Six rising political stars

    Everyone knows about Barack Obama and John Boehner, but how about Ted Cruz and Kirsten Gillibrand? With a brand new year ahead, several politicians are poised to break out on the national stage and rise in the ranks among D.C.'s most influential figures. Here's a guide to the rising stars of Washington so you can know all about them before they are cool.

    No, it does not include Sarah Palin.

    Ted Cruz – Republican senator, Texas

    Who he is: Ted Cruz is the junior senator from Texas, elected in 2012 in a landslide. His real big win was in the primary, where he beat a party-backed candidate in a Rubio-esque coup.

    Why he's special: Ted Cruz shouldn’t be here. In early 2012, he was down in the polls in the race for Senate by double digits against a well-known statewide official supported by Rick Perry (don’t forget, people in Texas still kinda liked him back then) – David Dewhurst, Perry's lieutenant governor. As time went by, Cruz's campaign picked up speed, but not enough. He only snagged 34 percent of the vote in the primary election compared to frontrunner Dewhurst’s 44 percent. If this had been most other states, that would have been the end of the line for the scrappy Tea Partier, but in Texas nobody winning an outright majority in a primary leads to a runoff. Because Dewhurst couldn’t quite crack 50 percent, Cruz had a second chance and, this time, he pulled it off thanks to figures like Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum, as well as the powerful Club for Growth. He won the runoff with a 14-point lead and coasted in the general election against Paul Sadler. Conservative to the core, Cruz is immune from being labeled a RINO, and although the claims that his ethnicity would reduce the Democrats' advantage with Hispanic voters are ridiculous, the Republican Party wants to shift its image away from its Nantucket-level whiteness. He's already had a star turn with his grilling of Chuck Hagel and he's been appointed to a very prominent position within the GOP's central Senate campaign organization. That's a recipe for success.

    Cory Booker – Democratic mayor, Newark, N.J.

    Who he is: Cory Booker is the two-term mayor of Newark, New Jersey's largest city. Elected in 2006, Booker had been generating headlines since his starring role in a documentary about the 2002 mayoral race in which he was narrowly defeated. 

    Why he's special: If Cory Booker doesn’t qualify as a household name yet, give him a year. The Newark mayor, famous for auditioning for the role of real-life Superman (and doing a pretty darn good job at it, too), will be running for Senate in 2014 and he won’t be doing it quietly. Booker's work on crime and community engagement (when Newark citizens tweeted for help during a snowstorm, he actually drove a snowplow to the rescue) have gotten him some great press, but he’s had some bumps in the road as well – his ego and energy combine to form a political force that brings Bill Clinton to mind in good and bad ways. He’s probably talented enough to weather the storm of criticism brought on by his recent stumbles, and if he does indeed make it ito the Senate unscathed, expect him to be absolutely everywhere. In an era of unapproachable politicians, Booker comes off as remarkably in-touch. If you tweet at him, he might actually tweet back, and he’s absolute Internet gold. Don’t bet on him running for president next cycle, but when the veepstakes come around he’ll be at the top of the list.

    Steve King – Republican congressman, Iowa-4th District

    Who he is: Steve King is a six-term, 63-year-old white congressman from Iowa. That might not sound like the profile of a political rising star, but Steve King knows no boundaries. His verbal bomb-throwing has attracted love from the far right and hate from pretty much everyone else. And with Democratic Senator Tom Harkin's retirement, he's been eyeing a run for Senate.

    Why he's special: If the war between the Tea Party and the GOP establishment was a movie, the King candidacy for Senate would be the final clash between the hero and villain (you choose which side is which) for the heart and soul of Gotham/Middle Earth/Narnia/Arby’s. The party establishment worries that if he runs for and wins the Republican nomination, he could easily turn into another Todd Akin or Sharron Angle and cost them a very winnable seat. This alone is nothing special, but there’s a reason that this fight is the Big One: The establishment is fighting back stronger than anywhere else. Karl Rove has promised to aim his super PAC’s super cashgun at King if he runs, and King's legion of supporters have made it known that they are ready to rumble. Conservatives: Start deciding! Liberals: Kick back, grab some popcorn and enjoy the fireworks!

    Kirsten Gillibrand – Democratic Senator, N.Y.

    Who she is: Kirsten Gillibrand is the junior senator from New York. Appointed by then-Governor David Paterson to fill the vacant seat left by Hillary Clinton, Gillibrand was an upstate blue dog (a member of the caucus of moderate Democrats in the House) most famous for, well, nothing. Many observations predicted she would only serve as a placeholder, so when she chose to run in 2010 there was a good deal of talk about a primary challenger. However, she won that race handily and, in her 2012 quest for a full term Gillibrand won by the largest margin for a statewide candidate in New York – ever.

    Why she's special: Kirsten Gillibrand might rank as the biggest surprise of this list. Even Ted Cruz raised some eyebrows before his arrival in the Senate, but for Gilly, as her hometown tabloids semi-affectionately call her, it took a while to get noticed. But now that she's caught the eye of Washington, she's unlikely to fall back into obscurity. She’s young, charismatic, politically savvy and best of all, a woman in a party that so desperately wants to keep up its history-making streak. She's also done some admirable work for the families of 9/11 victims that even her staunchest critics had no choice but to praise. Her biggest hurdle is her past job for for a tobacco company. You can read all the sordid details here, but the short version is that Gillibrand defended cigarette maker Phillip Morris from a government investigation and is still fumbling responses when questioned about it. That could come back to bite her.

    Rand Paul – Republican senator, Ky.

    Who he is: Rand Paul is the junior senator from Kentucky, who shocked the establishment (the Pauls like doing that) by beating Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson in an upset primary win. Although the party initially fretted about his campaign, he proved to be a solid candidate, dispatching a Democratic contender to win the open Senate seat.

    Why he's special: You've heard of his father, most likely alongside the words "libertarian" and "longshot," but Rand has made it clear he's not just a carbon-copy of his dad. He's been more open to working with the GOP's power brokers, and has tacked away from the noninterventionalist foreign policy views that made his father so toxic to so many Republican voters. Right now, he's got one job, but it's a tricky one. He has to find that sweet spot (if it even exists) between outsider activist and party ally. On one hand, he has to agree enough with party orthodoxy to avoid becoming as unpalatable to the Republican majority as Paul the Elder, but on the other, he'll risk losing his base if he strays too far from his libertarian roots. So far, he's done a fair enough job, but the pressure and focus on him will only increase in intensity with time and he might lose his balance.

    Martin O’Malley – Democratic governor, Md.

    Who he is: Martin O'Malley is the two-term governor of Maryland and former mayor of Baltimore. Like Booker, his time as mayor may prove more central to his candidacy than his time in statewide office, but unlike Booker, he doesn't moonlight as a superhero.

    Why he's special: Martin O’Malley might not be the most charismatic politician out there, nor the most popular, nor the best fundraiser, but he has one thing going for him: He’s guaranteed to show up. On his own, O'Malley wouldn't merit a place on this list, but because of his unchecked ambition, he's guaranteed to grow in profile over the next few years. If Hillary Clinton tosses her hat into the ring, Biden won’t go for it, and neither will the Empire State powerhouse duo of Andrew Cuomo and Gillibrand. But that won’t stop O’Malley. Insiders say that he’s in the running no matter what, undeterred by polls showing Clinton sweeping the Iowa field, and playing competitively in Kentucky and even Texas in the general (and before anyone calls bias on those, PPP is indeed a Democratic polling firm, but they have an excellent track record, and were actually slightly skewed in favor of Republicans last year). If she runs, he’ll be in it as an audition for VP, and if she doesn’t, he’ll be aiming for the top ticket. Either way, it's a given that Martin O’Malley will soon be barnstorming Iowa, which means he’ll be all over the headlines.


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