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Six candidates who took a pass this cycle, but probably shouldn't have

By Felicia Sonmez

From start to finish, the 2010 campaign will go down in the record books as one of the most surprising in recent memory. Dark horse candidates such as Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck (R) in Colorado and attorney Joe Miller (R) in Alaska surged to unexpected victories in primaries, while the national environment has raised the very real possibility that longtime incumbents such as Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), once thought to have a lock on re-election, are now fighting for their political lives.

Those twists and turns have been fascinating for political junkies like us to watch -- but perhaps less so for the politicos who decided against jumping into what looked like tough races at the time. For those would-be candidates, the dramatic shifts in races over the course of the cycle have likely led to thoughts of what might have been.

Below is our roundup of the top would-be candidates who are probably off somewhere kicking themselves right now -- not because they jumped into races they couldn't win, but because they didn't jump into races they very likely could have won after all.

1. Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden (D): The son of Vice President Joe Biden was thought to be the top Democratic contender in the race for his dad's former Senate seat. But with the prospect of a tough race against Rep. Mike Castle (R) looming -- as well as a national environment looking increasingly unfavorable to Democrats following Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley's (D) loss to Republican Scott Brown -- the younger Biden announced in late January that he would not enter the race. The rest, of course, is history. New Castle County Executive Chris Coons won the Democratic nomination, marketing consultant Christine O'Donnell upset Castle to win the GOP nod, and now Coons is leading by more than 17 points in the Real Clear Politics polling average.

2. West Virginia Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito: Capito, the lone Republican in West Virginia's House delegation since she was first elected in 2000, was recruited in 2006 to run against then-Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.); she ultimately decided against it. Four years later, when Byrd's death in July set off a race to succeed him, Capito was again at the top of West Virginia Republicans' lists; again, she demurred, faced with the likelihood of a tough race against popular Gov. Joe Manchin (D). Now, due in part to the deep unpopularity of President Obama and national Democrats in the Mountain State, polls show Manchin facing a tougher-than-expected race against wealthy businessman John Raese (R). The seat is up again in 2012, but the environment may not be as favorable for Republicans as it is at present.

3. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D): Obama himself personally courted Madigan in the hope of getting the popular state attorney general -- and daughter of state House Speaker Michael Madigan (D) -- to run for his former Senate seat. After weighing for months a potential bid for Senate -- or for the governor's mansion -- Madigan eventually declined to run for either, leaving state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) to battle for the president's Senate seat and incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn (D) to run for re-election. Both candidates have had to deal with considerable baggage; for Giannoulias, the collapse of his family's bank has hindered him in his bid against Rep. Mark Kirk (R) (who has had his own share of controversy to deal with), and for Quinn, the shadow of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has been hard to escape. With both Democrats faring poorly against less-than-stellar contenders, either race would likely look considerably different right now should Madigan have decided to jump in.

4. Colorado Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry (R): Considered a rising star among Colorado Republicans, Penry, 33, made a bold move when he decided to enter the gubernatorial race, facing his onetime mentor, former Rep. Scott McInnis (R). But in mid-November 2009, Penry abruptly announced he was leaving the race in order to clear the way for McInnis. That, of course, was before McInnis' involvement in a plagiarism scandal helped lead to his loss in the GOP primary to little-known businessman Dan Maes (R). Now, Maes is polling in the single digits against Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (D) and former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo is gaining momentum as an American Constitution Party candidate. Even the candidate Penry ended up working for in the Senate race, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R), ended up losing in an upset to Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck (R). Penry's future remains bright, but his present -- if he'd decided to stay in the race -- could've been all the brighter.

5. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R): Thompson had long been eyeing another statewide run, and he would have been Republicans' top recruit in the race against Sen. Russ Feingold (D). But Thompson announced in mid-April that he would not join the race, explaining to a local newspaper that it was against his family's wishes. That left a shallow bench of contenders, and ultimately businessman Ron Johnson (R) won the nomination. Johnson, a first-time candidate, seemed like a long-shot for much of the campaign, but Feingold has proved to be more vulnerable than originally thought - he's now trailing Johnson in nearly every recent public poll of the race.

6. Nevada Republican Rep. Dean Heller: Last year, National Republicans had been eyeing Heller, who first won election to the House in 2006, as a possible challenger to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But Heller took a pass, leaving former state Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden, businessman Danny Tarkanian and former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle to duke it out in a crowded primary field. Lowden became the favorite of the national GOP, but Angle rode a wave of tea-party support to an upset victory in the June primary. Now, no race in the country is tighter, although both Reid and Angle are struggling with lopsided favorability ratings. (Worth noting: Heller still has his eye on a statewide run; he recently said that beleaguered Sen. John Ensign (R) will get a primary challenge in 2012 if Ensign doesn't retire.)

By Felicia Sonmez  | October 27, 2010; 10:05 AM ET
Categories:  Governors, House, Senate  
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