2012 was a watershed year in many ways. Immigration occupied a great deal more space in the national political dialogue than in previous years, and Latino voters, as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) said earlier this year, were the"belle of the ball" this presidential election.
A numbers wonk ran for vice president and a temperamental governor soared in popularity after leading his state through a natural disaster. They and others made our list, in no particular order, of up-and-coming political figures who had an impact in 2012.
1. Julián Castro
The Mexican-American San Antonio mayor was launched into the spotlight earlier this year when he became the first Latino to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. The 38-year-old grew up around politics with his mother serving as a leader in the Chicano movement in San Antonio and his brother was just elected to the House of Representatives.
Many have compared him to President Barack Obama, who became a household name after giving a rousing keynote at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Both went to Harvard Law School and were largely raised by single mothers. Castro does not speak Spanish, and has gained appeal beyond the Hispanic community. Among the causes he's championed are gay rights and education reform.
He may very likely be a presidential contender one day, but Castro himself downplayed that possibility during an interview with ABC/Univision News earlier this year.
"It's very likely that the first Latino president has been born, [but] I don't think that I'm going to be that person," he said.
Maybe his young daughter will fill that role. After all, she certainly stole America's heart during her father's convention speech.
2. Ted Cruz
The Tea Party-backed Cruz will fill outgoing Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's seat come January to become the first Latino senator from Texas. Canadian-born Cuban-American Cruz beat Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in a hard-fought runoff for the Republican nomination. He was previously the first Hispanic to serve as solicitor general of Texas. He was also a constant presence on Twitter in the run-up to the election and succeeded in drumming up a vocal conservative base of supporters.
After his win, Cruz was named vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a group aimed at getting more Republicans into the Senate. He's made it clear he's ardently opposed to Obama's healthcare plan and has accused Democrats of making Americans dependent on federal government. Cruz also does not support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and he favors giving local authorities the ability to inquire about someone's immigration status.
He blamed the Republican Party's poor performance with Latinos on Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comment following the election, and not immigration.
"'We don't have to worry about them' is what the famous clip said," Cruz told attendees at a gala for the conservative American Principles Project in November. "Tone on immigration contributed, but I think far more important was '47 percent."
Cruz gained widespread attention within his party, as he added to the Republican numbers in the Senate. But ignore the buzz about Cruz being a presidential contender someday. He was born in Canada.
3. Chris Christie
As governor of a blue state, New Jersey governor Christie has gained both a reputation as a straightforward, down-to-business guy and a firecracker who occasionally loses his cool with reporters. He has vocally criticized Obama's healthcare law and his handling of the flailing economy.
"I don't know about you, but I don't want my children and grandchildren to have to read in a history book what it was like to live in an American Century," he said during his convention speech. "I don't want their only inheritance to be an enormous government that has overtaxed, overspent and over-borrowed a great people into second-class citizenship."
And his approval ratings at the end of 2012 are sky-high following super-storm Sandy. The hurricane hit New Jersey particularly hard, and Garden State constituents were pleased with his get-in-and-get-it-done handling of the crisis. He campaigned heavily for Romney during election season, but also praised President Obama for his handling of the storm. His high approval ratings are somewhat remarkable, given that, as Christie pointed out during his convention speech, he's "from a state with 700,000 more Democrats than Republicans."
He's thrown his support behind some interesting figures, immigration-wise, endorsing Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) who once compared immigrants to dogs. But he's also adopted a more humane tone toward immigrants himself, calling for a "common-sense path" to citizenship and tighter border security. As the Los Angeles Times noted, Christie told a church forum in 2008 that "being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime," when he was serving as the U.S. attorney in New Jersey.
"The whole phrase of 'illegal immigrant' connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime," he said. "Don't let people make you believe that that's a crime that the U.S. attorney's office should be doing something about."
Christie has also taken more moderate stances on other issues such as climate change – global warming exists, he acknowledges – and gay rights – he opposes gay marriage, but nominated a gay man to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Don't be surprised to see him run for president in 2016.
4. Elizabeth Warren
The senator-elect from Massachusetts defeated incumbent Senator Scott Brown in a hard-fought 2012 election. She will be the first woman senator from her state, and she also raised more campaign money than any other Senate candidate in 2012.
A bankruptcy law expert, she has served as an assistant to Obama and a special advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury for the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, where she wasn't afraid to publicly state her disagreement with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. She also spoke directly before former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, where she blamed Wall Street for much of the nation's economic woes.
In late 2011, a video of Warren talking about the state of the country went viral.
"You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for," she said. "You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless – keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
Obama made similar remarks in a 2012 speech where he uttered the now infamous line, "You didn't build that."
Look for Warren to play a key role in economic and budget discussions in Congress next year.