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How Roll Call’s Best Politics Stories of 2013 Happened

Like many politics news consumers/news people working during the holidays, I’ve read a lot of listicles in the last couple weeks (some even on Roll Call). My eyes now glaze over when the words “best of” run across my Tweetdeck.

So here’s something slightly different for the end of 2013. Hopefully, you read our best politics stories of 2013 when they originally published.  But here’s a closer look at how the year’s best stories from Emily Cahn, Abby Livingston, Kyle Trygstad, Nathan L. Gonzales and Stu Rothenberg happened.

Warning: Story generation isn’t often sexy or even interesting. To my knowledge, no Roll Call politics reporter secretly met a source in a Rosslyn parking garage this year. Mostly, they get their best ideas by dialing sources outside the Beltway. Other times, they get lucky with a news tip. Regardless, I think it’s valuable to our readers to see the origins of our best coverage.

In no specific order, here’s how Roll Call’s 13 best politics stories of 2013  happened:

1. 6 Things Losing Candidates Say (Aug. 22). Nathan didn’t think this story would get much attention during a sleepy, off-year August recess. He and Stu Rothenberg meet with scores of congressional hopefuls every cycle, and Nathan thought his advice to candidates seemed obvious (for example, don’t hire your spouse as a campaign manager). But the story quickly became one of Roll Call’s most popular pieces, and operatives tell us they now give it to candidates before they do interviews with national media — especially prior to meeting Stu and Nathan. The list spurred a few fun spin-offs too: 5 Things Winning Candidates Say and 4 More Things Losing Candidates Say (Readers Edition).

2. Brian Schweitzer Wants You To Know He Really Hates Washington, D.C. (June 19). One slow summer afternoon, Kyle  emailed, “I just had the weirdest conversation with Brian Schweitzer.” He was working on this story about Schweitzer’s testy relationship with Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. At first a source close to Schweitzer declined to comment, but then the former governor called Kyle back. We originally ran the Q&A as a sidebar to the story. However, the funny-but-awkward exchange grabbed more attention (and clicks). After all, Kyle had pulled off something most reporters could not: Play it straight with Schweitzer, who despite his self-professed loathing for Washington, D.C., still called a Roll Call reporter.

3. The 7 Most Dysfunctional State Parties (July 23). Abby’s greatest challenge for this story was picking seven —  just seven! — dysfunctional state parties. She got the idea for this story while reporting her weekly Shop Talk column, which chronicled unprecedented turmoil in individual state parties. There was an honorable mentions section that was eventually cut because we couldn’t do the party’s respective dysfunction justice in once sentence (ahem, California GOP). Frankly, we had difficulty finding state Democratic Parties that were on the same level of dysfunction as our GOP honorees. The next day, the Associated Press documented some of the same troubles among state parties, like the Iowa and Nevada GOP.

4. Why Most Postmortems of the Virginia Gubernatorial Race Are Wrong (Nov. 11). Stu wrote this for his weekly column six days after now Gov.-elect Terry McAullife won the race. In today’s political coverage, that’s like a whole news year. Maybe Stu was inspired by unexpected closeness of this race (he tweeted on Nov. 5, “I just remembered that Election Night can be fun”). But after hearing some snap-judgement punditry on gender voting behavior in the race, Stu took a closer look at the exit polling data. This column is the result.

5. For Campaign Moms, Politics is Childs’ Play (May 9). Another gem from Nathan, who worked tirelessly on his interviews for this story. One top Democratic operative revealed her miscarriage, while another confessed the internal conflict that comes with a two-year job cycle: “It’s tough because someone makes an investment in you and then you get pregnant.” I admit I was skeptical when he told me about this feature piece — and not because Nathan, a father of three, is not a mom. But his piece was so sensitively reported and well told, that I couldn’t start editing it until I finished reading every word.

6. Sen. Thad Cochran’s re-election bid (all year). In a nearly desk-wide effort, Roll Call has chronicled Cochran’s decision (or indecision) about seeking a seventh term. For over a year, the Mississippi Republican said he was considering retirement. Abby first noted a strong, tea-party aligned Cochran challenger in the wings, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, when she wrote about Mississippi for our weekly farm team series. Later on, we drafted two breaking news stories about Cochran: One post if he retires, another if he seeks re-election. We didn’t expect to get beat by our pals at the Rothenberg Political Report, which broke the news about Cochran’s re-election more than 30 minutes before any other outlets could confirm the news. Kyle turned around with this story about Cochran’s toughest test in 30 years, setting up GOP’s tea party-vs.-appropriator battle of the cycle.

7.  Former Rep. Joe Baca’s Endorsement Wars (May). The California Democrat faces Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, who is backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for this competitive seat. This Baca saga started after Emily wrote up a straight-forward post on ten House Democrats who backed Aguilar in this competitive “top two” primary.  Baca’s team responded to Emily with the former congressman’s own list of 30 members who endorsed him. Except, they didn’t. House Democrats peeled off his list — including Assistant Minority Whip James E. Clyburn. Then Baca released their signatures. It was a messy situation for Democrats, who are having primary problems again in their efforts to oust Rep. Gary G. Miller, R-Calif., in this top pick-up opportunity for the party.

8. The Most Important Election of 2014 (Oct. 21). In the aftermath of the government shutdown, Stu penned this doozy like it was no big deal. While most eyeballs were focused on the House deal that ended the 16-day impasse, Stu looked at the situation through the lens of McConnell’s re-election, specifically his primary. The result was one of the most poignant takes on congressional legislating during the permanent primary of the last several years.

9. Conflicting Interests Split Top Democratic Firm (March 21). This started with a simple news tip for Abby, who covers the political consulting industry. The story is a revealing read into how a Democratic mega-mail firm split over what was essentially small beans in the industry — two legislative races in California. Modern campaign finance laws forced a firewall between the top two partners, creating a conflict of interest that divorced a top firm. She followed the paper trail behind the two firms and, in a digestible way, showed how financial decisions often drive campaigns.

10. The Most Expensive Senate Race of The Cycle — So Far (Dec. 15). The deluge of early TV spots in the months before Election Day has made early early advertising essential in modern campaigns. Kyle was tasked with figuring out which race was the most expensive of the cycle so far. North Carolina easily won that category, thanks to the state’s multiple media markets. But his quest was difficult because much the ad buy information isn’t publicly available, so Kyle had to reach out to his sources who knew the media buying market. Roll Call’s Chris Hale put together the graphs for each Senate race.

11. Rare Convention Presents Hurdle in Iowa Senate Race (July 5). After top Iowa Republicans took a pass on the Senate race, the party’s field continued to grow lesser-known candidates for this open-seat race. Emily was tasked with sizing up the ever-growing field of GOP candidates and, after a few phone calls, discovered several top Republicans were terrified the party might be forced to pick a nominee through a rare convention. The situation embroiled the Iowa GOP, which controls the convention process and is controlled by activists aligned with former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

12.  Oy Vey. The Summer of Jews Behaving Badly (July 30). Classic Stu snark in this column — with a side of self-deprecation. When he can dress down his own people (“No, I don’t mean journalists. I mean the Jews.”), his candidate take-downs have an even greater impact (for example, Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally). Also, Stu manages to bring up his first love, baseball, while he tweaks his fellow members of the tribe: Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and Bob Filner.

13. Roll Call’s 10 Most Vulnerable House Members (Nov. 5). Before Buzzfeed, before listicles became a thing in journalism, and before political journalists ranked everything, Roll Call published this feature. We update it three times each cycle: A year before Election Day, six months before Election Day, and one month before Election Day. For this cycle’s first version, Roll Call politics reporters consulted their sources for the cycle’s most endangered House members, then we meet to discuss the top candidates. We examine prior performance, campaign teams, the competitiveness of districts and what party operatives say about their own prospects. The greatest challenge this year was deciding to trade some of the most battle-tested members (Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., or Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who retired after this was published) for new names in competitive districts.

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