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The Worst Challengers of Campaign 2006

Today wraps up The Fix's look at the best- and worst-run campaigns of this election cycle.

We saved the "best" for last -- rating the 10 worst challenger and open-seat campaigns. No category received more nominations than this one, as our informal panel of consultants, party strategists and political hangers-on nominated a slew of campaigns for this dubious distinction.

As always, one important caveat: Running a bad campaign or being a bad candidate does not guarantee defeat. In fact, at least two members of our list seem likely to win seats in the Senate tomorrow.

The 10 Worst Challenger/Open Seat Campaigns (listed alphabetically):

Phil Angelides (D-Calif.): Ever since winning his party's nomination in June, Angelides has been on the defensive -- allowing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to control the terms of the debate. The Democrat has also lived up to his reputation as an awkward and uncomfortable candidate, a sharp contrast to the telegenic movie star he is trying to defeat. As a result, polling shows Schwarzenegger comfortably ahead and Angelides seems headed for an ignominious defeat in one of the bluest states in the land.

Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.): Beauprez's poor campaign was all the more surprising for being so unexpected. The congressman was seen as a rising star within the Republican Party nationally following his back-to-back wins in the Democratic-leaning suburban Denver House district he currently represents. But he has run an uneven -- at best -- race for governor and trails former Denver district attorney Bill Ritter (D) badly in late polling. Beauprez was unable to match Ritter's fundraising and made any number of costly errors. The latest? An FBI investigation into how Beauprez obtained information from a federal database that was used as a campaign hit against Ritter. Not good.

Ken Blackwell (R-Ohio): Given the toxic political environment for Republicans in Ohio, it's not likely Blackwell would have have won even if he had run a perfect campaign. We'll never know. Blackwell demonstrated considerable political acumen in the Republican primary in which he effectively cast his opponent as a tool of outgoing -- and grossly unpopular -- Gov. Bob Taft (R). But Blackwell could never find an effective line of attack against Rep. Ted Strickland (D). Blackwell chose to highlight his conservative social positions, a strategy that failed to resonate this year with Ohio voters disgruntled about the direction of the country and the war in Iraq.

Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.): Cardin came into the race for Maryland's open Senate seat with low expectations. He met them. Despite grossly outspending former Rep. Kweisi Mfume in the state's Democratic primary, Cardin won by a slim 43.7 percent to 40.5 percent margin. That underperformance continued in the general election as Cardin was unable to pull away from Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) -- an inability born partially of Cardin's struggles and partly of Steele's well-run campaign. If you need an example of the difference between the two campaigns, watch their ads. Steele's are vibrant, unorthodox and eye-catching. Cardin's are static and unexciting. Still, Cardin is the favorite to win tomorrow.

Bob Corker (R-Tenn.): Speaking of likely winners, polling seems to show Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, pulling away from Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) in the Tennessee Senate race. Corker's likely victory comes in spite of the campaign he ran. After using a considerable financial advantage to soundly defeat two primary foes, Corker's campaign turned listless, a lack of focus exacerbated by the skill with which Ford was conducting his own campaign. After weathering several months of attacks on his record as Chattanooga Mayor, Corker overhauled his campaign team earlier this fall -- a move that appeared to help. Still, this race should never have been this close. Corker deserves considerable blame for not walking away with it.

Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.): So nice, we included her twice. As several astute readers pointed out last week, we accidentally included Harris as one of our 10 worst incumbent campaigns. She, of course, is not the incumbent in her race against Sen. Bill Nelson (D). But Harris's campaign has been so disastrous that it is in some way fitting that she made both of our "10 Worst" lists. And in between our first list and today, Harris committed another doozy, asking in a telephone prayer call late last week God to "bring the hearts and minds of our Jewish brothers and sisters into alignment." Youch.

Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.): At the start of this cycle, the gubernatorial match-up between Hutchinson and state Attorney General Mike Beebe (D) looked likely to be one of the marquee contests in the country. The race never materialized -- thanks in large part to the slow-starting and strangely-focused campaign run by the Republican. Hutchinson seemed to see himself as the frontrunner in the race, choosing to release wonky policy papers while Beebe was out collecting the millions necessary to introduce himself to voters.

Ned Lamont (D-Conn.) -- General Election: Lamont ran a close-to-flawless primary campaign to defeat Sen. Joe Lieberman in August. That victory turned him into an icon in progressive politics -- a distinction that clearly went to the first time candidate's head. Lamont wrongly assumed that Lieberman would drop his candidacy and then, once it was clear the incumbent was committed to a third-party bid, the Lamont camp moved too slowly to define the terms of the debate. The result? Lieberman effectively turned tomorrow's vote into a referendum on Lamont's readiness for political office rather than a debate over the incumbent's controversial position on the war in Iraq. Polling shows Lieberman with a double-digit lead.

Joy Padgett (R-Ohio): When running to replace a scandal-tarred incumbent, it's best to have a squeaky clean record in your own personal and professional life. Padgett, a state senator chosen to replace former Rep. Bob Ney (R) on the ballot in Ohio's 18th District, didn't exactly fit the bill. After a solid start to her shortened campaign, Padgett came under considerable scrutiny over a series of financial dealings that included filing for bankruptcy and defaulting on a $700,000 loan. "The bankruptcy has become the sole issue," Padgett said recently. In other words, it's all over.

Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.): Free-spending candidates are typically coveted by the national parties since their wealth (and willingness to spend from it) can make a longshot race competitive. Not so in Nebraska where Pete Ricketts, the wealthy heir of the Ameritrade fortune, is challenging Sen. Ben Nelson (D). Ricketts has donated more than $12 million to his campaign but appears to be falling further and further behind Nelson, who won with just 51 percent of the vote in 2000. Ricketts's candidacy proves that no amount of money can turn a bad candidate into a good one -- especially in a state as small as Nebraska where retail politicking still matters.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 6, 2006; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Governors , House , Senate  
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