Political Rising Stars of 2012: Elizabeth Warren, Kelly Ayotte (Photos)

From Gary Locke to Susana Martinez, David A. Graham on the Republicans and Democrats to watch.

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While the 2012 presidential race distracts the nation in the new year, 20 up-and-coming pols will be quietly gaining strength. From Gary Locke to Tim Scott and Susana Martinez, David A. Graham on the Republicans and Democrats to watch.

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Democrats: Dave Bing

If there’s good news coming out of Detroit, you can probably thank Dave Bing. It’s not his first turn in the spotlight: he was a seven-time all-star in the NBA. Since becoming mayor of the beleaguered Motor City in 2009 after his predecessor’s massive corruption scandal, he’s worked to “right-size” the city, bring in young members of the creative class, and attract new business. But with massive deficits facing Detroit, it’s unclear whether Bing will be able to beat the buzzer to prevent municipal bankruptcy.

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Democrats: Kamala Harris

When she started running for attorney general, Kamala Harris was a little known underdog, but California’s top cop has rocketed to statewide prominence—and seems to have her eye on higher things. The daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican-American father, she was previously San Francisco district attorney, cited prominent predecessors Earl Warren and Edmund “Pat” Brown as models, and has turned toward Washington, too, blasting the federal government’s top housing officer for inaction. Harris could be the latest Golden State pol to go national.

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Democrats: Elizabeth Warren

The folksy Harvard law professor became a national figure early in the Obama administration through her work in establishing the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. But after being denied the chance to run the new agency, she’s proved she’s not just a wonky egghead but a talented politician too. The first-time candidate quickly scared off several other candidates for the Democratic nod for Senate in Massachusetts, and her quick quips, populist chops, and impressive fundraising have Sen. Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent, running scared.

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Democrats: Deval Patrick

For a time, the charismatic Massachusetts governor seemed to be in trouble—it even seemed he might lose his job in 2010. But Patrick eked out a reelection win, and his poll numbers have improved markedly. As a young, charismatic, African-American politician, he’s often mentioned in the same breath as Barack Obama (though that’s a less coveted comparison than it used to be), and should be a sought-after quantity as Democrats try to maintain their historical edge among black voters post-Obama.

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Democrats: Andrew Cuomo

Mario’s son has come a long way since his days as the enfant terrible of Albany and Washington. The younger Cuomo has proved an unexpectedly effective governor. He managed to walk the fine line between both liberal and conservative groups to deal with New York’s budget woes, and also brought together a coalition of business groups, Republicans, and gay activists to legalize gay marriage. It’s an open secret in New York that he’s got an eye on the White House 2016—perhaps against his cross-Hudson fellow Gov. Chris Christie.

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Democrats: Jon Tester

Believe it or not, Democrats across the nation will be looking to Jon Tester in November as an augur of the party’s future. Swept into the office in 2006 by liberal activists, he’s faced a difficult balancing act ever since—he’s not quite a conservative Democrat, but he’s no lefty either. As he heads into a very tough reelection race against Rep. Denny Rehberg, his fate will say much about Democrats’ ability to attract voters who aren’t educated coastal elites, and therefore about the party’s future viability.

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Democrats: Rahm Emanuel

He might not be Obama’s right-hand man anymore, but don’t underestimate the prodigiously profane Emanuel, the newly elected mayor of Chicago. Rahmbo swears he’s not interested in the presidency, but with his fundraising prowess, strong connections, and proven ability to do just about anything he wants to well, he’ll remain a serious player in Democratic circles. Serving as the boss of a Democratic stronghold won’t hurt either.

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Democrats: Gary Locke

How does a mild-mannered former Washington governor become a rising star? By heading overseas. After bringing the 2010 Census in $1.6 billion under budget as commerce secretary, he was detailed to China as ambassador, where he’s become a hit with Chinese citizens (the Chinese government, not so much). Along with Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, he’s part of a crew of young Democrats putting the Evergreen State on the political map.

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Democrats: Kasim Reed

Reed is on the frontlines of the economic downturn, fighting to keep Atlanta competitive as major cities face new pressures. After winning a nail-biter to become mayor in 2009, he’s gained plaudits for renegotiating onerous pension plans, building up a huge budget surplus, and expanding public services. Even Georgia’s Republican establishment loves him—one key element of his high approval rating. And as an early Obama backer, he’s got a line into the White House.

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Democrats: Mitch Landrieu

When Landrieu announced he was running for the office his father, Moon, held in the 1970s, some people wondered what he was thinking (his sister Mary is also a Democratic senator from Louisiana). New Orleans hadn’t recovered from Hurricane Katrina, was racked by corruption, and had serious racial tensions exacerbated by the storm. Even if the white Landrieu could get himself elected mayor of the heavily black city, why would he want to? But while New Orleans still faces challenges, he’s impressed with efforts to rebuild the city and break corruption. If the Big Easy recovers, Landrieu will receive the lion’s share of the credit.

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Republicans: Kelly Ayotte

While other high-profile Tea Partiers have flamed out (think Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker) or simply sunk into obscurity and the Republican back benches, the New Hampshire senator’s profile continues to rise. She’s helping to bring back New England Republicanism—albeit in a more conservative guise that the old strain—and her endorsement in the 2012 GOP race was highly anticipated. Since backing Mitt Romney, he’s even mentioned her as a potential running mate.

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Republicans: Tim Scott

The South Carolina representative was anointed a star upon his election, when he became one of the first two black Republicans in Congress since 2003. He’s lived up to that promise since arriving in Washington. Scott formed a tight bond with the other Palmetto State GOP congressmen, and the group helped to briefly derail a debt-ceiling deal, pushed by Speaker John Boehner, that they viewed as insufficiently conservative. Though he’s still a freshman, he’s already being talked about as a potential future governor or senator.

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Republicans: Jon Huntsman

Don’t be fooled by his low poll numbers in the 2012 GOP race. The former Utah governor and ambassador to China might be losing the short game, but Huntsman is playing the long game. He’ll come out of the race with much higher name recognition, right-wingers are coming around to his conservative bona fides, and liberals see in him a man they may disagree with but whom they can respect.

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Republicans: Chris Christie

The outpouring of pleas for the corpulent New Jersey governor to run for president—from the people and pundits alike—show how much sway he already has. His graceful exit from the race and dedication to his work in the Garden State made him look good and kept him in the national spotlight—unlike dithering Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has practically disappeared. Though blustery, Christie has shown he’s able to work across the aisle, and his approval rating at home is on the rise.

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Republicans: Paul Ryan

The House Republican whiz kid is showing no sign of slowing down. While Eric Cantor and John Boehner maneuver for titular leadership among congressional Republicans, Ryan is the undisputed intellectual leader for the party, leading its efforts on deficit-reduction, entitlement reform, and more. Just 41 years old, the Wisconsinite has already had to turn down entreaties to run for president and will be a party leader for decades to come.

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Republicans: Kevin McCarthy

California Rep. Kevin McCarthy isn’t as well known as some of his House colleagues, but he’s already a power player in his caucus, with room to expand his public profile. In his third term in Congress, the Bakersfield Republican has already become majority whip and co-founded the Young Guns program that works to bring new blood into the caucus.

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Republicans: Susana Martinez

It’s no secret that the Republican Party has struggled with minority voters. That’s helped to make Susana Martinez a darling of the party. She hits a trifecta as a conservative Hispanic woman in prominent office. Popular in New Mexico, where she succeeded pariah Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, it’s rumored that Martinez could soon go national as a running mate for the 2012 GOP nominee.

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Republicans: Marco Rubio

If there’s a consensus choice for the politician who best embodies the future of the Republican Party, it’s Marco Rubio. The Florida freshman senator comes with movie-star good looks, a compelling life story (his parents immigrated from Cuba), and natural charisma that’s earned him comparisons to Barack Obama. Though at the top of most wish lists, he insists he doesn’t want to be a vice-presidential nominee. Many Republicans hope he has his eye on the White House instead.

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Republicans: Jim Jordan

Much ink has been spilled discussing the rivalry between Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, but Jim Jordan may even more of a thorn in his leader’s side. Rep. Jordan, who is also an Ohioan, is chair of the Republican Study Committee, a group of the most staunchly fiscally conservative members of the congressional Republican caucus. Jordan pushed his own budget plan, rivaling party orthodoxy, and Tea Party activists talk about him as an alternative to Boehner whom they can trust to stick to his principles. A rumor that Boehner sought to punish Jordan through redistricting was quickly shot down—but showed his quiet influence.

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Republicans: Nikki Haley

She’s not your typical Southern good ol’ boy. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Nikki Haley swept into the South Carolina governor’s mansion in 2010, defeating a more moderate—and better established—primary opponent along the way. Dubbed one of the Sarah Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies,” her endorsement has been one of the most highly sought by Republican candidates for 2012, and she’s on most shortlists for the running-mate nod.