over Rep. Jeb Bradley in 2006.
With that in mind, tonight just seemed to be the right time to engage in a little political nostalgia (and, hopefully, some lively debate in the comments) as we look at some of the greatest electoral upsets of the past 20 years in American congressional and gubernatorial politics.
The initial list that was concocted for this fun little exercise had well over two dozen races. As it happened, however, so many of them fell into two particular categories that I felt the need to limit races that emanated from those categories. So, in the name of spreading the wealth, the decision was made to minimize entries from the following two scenarios:
Category One: Special Elections
The unique dynamics of special elections, to say nothing of the vagaries in turnout, make them a breeding ground for shocking outcomes. I could have easily put the victories by Travis Childers (MS-01; 2008) and Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (SD-AL; 2004) on this list, as well as Bill Redmond's shocker in the bluest district in New Mexico (NM-03; 1997) in the top 12. On further reflection, it would have been pretty easy to do a "special elections upset" top 12.
Category Two: Tsunami Elections
Wave elections have a tendency to bring in a lot of driftwood, and therefore upsets are a staple of every wave election. There is absolutely no question that some of the entries on this list of upsets were less shocking than some of the elections that accompanied huge electoral waves. I have no doubt some loyal readers will be aghast that names like Blake "Ducky PJs" Farenthold (TX-27; 2010), Steve Stockman (TX-09; 1994), Nancy Boyda (KS-02; 2006), David Loebsack (IA-02; 2006) and Chip Cravaack (MN-08; 2010) didn't make the cut.
So, with those two caveats out of the way, let's get to the countdown. And, then, let the recriminations fly in the comments, as people will doubtlessly quibble with inclusions, exclusions, and placement. Hell, that's half the fun of this little mid-summer exercise!
(Continue reading below the fold)
Upset #12—Georgia Senate (1992): Paul Coverdell (R) d. Sen. Wyche Fowler (D)
A cynic might note that the first sign of the 1994 tsunami came over two months before Bill Clinton was inaugurated as the 42nd president. On the same night that Clinton dispatched then-President George H.W. Bush from office, and carried Georgia in the process, first-term Democrat Fowler led Coverdell by 35,000 votes. Unfortunately for the freshman senator, Georgia law required a runoff after the general election if a candidate failed to attain a majority. Fowler had just 49.23 percent of the vote. Three weeks later, on runoff day, Fowler essentially got the same percentage of the vote he received on Nov. 3. Coverdell handed Bill Clinton (who had campaigned for Fowler) his first defeat, and before all the confetti had been swept up in Little Rock.
Upset #11—Alaska Governor (1994): Tony Knowles (D) d. Jim Campbell (R)
Sometimes, upsets have a bit more value because they go against the grain. It was a pretty hollow victory after the deluge of defeats they had suffered on Election Night in 1994, but the final contest of the night actually fell to the Democrats in a mild upset. Knowles, the former mayor of Anchorage, benefitted from a split vote (former Alaska Independence party member Jack Coghill notched 13 percent of the vote) and took the win over Campbell. Knowles may have been among the most fortunate guys in elective politics—he won re-election easily in 1998 after the GOP had to abandon their nominee in mid campaign, putting their support behind an Independent candidacy that ultimately flailed.
Upset #10—Connecticut-06 (1996): Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) d. Charlotte Koskoff (D)
An upset does not necessarily have to be a victory. Arguably the greatest near-upset of recent vintage happened in 1996, when Democrat Charlotte Koskoff, who had lost 64-32 to Johnson in 1994, came within a handful of votes of defeating Johnson, who had dominated in the 6th district for over a decade. It was one of the true rarities in American politics—an electoral outcome that virtually no one saw coming. In one of the great political postscripts, Koskoff's campaign was run not by a seasoned political veteran, but by a recent graduate from Williams College. Ten years later, that campaign manager became the candidate, and Chris Murphy ended the 24-year reign of Nancy Johnson in Congress, defeating her by a 10-point margin.
Upset #9—Pennsylvania-17 (2002): Rep. Tim Holden (D) d. Rep. George Gekas (R)
The lesson of this incumbent-on-incumbent battle: Superior campaign skills can even overcome the power of a solid gerrymander. When veterans Holden and Gekas were drawn into the 17th district after the 2000 census, the early line was that Holden was a goner in a district that George W. Bush whomped Al Gore in by a 55-42 margin. But Holden had run in competitive races in hostile territory often since his initial 1992 victory, while Gekas was routinely re-elected without a sweat in a deep red district. Holden defied the terrain (and a less-than-awesome national environment for Democrats) in scoring the 51-49 win over Gekas. Ironically, more amenable territory for Democrats proved to be Holden's political undoing. He lost in the Democratic primary earlier this year to Matt Cartwright.
Upset #8—Texas-23 (2006): Ciro Rodriguez (D) d. Rep. Henry Bonilla (R)
Even in a wave election like 2006, there may have been no more unlikely winner than Democrat Ciro Rodriguez. A veteran congressman whose district stretched from San Antonio into the Rio Grande Valley, Rodriguez was defeated in a very controversial 2004 Democratic primary by Henry Cuellar. In 2006, Rodriguez made a bid to reclaim his seat from Cuellar, but lost in the Democratic primary by double digits. His political career was resurrected, however, when a court-ordered remap of Texas placed his Bexar County case in Republican Henry Bonilla's 23rd district. Election Night functioned as a primary (the remap was ordered in late summer), and Bonilla looked safe: he was barely forced into a runoff, winning 49 percent to Rodriguez's 20 percent. One month later, however, Rodriguez put the exclamation point on the Democratic wave election by coming from behind to score a 54-46 win over Bonilla, securing the 30th pickup for the Democrats in the cycle.
Upset #7—Oklahoma Governor (2002): Brad Henry (D) d. Steve Largent (R)
In a state that had become one of the reddest in the Union, Democrat Brad Henry scored not one, but two upsets in order to score a Democratic win in what was, on balance, a pretty lousy electoral year for Democrats in 2002. A distant second in the Democratic primary (he drew 29 percent to wealthy businessman Vince Orza's 44 percent), he stormed back to claim the runoff, and then parlayed an error-free campaign, and the presence of a well-heeled conservative third-party candidate, into a 7000-vote win over NFL Hall of Famer Steve Largent, who had been universally assumed to be the guy that would follow Republican Frank Keating into office. If you doubt that Henry had serious political game, consider that he was not only re-elected in 2006, he did so with two-thirds of the vote.
Upset #6—New Hampshire-01 (2006): Carol Shea-Porter (D) d. Rep. Jeb Bradley (R)
Of all the Democratic upset victories in the wave election of 2006 that earned them the majority in both houses of Congress for the first time in a dozen years, Shea-Porter's may have been the most improbable. The DCCC had taken the unusual step of wading into a primary, throwing support to state legislator Jim Craig. He wound up getting smashed by 20 points by Carol Shea-Porter. Shea-Porter was an atypical candidate for the modern era—a successful campaign that was not fueled by a lot of cash. Indeed, in picking off both Craig in the primary and sophomore GOP Rep. Jeb Bradley in the general, Shea-Porter spent just $291,000. No winning candidate outside of legacy picks Dan Lipinski and Kendrick Meek have won a House seat while spending less since the early 1990s.
Upset #5—Illinois-08 (2004): Melissa Bean (D) d. Rep. Phil Crane (R)
Phil Crane was first elected to the House when Melissa Bean was just seven years of age. Crane's suburban Chicago district had repeatedly returned him to Congress since 1969, and often by huge margins. But by the dawn of the 21st century, it became clear that his 8th district was starting to get away from him. After three-plus decades of fairly easy wins (only once since 1970 had Crane been held below 60 percent), little-known technology consultant Melissa Bean held Crane to a 57-43 win in 2002. In 2004, which was far from a great Democratic year, a more seasoned Bean matched Crane dollar-for-dollar, and scored the 52-48 win. She held the seat for three terms, before the 2010 wave election ushered in the odious Joe Walsh (whose victory could have easily made the top 12 on its own).
Upset #4—California-46 (2006): Loretta Sanchez (D) d. Rep. Bob Dornan (R)
One has to wonder how awesome it would have been to have "B-1 Bob" Dornan during the era of the blogosphere. Dornan could easily be considered the godfather to the batshit bombast coming out of the mouths of the Bachmanns, Walshes, and Wests of the GOP. Alas, he never made it to the era of the blogs. That is because he was silenced in an absolutely stunning defeat back in 1996.
For her part, Democrat Loretta Sanchez was the unlikeliest of dragon slayers. Her only previous effort at elective politics had been a failed city council bid in 1994. In a field of Some Dudes, she won the Democratic primary with just 35 percent of the vote. But Dornan's status as a lightning rod for the left (and a comically abortive run for president) made him a target, and Sanchez shocked the political world with a victory ... in Orange County, of all places. Dornan, predictably, immediately charged that his Latina opponent had won courtesy of shadowy illegal immigrants voting him out of office. After his plea to Congress was denied, he ran for his old seat again, and was routed by Sanchez in a 1998 rematch.
Upset #3—Massachusetts Senate (2010): Scott Brown (R) d. Martha Coakley (D)
Aside from her considerable campaign skills, it seems fair to argue that a large part of the Democratic activist community's adoration of Elizabeth Warren is owed to the still lingering wounds over Scott Brown's enormous upset victory in a special election held in the dead of winter in 2010. When state Attorney General Martha Coakley secured the Democratic nomination in late 2009, the general assumption was that she would cruise to victory over little-known state senator Scott Brown. Turnout in the Democratic primary, after all, had been four times what it had been for the GOP primary. What's more, a pre-primary Suffolk poll had Coakley waxing Brown by a 58-27 margin.
The short, general election campaign turned quickly, however. PPP sounded the alarm two weeks prior to Election Day, showing a dead heat. By the time the peril was evident, it was too late. By the eve of the election, most pundits agreed that the race was trending to the GOP, and one month after the race looked like a Democratic coronation, Brown closed the deal by a 52-47 margin, and buoyed Republican hopes in advance of the 2010 midterms.
Upset #2—New York Governor (1994): George Pataki (R) d. Gov. Mario Cuomo (D)
In the 1994 GOP tsunami, there were two defeats that crystallized the severity of the defeat for the Democratic defeat. One was Speaker Tom Foley's defeat in WA-05 by George Nethercutt. But calling that an upset, beyond the historic milestone of a sitting speaker getting defeated, was a overstating the case a bit. Nethercutt had, after all, raised over a million dollars, and the Spokane-based 5th district was a swing-y district that George HW Bush had carried in 1988.
The other race was an upset in every legitimate sense of the word. George Pataki was a first-term state senator and former Peekskill Mayor who was essentially unknown when he declared for governor in 1993. Mario Cuomo, meanwhile, was a giant in American politics—the guy that probably could have been the Democratic nominee for president on two separate occasions had he decided to pull the trigger on a bid. Pataki's 49-45 victory, given Cuomo's stature and the naturally blue terrain of New York (where Bill Clinton had won by 15 points in 1992) was an absolute stunner.
Upset #1—Minnesota Governor (1998): Jesse Ventura (I) d. Norm Coleman (R) and Skip Humphrey (D)
How could it be any other way? History has given us a number of novelty candidates. But how often can you wake up the day after an election with the realization that the novelty candidate has actually won?
Former pro wrestler Ventura actually had something of a political pedigree (he had been the mayor of suburban Brooklyn Park), and Minnesota had a reputation for giving pretty laudable vote shares to third-party candidates. But the thought of Ventura actually defeating a DFL political legacy like Skip Humphrey, or a rising GOP star like Norm Coleman, seemed unthinkable. Until it happened, with 37 percent of the vote.
Now, it is your turn. What obvious upsets were dishonored by their exclusion from the list? What race would you have put at the top of the charts? That's what the comments are for, y'all. Let the debate begin!