With the year almost in the rearview, we want to take a moment to single out some of the most noteworthy achievements by current and aspiring public servants, and revisit some of their biggest flops and failures. Here are the best, worst, and weirdest political moments and phenomena of the year.
One of the more recent innovations in holiday celebrations is “Friendsgiving,” wherein millennials have a Thanksgiving-style dinner with their friends in advance of the holiday, which they celebrate with their family. The day before Thanksgiving, former President Donald Trump partook in something like this at Mar-a-Lago, his private Florida club: He had a Thanksgiving-style dinner with two prominent antisemites, rapper Kanye West and white supremacist Nick Fuentes.
The meal was apparently good enough that West had a second helping of the stuffing, but it produced a lot of tough headlines for Trump to digest. It came only weeks after Trump-backed candidates had disappointing results in the midterm elections and shortly after he announced his third presidential bid in a desultory speech at Mar-a-Lago. The news of the dinner leaking out only made things worse for Trump.
The former president equivocated for days about having dined with the two but could not bring himself to condemn them (he denied even knowing who Fuentes was). In the meantime, West and Fuentes gloried in the attention and afterward went on an alt-right media tour together, where West repeatedly praised Adolf Hitler.
Most deliberate political martyrdom
Liz Cheney set her political career on fire this year and never seemed to bat an eye. The Wyoming Republican made herself the face of the January 6 committee and burned every last bridge she had to the Republican Party. Cheney’s continued ardent opposition to Trump after January 6 led to her eventual removal as the No. 3 Republican in the House, and her decision to join the committee made her a virtual pariah within the House Republican Conference. Cheney didn’t mind. She lost her primary in a landslide, without even really trying to win.
Instead, she became a guided missile, pointed directly at Donald Trump and the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. She even endorsed select Democrats in the 2022 midterms. Like Samson, she was fine bringing the temple down on her head as long as it took down Trump and his acolytes as well.
Cheney will never be completely irrelevant in American politics. Her last name, her former position as the No. 3 House Republican, and her transformation into the GOP’s most ardent Trump opponent after January 6 ensure that. But, barring any Sunday show greenrooms being admitted as states by Congress, her electoral career is over for the foreseeable future.
Worst political speech
There were a lot of reasons that Herschel Walker lost his Senate race to incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock this year. Pundits could point to the fact that he ran a flawed campaign while Warnock ran a good one. They could also point out the plethora of scandals swirling around Walker’s personal life, including what seemed to be a regularly increasing number of children he fathered and a regularly increasing number of times he allegedly paid for a partner’s abortion. There were also fresh allegations of domestic violence, in addition to those he chronicled in a memoir that described his struggles with mental illness.
In comparison to these, his oratory wasn’t his biggest issue. But Walker encapsulated all his political challenges in a speech he gave in November during the Senate runoff, where he discussed the various merits of vampires versus those of werewolves in combat.
The Republican Senate hopeful and former college football star proclaimed to a crowd, “I don’t know if you know, but vampires are some cool people, are they not? But let me tell you something that I found out: A werewolf can kill a vampire. Did you know that? I never knew that.”
Walker continued, “So I don’t want to be a vampire anymore. I want to be a werewolf.”
The clip was used in a closing ad by Warnock, mocked by Barack Obama when he stumped in the Peach State, and became a lasting part of Walker’s political legacy.
Best rap video
Linda Paulson, an octogenarian running for state Senate in Utah, went viral for releasing a campaign video of herself rapping — or at least performing something vaguely resembling hip-hop — in September. Paulson was running as a Republican against an incumbent Democrat in suburban Salt Lake City. She lost by 15 percent but at least got a lot more attention than most losing state legislative candidates do.
Most bizarre sex scandal
An ISIS bride falling for a backbench member of Congress wouldn’t make a good romantic comedy. It did, however, make an interesting political story this year.
Van Taylor was a two-term Republican from the Dallas suburbs with a pedigree that was seemingly perfect for an establishment Republican: two degrees from Harvard and one tour in Iraq as an officer in the Marines. However, despite a strong conservative voting record, Taylor faced a primary challenge for heresies such as voting to uphold the 2020 election and to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate January 6.
Taylor looked like he was going to edge through the primary — where a candidate needed 50 percent to avoid a runoff — until only two days before, when a fringe far-right website published allegations that Taylor had had an extramarital affair with Tania Joya, a woman who was previously known for being the widow of a prominent member of ISIS and received ample coverage in British tabloids as an “ISIS Bride.” She eventually fled the Islamic State and moved to Texas, where she met Taylor and an affair ensued.
As a result of the allegations, which had been stoked by one of his opponents, Taylor finished just shy of the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff and two days later dropped out of the race after publicly confessing to the affair. The result essentially handed his congressional seat to Keith Self, who finished a distant second place in the primary.
Most bizarre food scandal
New York Mayor Eric Adams has long touted a vegan diet, which he claimed has had innumerable health benefits for him, including reversing blindness in one eye brought on by diabetes. It was something he repeatedly talked up during his 2021 mayoral campaign and even wrote a book about.
It turned out Adams wasn’t actually a vegan — he was eating fish quite frequently. Although a spokesperson for the New York mayor originally lied and claimed that Adams never touched seafood, eventually Adams confessed and admitted his private pescetarianism.
Best work-life balance
Democratic Congress member Kai Kahele had a very long commute from his home in Hawaii to the Capitol in Washington, DC, but he made it much easier by simply not showing up.
The first-term Hawaii Democrat stopped showing up for work in late 2021 and used proxy voting instead of going to the Capitol. As Civil Beat reported at the time, in the first few months of 2022, he only cast five in-person votes as he explored a gubernatorial bid. Kahele eventually decided to run and lost in a blowout. In the meantime, his concentration on his gubernatorial campaign prompted a House Ethics Committee investigation into whether he misused official resources for his campaign.
Most bizarre corruption scandal
The late Baltimore businessman Russell “Stringer” Bell once famously expressed shock that a colleague was “taking notes on a criminal conspiracy.” Rep. Marie Newman (D-IL) didn’t just take notes on a criminal conspiracy. She entered into a formal contract to do so.
Newman promised a job to a political rival during her 2020 primary campaign against incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski so that he would not run against her and split the anti-Lipinski vote. She entered into a contract with Iymen Chehade in which she promised to hire him and pay him a six-figure salary to be a “foreign policy advisor” in exchange for him not running against her. During the negotiations, she also agreed to take anti-Israel positions at Chehade’s behest, although that language was not written into the final contract. After she beat Lipinski, she didn’t hire Chehade, so he sued her.
Newman defended herself by citing an opinion from the House general counsel that the contract was unenforceable because it was “contrary to public policy.” Eventually a settlement was reached, and Chehade appeared on her campaign payroll with the title of “foreign policy advisor.” The effort was nonetheless referred to the Office of Congressional Ethics, which found in its investigation “substantial reason to believe that Rep. Newman may have promised federal employment to a primary opponent for the purpose of procuring political support.”
The entire imbroglio has sparked an ongoing investigation by the House Ethics Committee. However, the investigation won’t continue into 2023. After all that, Newman suffered a blowout defeat to Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL) after the two were redistricted together.
Best alliterative fish advocacy
In both her win in Alaska’s September special election for Congress and in the November election that followed, Mary Peltola had a lot of luck winning as a Democrat in the Last Frontier.
Peltola benefited from the state’s ranked choice voting system as well as a divided Republican field with both former reality television star Sarah Palin and businessman Nick Begich running against her.
But she also had one key advantage: fish. Peltola ran on a three-pronged platform of “Fish, Family, and Freedom” and made her advocacy for Alaska’s salmon fisheries one of the bases of her campaign. It worked, and Peltola will represent the most pro-Trump district (according to the 2020 election results) of any Democrat in the next Congress.