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The Ten Best Challenger Campaigns

With so many contested races at the Senate, House and gubernatorial levels, picking the ten best races run by challengers was very tough. A few selections were obvious -- the Senate bids of Michael Steele (R-Md.) and Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.). But after those two it became significantly more muddled.

Caveats aside, here's The Fix's list of the top 10 challenger campaigns in the 2006 cycle. As always, remember that a quality campaign/candidate does not ensure victory; a slot on this list means the candidates have run campaigns that give them their best chance of a win on Nov. 7.

Feel free to use the comments section for your own suggestions or to critique this list.

Top Ten 2006 Campaigns Run by Challengers (listed alphabetically):

Mike Beebe (D-Ark.): After ten years of Republican rule in the Arkansas governor's mansion, Beebe is on the verge of reclaiming the office for Democrats thanks to an aggressive and well-funded campaign. The contest between Beebe and former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R) was widely seen as a toss-up in the early going. But as Hutchinson focused on rolling out dense policy proposals that garnered little attention or excitement, Beebe successfully cast himself as an agent of change. It didn't hurt that he regularly outraised Hutchinson in each quarter and used his financial edge to get on television early and positively define himself to voters.

Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.): At the start of this cycle, even most partisan Democrats believed the race between Casey and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) would be one of the closest in the country. It hasn't turned out that way. Polling has consistently shown Casey with a high single-digit or low double-digit edge, with Santorum mired in the lows 40s. Why hasn't this race tightened? Because Casey and his campaign team recognized that as long as Santorum was the focal point in the race they would win. So Casey ran a campaign aimed at making no big news (or big mistakes) while carefully and meticulously reminding voters of those things they didn't like about Santorum. This was a textbook frontrunner campaign -- even though Casey was a challenger.

Charlie Crist (R-Fla.): In a year as bad nationally for Republicans as this one appears to be, it is remarkable that Crist, Florida's attorney general, is favored to win the governor's mansion on Tuesday. Using his fundraising prowess, Crist turned what was expected to be a tight primary contest with state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher into a laugher -- aided by Gallagher's less-than-stellar campaign. And even as the Foley scandal has exploded on the Sunshine State's political landscape, Crist has maintained his lead over Rep. Jim Davis (D) thanks to a nearly four-to-one fundraising advantage. Polling has tightened of late but most neutral observers expect the Republican to pull it out. Should Crist win, watch the parade of 2008 candidates traveling to Florida over the coming months in hopes of winning what will be a crucial endorsement.

Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.): For as many cycles as we can remember, Democrats had touted their candidates against Rep. John Hostettler (R) in the conservative southern Indiana 8th District. And each time Hostettler managed to win reelection as the Democratic standardbearer flamed out. Not this time. Ellsworth, the sheriff of Vanderburgh County, has run a picture-perfect race using a clear financial advantage to define himself as a conservative on social issues long before Hostettler could cast him as a liberal. Beating an incumbent is never an easy task, even in a cycle like this one where the playing field is so slanted in Democrats' favor. Polling shows Ellsworth ahead by a double-digit margin -- a lead that not even Hostettler's vaunted ground game will be able to make up.

Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.): Ford was a unanimous choice for this list -- named by Democrats and Republicans alike. Anyone who had followed Ford's career in the House knew that he was telegenic and ambitious. What Ford has shown in this open seat Senate race against former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker (R) is that he is politically savvy as well. Recognizing the challenges for an African American Democrat running statewide in Tennessee, Ford ran an unorthodox campaign, taking risks with early advertising in an attempt to insulate himself from the Republican attacks to come. He ran ads on port security, high gas prices and the role of faith in his life. And he always spoke directly to the camera in his commercials -- a sound strategic decision aimed at convincing voters that he could be trusted. Ford may not win this race, but he has run one of the best campaigns in the country.

Rep. Mark Green (R-Wisc.): Had Green chosen to stay in Congress, he would be well-positioned to be a rising star within Republican ranks. But after four House terms Green decided to take on Gov. Jim Doyle (D). Thanks to an early focus on fundraising, Green eliminated a serious primary challenge and began to unload on Doyle's alleged ethical transgressions over his first four years in office. Green's "time for a change" message was hindered by the growing distaste for President Bush and the Republican Congress, and Doyle, to his credit, has run a savvy campaign linking his opponent to unpopular GOP policies. Polling indicates Green will come up just short on Election Day, but his run has solidified him as someone to watch for in future Senate or other statewide races.

Jeff Lamberti (R-Iowa): As we said above, running a very good campaign does not equal certain victory. Take Lamberti, a state senator challenging Rep. Leonard Boswell (R) in Iowa's 3rd District. Lamberti has raised $1.7 million -- more than double the amount collected by Boswell's challenger in 2002 and 2004. Lamberti has used the money to cast the contest as a choice between the past and the future. Unfortunately for Lamberti, he chose the wrong year to run for Congress. His message has been swept aside by the dissatisfaction among Iowa voters with President Bush and the war in Iraq. Still, Lamberti has run a creditable challenge to Boswell and will likely be at the top of the Republican list if and when the Democratic incumbent steps aside.

Chris Murphy (D-Conn.): When we first met state Sen. Chris Murphy last year we thought he was a nice guy with a bright future but that he had little chance of unseating longtime Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) in Connecticut's 5th District. Murphy has surprised us with his resiliency. Johnson has run her typical quality campaign and had spent more than $4 million largely on commercials attacking Murphy. And yet Murphy continues to plug along, focusing on a message that brands Johnson, who has held a northwestern Connecticut congressional seat since 1982, as part of the problem in Washington. That message is working. Johnson is below 50 percent even in Republican polls, and GOP insiders admit she is the most endangered incumbent in the Constitution State.

Michael Steele (R-Md.): If Ford was the candidate most mentioned as having run a solid campaign by our ad hoc panel of party strategists and consultants, Steele was a close second. As we have noted before on The Fix, Steele, the state's lieutenant governor, used a series of unconventional political ads to shape this race as a choice between business as usual (Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin) and change. Steele, who is black, has also effectively won key endorsements within Maryland's African American community in hopes of swaying this traditionally Democratic voting bloc to his side. In a year where the political atmospherics didn't strongly favor either party, Steele would likely be ahead in this race and favored to win. But in a year where the national winds are blowing strongly behind Democrats and blue states are acting even bluer, it is a very tough chore for Steele to convince enough Democrats to cross party lines for him to win.

Jon Tester (D-Mont.): At this time last year, Tester was considered an underdog -- in the Democratic primary. He went on to blast state Auditor John Morrison in that contest and used his quirky appeal -- a trademark flattop and a left hand with just two fingers remaining on it -- to open up an early lead against Sen. Conrad Burns (R). Tester's background as a farmer and a folksy TV ad campaign (one featured him driving a pick-up truck) have insulated him from the standard Republican charge that he is too liberal for the state. Burns's poll numbers have bounced back in recent days, but Democrats remain confident that Tester will win.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 3, 2006; 12:08 PM ET
Categories:  Governors , House , Senate  
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