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.
December 14, 2009; 3:16 PM ET
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