— Rep. Paul Ryan. Big ideas are rare in today’s world of demagoguery. The House Budget chairman has lived up to the example of the late Jack Kemp, his mentor, in taking on big issues, providing intellectual leadership and displaying courage, all while maintaining a cheery disposition. The Wisconsin Republican united the GOP conference behind his 2011 budget in February, only to see Senate Democrats fail to produce one of their own. His reward? Have national television ads run against him claiming he would push grandmothers over a cliff. Before the year ended, Ryan teamed up with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to offer a bipartisan plan to reform Medicare, which Washington Post blogger Jen Rubin called “an extraordinary political and policy breakthrough.” Ryan had the potential to unify the conservative and establishment wings of the Republican Party in 2012 had he sought the presidency, but he passed (he also opted not to run for an open Senate seat). Instead, he chose to seek re-election to the House, take on a role raising money for the national party, see his wife and raise their small children each weekend in Janesville, and wait for the chance to wield the gavel as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 2013, where he may finally achieve his dream of major tax reform. He will be a top choice for vice president.
Those are the winners. A few others deserve an honorable mention:
— Gov. Susana Martinez. The New Mexico Republican is the first Latina Republican governor in American history, and her first term has been a success, to date. Recent polling by the Democratic-leaning firm PPP found that she had a 50-39 approval rating in a state Obama won in 2008 by 15 points. A GOP-leaning firm, POS, recently found that Martinez has a 65 percent approval rating. Martinez has focused on reform, and her early success has brought her accolades and national attention. In late November, Martinez was elected to the executive committee of the Republican Governors Association, which will introduce her to major national donors. New Mexico is expected to be a major battleground state and the Hispanic demographic nationally will be a key to the 2012 presidential election, making Martinez a likely candidate for VP or, at a minimum, a major surrogate for the Republican nominee.
— Gov. Bob McDonnell. Now the Republican Governors Association chairman, McDonnell raised more than $5 million for his political action committee in 2011 with the singular goal of retaking control of the Virginia Senate. He achieved it (barely), as he now holds the tiebreaking vote through Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. Now controlling the House of Delegates and the Senate, McDonnell enters the 2012 legislative session in Richmond with a bold agenda, political capital and the clock ticking (he is term limited in 2013). He will be on the short list for vice president in 2012.