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The 10 best Senate races of the decade

As the end of the first decade of the 21st century(!) draws ever closer, the Fix has turned contemplative. That contemplation has centered -- as it almost always does -- on politics, specifically on the best races from that decade that was.

And, because we are obsessed with rankings -- the Georgetown Hoyas are number 13 11 (and rising) in the ESPN/USA Today poll thanks for asking -- we came up with our list of the ten best Senate races of the past ten years over the weekend.

(The Post has commissioned a series of other "best of the decade" lists that you can check out here.)

Agree with our picks? Disagree? You can offer your own thoughts in the comments section below but also make sure to tune in tomorrow at 11 am for a special "Live Fix" chat where we will field questions for an hour on the method to our ranking madness. And, you can rank the top 10 races yourself at the bottom of this post.

Away we go!

1. South Dakota 2004: There's little debate that this race between then Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) and former Rep. John Thune (R) was the marquee contest of the past ten years. The stakes were massive: Daschle was seeking to avoid the ignominious distinction of becoming the first Senate leader to lose a re-election race since 1952 while Thune, widely touted as a potential national star, was trying to bounce back from a narrow loss to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) two years earlier. Daschle went on television in July of 2003(!) and ultimately spent nearly $20 million on the race. Thune, buoyed by national conservative groups aiming to de-throne Daschle, eventually collected almost $15 million in a campaign that sought to paint the Democrat as out of step with the state. A single ad -- in which Daschle is caught on camera saying "I'm a DC resident" among other impolitic pronouncements -- was credited with turning the tide toward Thune, who won by roughly 4,500 votes. That victory propelled Thune into the national spotlight where he sits today -- widely seen as a potential 2012 (or 2016) presidential candidate.

2. Missouri 2000: From the start, this race in the Show Me State was one for the ages. On one side was Sen. John Ashcroft, the controversial, conservative firebrand. On the other was Gov. Mel Carnahan, the most popular and successful Democratic politician in the state. The two men didn't like one another and it showed; they spent the better part of two years bashing one another on television and in person. The race changed drastically on Oct. 16, 2000 when, just weeks before election day, Carnahan as well as his oldest son and a campaign adviser were killed in a plane crash. Carnahan's death came too late for his name to be removed from the ballot but his wife, Jean, who had never previously held elective office, made clear that if her husband won the race posthumously she would accept a gubernatorial appointment to serve in his stead. He did, and she did. Jean Carnahan went on to lose a bid to serve out the remainder of her late husband's six year term to Jim Talent (R) in 2002.

3. Minnesota 2002: In an eerie replay of the contest in Missouri two years earlier, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone , his wife and his daughter were killed in a plane crash on Oct. 25, 2002 -- just days before voters were set to go to the polls to choose between the liberal icon and former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman (R). Before Wellstone's death, the race was extremely close although the incumbent seemed to have moved into a slight lead. (Republicans involved in the contest vehemently dispute that Wellstone was on the way to victory). In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, former Minnesota Senator and Vice President Water Mondale was chosen to replace Wellstone on the ballot, a move widely seen as locking up the seat for Democrats. But, the memorial service to honor Wellstone, which was televised across the state, turned into something of a political rally, turning off swing voters and putting the momentum behind Coleman. On election day, Coleman took 49.5 percent to 47.3 percent for Mondale.

4. Minnesota 2008: Six years after Coleman's miraculous victory, he faced off against entertainer Al Franken (D) in a race that drew massive amounts of national attention. Franken spent much of the campaign downplaying his larger-than-life comedic personality and deflecting controversial past writings. Coleman, meanwhile, did everything he could to disassociate himself from the unpopular President George W. Bush. Everyone knew the race was going to be close -- polls showed it in a dead heat right up until election day -- but no one knew how close. Coleman appeared to have narrowly won but a statewide recount showed Franken with a 225-vote lead. Months upon months -- eight, to be exact -- of legal wrangling ensued with Coleman insisting that election officials has adopted an inconsistent standard for the inclusion (or disqualification) of ballots. Finally, after the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected his challenge on June 30, 2009(!), Coleman conceded the race. Franken's final margin: 312 votes out of nearly 2.9 million cast.

5. New Jersey 2002: Sen. Robert "Torch" Torricelli's (D) ethical problems made him a major target for Senate Republicans in 2002. Businessman Doug Forrester, whose strongest asset was his personal wealth and his willingness to spend it, was the Republican nominee. Torricelli was "severely admonished" by the Senate Ethics Committee for his relationship with a donor in the summer of 2002 and as fall arrived polls showed that the incumbent had no path to victory. Torch, never a good loser, backed out of the race in September 2002 and, in doing so, delivered one of the best/worst resignation speeches in modern political history. (The speech sadly is not captured on video but you can see our full analysis of it here.) Republicans cried foul but Democrats, privately thrilled at Torch's resignation, quickly moved to replace him on the ballot with former Sen. Frank Lautenberg. (In an irony not lost on political junkies, Torricelli and Lautenberg openly despised one another when they served together.) Forrester, clearly flummoxed by the Democratic switcheroo, never recovered, and Lautenberg went on to win the race 54 percent to 44 percent.

6. Illinois 2004: When the race to replace Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) began, Barack Obama was a state senator with only a primary loss to Rep. Bobby Rush to his name. When it ended, he was the newest star of the Democratic party -- a position he ultimately leveraged into a presidential bid in 2008. What happened in between was a fascinating race where the Democratic primary frontrunner -- wealthy businessman Blair Hull -- imploded after his divorce proceedings were made public, and the Republican nominee -- wealthy businessman Jack Ryan -- was forced to step aside by his own party after details of his frequenting of sex clubs hit the papers. Obama was the beneficiary in both cases. Hull's collapse in the primary fueled an Obama surge that delivered him a whopping 53 percent in a five-way race. Ryan's departure left Republicans without a serious candidate and the party's eventual pick -- former Maryland Senate candidate Alan Keyes -- was roundly considered a joke. The ease of the general election race against Keyes, which Obama won with 70 percent of the vote, allowed the up-and-coming Senator to deliver the keynote speech of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The rest, as they say, is history.

7. New York 2000: It's easy to forget now but at the start of the decade, the idea of former First Lady Hillary Clinton in elected office seemed a bit of a pipe dream. When New York Rep. Charlie Rangel (D) floated Clinton's name as a possible replacement for retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D), it was greeted with more than a little skepticism. But, Clinton proved her doubters wrong with an effective "listening" tour focused on Upstate New York that seemed to dissipate (or at least weaken) the charge that she was a carpetbagger. The race looked to be shaping up as one of the greatest ever when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani indicated he would run but in the spring of 2000, Hizzoner dropped two bombshells: he had prostate cancer and he was separating from his wife. He dropped from the race in May and was quickly replaced on the ballot by ambitious Long Island Rep. Rick Lazio. Republicans had high hopes for Lazio but a single decision -- to aggressively approach Clinton at a debate, demanding that she sign a clean campaign pledge -- cost him the race. Together, the two candidates spent more than $81 million but Clinton cruised to a 55 percent to 43 percent victory, a win that set the stage for her unsuccessful run for president eight years later.

8. Virginia 2006: This race between Sen. George Allen (R) and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb (D) introduced the political world to the power of the Internet in two distinct ways. First, it revealed the web's power as an organizational tool as a small group of committed activists organized a "Draft Webb" site that drew considerable interest and played at least some role in his eventual candidacy. Second, it showed that web video -- via You Tube -- was here to stay in the context of political campaigns. Allen, who was widely discussed as a 2008 presidential candidate at the time, was cruising to a second term in August 2006 when at a rally, he referred to a Webb staffer, who was of Indian descent, as a "macaca". The incident became a HUGE national story and, even though Allen quickly apologized, the damage was done. Webb, who had been dead in the water before "macaca", surged and ultimately edged Allen by 9,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast. Allen's defeat turned into a cautionary tale for politicians everywhere now aware that politics had entered the You Tube age, making every public (and private) pronouncement a potential campaign issue.

9. Connecticut 2006: Just six years removed from serving as the Democratic vice presidential nominee and just two years after his own unsuccessful presidential candidacy, Sen. Joe Lieberman found himself in a fight for his political life. Lieberman's strong and continued support for the war in Iraq had put him out of step with the base of his party in the Nutmeg State, an alienation crystallized when wealthy businessman Ned Lamont decided to enter the primary and pledged to spend millions to oust Lieberman. Lieberman underestimated the level of anger directed at him by Democratic primary voters and, by the time he realized it, Lamont had all the momentum. After losing the primary by four points, most people assumed Lieberman's Senate career was over but the incumbent had other plans -- forming a third party and running as an independent. Lamont relished his primary victory for far too long -- he went on an extended vacation after winning in August 2006 -- and Lieberman took advantage, coalescing independents, Republicans (there was no serious GOP nominee) and moderate Democrats. Lieberman managed to win a fourth term over Lamont 50 percent to 40 percent that November although his uneasy relationship with the Democratic party has remained as a running narrative in the intervening three-plus years.

10. Georgia 2002: Going into the 2002 election cycle, Sen. Max Cleland (D) was not seen as particularly vulnerable. His service and sacrifice -- he lost three limbs in grenade accident in Vietnam -- to the country gave him the air of electoral impregnability. And, the Republican nominee -- Rep. Saxby Chambliss -- was regarded as a nice but ultimately not-ready-for-primetime candidate. The race lay dormant until the fall when Chambliss began running ads featuring Osama bin-Laden, Saddam Hussein and Cleland in an attempt to call into question the Democratic Senator's opposition to the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security. Democrats initially scoffed at the attacks, insisting that voters would never question Cleland's service to the country. But, in a country just one year removed from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Chambliss' hit proved devastatingly effective (and provided a future blueprint for Republican campaigns run in the post-9/11 world). One election day, Chambliss won 53 percent to 46 percent. The race echoed throughout the next several years with Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and a Vietnam veteran in his own right, victimized by similar ads sponsored by a group known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that called into question his service.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 14, 2009; 3:16 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: Retirements worry House Democrats for 2010 midterms



For the last time, I am not asking for your opinion. I obviously can't stop you from giving it though : )

Posted by: JakeD | December 16, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I'm disappointed that Steele vs. Cardin (2006) didn't make it. Steele fought a valiant but ultimately losing fight (much like the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII). The race attracted nat'l attention and, sadly, showed us that the Bradley effect is still very much alive: multiple polls had the candidates running neck-&-neck right up to the election, but then Steele lost to Cardin by 10 pts., 54-44%.

Posted by: right-wing_genius | December 16, 2009 12:46 AM | Report abuse

You address a point to me, you're asking for my opinion. Get used to it, troll.

Posted by: nodebris | December 15, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

I subscribe to ten newspapers.

No, not ten different ones, I get ten copies of the same paper.

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | December 15, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse


I bought 10 copies. Given how it's been trashed by all but one liberal I've seen, I doubt the cross-over purchases could be accounted for in that way. Thanks for buying two copies though : )


I didn't ask for your opinion.

Posted by: JakeD | December 15, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

But seriously folks, I've bought 2 copys of Sister Sarah's book. One for my uber-fundie uncle, and one for myself.


You could have waited a few weeks and gotten it for $4.

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | December 15, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

The Chambliss - Cleland race by tactics employed only belongs on "Worst" lists. How about putting it #1 on most odious campaigns of all time?

Posted by: optimyst | December 15, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Sarah' s book- over a million already sold
Al's book - barely 40 thousand
of course not. Al's book doesnt come with crayons.
But seriously folks, I've bought 2 copys of Sister Sarah's book. One for my uber-fundie uncle, and one for myself. Thats because I like to know what I'm talking about before I bash it into a tiny cube. A good many libs do. Maybe thats why many conservatives books sell accross the aisle, but liberals books dont. Is it possible that that could account for sales numbers?

Posted by: elijah24 | December 15, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

jaked: since you solicit my opinion, I would have to say that this alleged virtue you cite hardly compensates for the prodigious weight of your grievous faults and failures. You're putting a grain of rice on one side of the scale, but it's laughably insufficient to budge the bags of dung you've piled on the other side.

But I thought you didn't care about my opinion? So why solicit it, troll?

Posted by: nodebris | December 15, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I think Mark Begich taking down Uncle Ted in 2008 is a better race than the Obama race. Stevens was completely untouchable for the longest time, right up until he was indicted and convicted of bribery. That the feds acted in a heavy handed way to prove his charges later led to his conviction being overturned by the Obama administration is the final twist in that fascinating race.

Posted by: erikpdumont | December 15, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse


At least I'm not the one lamenting the lack of a bloody physical attack on Sen. Lieberman (I-CT).

Posted by: JakeD | December 15, 2009 8:46 AM | Report abuse

And if every one of the people who bought the book with Palin's name on it was willing to vote for her, why, that would mean a million votes!!! Wow!!!

That's like more than half the population of Tizathy!

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | December 15, 2009 2:01 AM | Report abuse

yeah it's kinda like when you just let your hand dangle and the cat comes over and pets herself on it, you don't have to do any of the work.

quel chump

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | December 15, 2009 1:30 AM | Report abuse

G&T: "but the wingnuts do it all the time"
jaked: "I have never done that."


Posted by: nodebris | December 15, 2009 12:52 AM | Report abuse

THREE MILLIONS BOOKS!!! Can you believe that?

Posted by: JakeD | December 14, 2009 11:58 PM | Report abuse

Sarah' s book- over a million already sold
Al's book - barely 40 thousand

bring it on libs. You're days are numbered. No one believes a word you say.

She is headed to 3 million. In three weeks.

The garbled W beat you twice. The amiable dunce Ronnie stomped you twice like no other. The confused Palin can be the fakir Barry with one hand.

Posted by: snowbama | December 14, 2009 11:33 PM | Report abuse

I have never done that.

Posted by: JakeD | December 14, 2009 8:13 PM | Report abuse

Openly hoping for the assassination of a sitting president is kind of tasteless too but the wingnuts do it all the time

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | December 14, 2009 6:58 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't rank races in which people died as "best" either. Its kind of tasteless.

Posted by: fable104 | December 14, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

If you're talking about the most disgusting races then you're right Chris, Saxby Chambliss' victory over Max Cleland in 2002 should be in your top ten races. In fact I would rank it as No. 1. Chambliss, a man who got out of serving in the Vietnam War with a minor injury, called Max Cleland, a Purple Heart veteran and triple amputee, unpatriotic and not putting the country first. There is a special place in the deepest pit of the earth for Chambliss. I would love to see him lose. I would never insert the word "best" in any sentence mentioning this race.

Posted by: fable104 | December 14, 2009 6:52 PM | Report abuse

@DDAWD - #1 baby. Just #1.


[In addition to being a Sheffield United fan, the Blade is also a born and bred Rock Chalk Jayhawk.]

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 14, 2009 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Although I don't think Dems are at all 'scared' of Sarah Palin -- except in the sense that someone with her lack of qualifications is even considered a possibility. But then, this is Fox.


It gives some solace to down-and-out wingnuts to think that all the laughter about Palin is defensive and that deep down people are afraid of her awesome executive talent.

And yes, the wingnuts actually do believe she's a formidable person, so organized and capable and—choke—experienced that she could run a national campaign, and persevere at it, and manage all the details .. it gets more than a little grotesque, doesn't it, to comtemplate elective self-deception as energetic as that.

But there is something fearsome about Palin and what she inspires .. fearsome to think that people as sick and hateful and delusional as that could be OUTSIDE mental hospitals in such numbers.

That's what we get for "sanctioning" psychoses like religious fundamentalism.

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | December 14, 2009 6:22 PM | Report abuse

#5 -- my recollection is that Corzine put a squeeze play on Lautenberg in the 2000 campaign, using his money and Lautenberg's age to force the retirement issue, portraying Lautenberg as less than vigorous. Two years later, of course, Lautenberg stepped back into a Senate race for his party. Then Corzine decided instead of being Senator he really wanted to be Governor. Lautenberg's a fine man with a lot of good service to NJ. Corzine we could never figure out... he just couldn't do the 24/7 thing required in a state like NJ.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | December 14, 2009 6:15 PM | Report abuse

The R civil war continues:

"On Fox News last night, House Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) fielded questions about Sarah Palin from host Geraldo Rivera. In a near-repeat of a similar exchange on MSNBC last month, when Haley Barbour refused to say that Palin is qualified to be president, Cantor refused to tout the qualifications of Palin. Rivera then quipped that both Cantor and Barbour seem to be “scared” of Palin’s rise:

RIVERA: Haley Barbour question: yes or no, is she qualified to be president?

CANTOR: Haley Barbour, he is an expert. That guy is one of the smartest people I know and he’s a real leader. [...]

RIVERA: And he didn’t answer the question, and neither did you. Alright Congressman Eric Cantor, thank you very much. Like I said to my friend Mike Huckabee last night, I think Sarah Palin scares mainstream Republicans like Eric Cantor and Haley Barbour as much as she scares the Democrats."

Cantor is straddling a new fifth rail in Republican politics. While he’s uncomfortable endorsing the notion that Palin is even capable of holding the Oval Office, he knows that she is critical in bringing in support from the tea party base. Already, Cantor’s awkward response has generated outrage from pro-Palin websites, like Free Republic."

Although I don't think Dems are at all 'scared' of Sarah Palin -- except in the sense that someone with her lack of qualifications is even considered a possibility. But then, this is Fox.

Posted by: drindl | December 14, 2009 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Over 1000 protesters arrested today at the global warming fake out. Leftists wanting more

not one arrest ever at any tea party.


Time required to expose this lie: < 1 second

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | December 14, 2009 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Over 1000 protesters arrested today at the global warming fake out. Leftists wanting more

not one arrest ever at any tea party.

Get it.

Posted by: snowbama | December 14, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

As for the ESPN poll. A team wins the National Championship, loses almost it's entire starting lineup, is reduced to freshmen and sophomores, and yet still manages to be ranked 10th in the nation.

Go Heels!!

Posted by: DDAWD | December 14, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

The irony about NJ is that Tom Delay tried to do the same thing in Texas in '06 but the Democrats sued to block him. I guess fair play is nothing more than a saying when it comes to Donkey Power!

Posted by: TexasProud1 | December 14, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

No 2004 Ford v Corker in TN?! A senate race in a red state that a Dem almost won despite racial tinged ads run by the GOP?

Posted by: art16 | December 14, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse


Absolute PERFECTION. I am with you all the way, if perhaps not 100% behind the numbering. I might have put both the Webb/Allen race and the Clinton/Lazio race slightly higher in the rankings, but this is superb!

Posted by: sverigegrabb | December 14, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse

This is a good thread with the exception of a few off-topic posts from Ace McNumbnuts.

Posted by: koolkat_1960 | December 14, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

ddawd writes
"I don't know if Obama's election belongs there. That was kind of a cakewalk. Keyes is a joke."

Sure, the final card of Obama v Keyes wasn't a very compelling matchup, but the story of how that came about makes it a memorable race.

Then again, shouldn't the race where the sitting incumbent is convicted of bribery days before the election & he still comes within 1% of winning make the list?

Posted by: bsimon1 | December 14, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

I don't know if Obama's election belongs there. That was kind of a cakewalk. Keyes is a joke.

I kind of liked Maryland 2006 between Steele and Cardin. Cardin won by like 10%, but Maryland is one of the bluest states and the environment was so toxic at the time that the margin was closer than most could have predicted. Plus, Steele had some interesting ads "I like puppies"

Posted by: DDAWD | December 14, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

8 - this worked so well, with the cooperation of the WaPo, that Webb had nothing to do for the entire campaign.

the tactic backfired though when it was tried again by Deeds. this time the admiration for the WaPo had expired as its partisan bend was well known and shameless. As a result, Deeds, instead of coasting to victory on non-issues, was summarily stomped by voters tired of inept liberals ruining government.

Posted by: ZOUK | December 14, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for a very entertaining column! My only quibble is with #6. Clearly, Obama was a rising star, but the race itself was a walkover. It's entertaining when the Republicans had to import a perennial wannabee for the race.

As an alternative, how about Maria Cantwell knocking off Slade Gorton? Lots of interesting allegations and an uber tight finish.

It's outside the time window, but Ollie North's bid for a Senate seat in 1994 was quite notable.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 14, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

#5 Torricelli - had some even more bizarre scenes to it

Torricelli left the campaign AFTER the date which New Jersey law had established to replace candidates on the ballot.

This launched the NJ Democratic Party to sue all the other candidates on the ballot - including the independents in the race - for the right to have the state ignore the ballot deadline.

The case actually had to be heard before the New Jersey Supreme Court that October - which ended up overshadowing every other issue in the race.

Posted by: 37thand0street | December 14, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

sleaziest, vilest and most dishonest and dishonorable:

the creature knows of what it speaks. This is a topic that generally interests and provides sustinence for it. most posts concern this view.

Posted by: ZOUK | December 14, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Best? If by that you mean perhaps sleaziest, vilest and most dishonest and dishonorable:

" The race lay dormant until the fall when Chambliss began running ads featuring Osama bin-Laden, Saddam Hussein and Cleland in an attempt to call into question the Democratic Senator's opposition to the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security."

A slimy tactic they have been using for years.

Funny thing about Dems in tight races getting killed in small planes just before an election. ..

Posted by: drindl | December 14, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Its a pretty good list. I would probably swap VA 04 and MN 02.

Also, Alaska 08 might deserve an honorable mention.

Posted by: bsimon1 | December 14, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Senate Republicans say they want to “smoke out” Democratic senators who could help them bring down the health care bill, and so far, they think they’ve found one in Sen. Jim Webb. With all the attention focused on four other fence-sitting moderates, Webb has voted with Republicans six times on the first series of amendments on the Senate floor —

Watch how fast the loons turn on him.

Posted by: ZOUK | December 14, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Mr. C- everyone knows you start with 10 and go down to 1- what gives?

Posted by: tmp23 | December 14, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

All of those were great races.

Posted by: JakeD | December 14, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

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