially as it pertained to a controversy over the Confederate flag. The contentious emblem was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse in July, after Haley and other prominent politicians in the state made emotional pleas to take it down.

LOSERS

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R)

It has been a miserable year for the former Florida governor, who was considered the GOP front-runner when he launched his presidential campaign in June. 

Trump has tormented him relentlessly, labeling him a “low energy” candidate and a loser. Now Bush sits at single digits in the polls, with a comeback victory in New Hampshire perhaps his only hope. 

While Bush has blamed Trump for his woes, recently calling him a “jerk,” the problems in his campaign run far deeper. 

Bush and his allies have spent around $26 million on TV campaign ads to little discernible effect. The candidate lies a distant fifth in the RealClearPolitics national polling average and is sixth in New Hampshire, a state he has guaranteed he will win.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) 

Walker went from hero to zero shockingly fast, even by the standards of presidential politics. 

He was once seen as a leading candidate in the Republican 2016 field, thanks in large part to his election victories in Wisconsin, which included rebuffing a labor-backed recall effort. 

But after some early excitement, Walker’s candidacy dwindled, less because of any single gaffe than because of a notable lack of charisma. He exited the race in September.

Walker is young enough to make another run in the future, but the memories of his underwhelming showing this year will have to be overcome.  

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

It was a humiliating year for the Speaker who wasn’t. 

McCarthy, as House majority leader, was positioned to replace John BoehnerJohn BoehnerIt's time for McConnell to fight with Trump instead of against him How Republicans can bring order out of the GOP's chaos Republican donor sues GOP for fraud over ObamaCare repeal failure MORE when he announced he was stepping down. Boehner gave him strong support, saying he would be an “excellent” person to fill the role. 

But as he made a round of TV interviews to support his Speakership bid, McCarthy made a disastrous gaffe, suggesting that GOP congressional investigations into Benghazi were aimed at lowering Clinton’s poll numbers. 

The remark deepened skepticism among conservatives about McCarthy’s ability to handle the Speaker’s role. When the day of the vote came, McCarthy stunned the Capitol by withdrawing from race. 

He continues to serve as majority leader, but it is tough to see where he goes from here. 

Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulCurtis wins GOP primary for House seat vacated by Jason Chaffetz Glimmer of hope in bipartisan criminal justice reform effort Trump barrage stuns McConnell and his allies MORE (R-Ky.)

Where did it all go wrong? Back in 2013, Paul’s nearly 13-hour filibuster objecting to the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director won him plaudits, attracting national attention and magazine covers.

Many people predicted that he would be able to expand upon the appeal of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), when he launched his presidential bid. 

But once the rubber hit the road, things began to look very different. Paul struggled all year for traction, and his foreign policy views — which have always been unorthodox within the GOP — seemed ever more out of step after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

Paul’s chances of winning the GOP nomination are negligible, and he will likely leave the presidential race a diminished figure.

Political pundits

If ever there was a year when the conventional wisdom was proved wrong, it was 2015. 

The most obvious example is Trump: In October, the liberal group ThinkProgress collected more than 30 examples of pundits predicting the imminent demise of his campaign.

The repeated underestimation of Trump has gone hand-in-hand with a falsely positive sense of how well candidates such as Bush and Walker would perform. On the Democratic side of the presidential race, Sanders’s strength was also predicted by very few.  

In aggregate, the phenomenon points to the dangers of placing too much weight on the Beltway consensus at a time when huge swathes of the population are in the mood for insurgency.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D)

O’Malley has fizzled badly in the Democratic presidential race. Mired in low single digits in most polls, he has become more aggressive in debates, but his campaign appears dangerously low on cash. It is likely just a matter of time before he drops out of the race. 

Former Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) 

The political career of Schock, once a rising star in the Republican Party, imploded in the spring. 

His downfall began in somewhat bizarre fashion when The Washington Post reported that his congressional offices had been redecorated in an unusually opulent style resembling the TV show “Downton Abbey.”

The story set news organizations off in pursuit of other alleged spending irregularities, including allegations that Schock had claimed excessive mileage on his personal vehicles. He announced his decision to leave Congress on March 17 and is now under federal investigation.