By Reid Wilson, 12/28/19
When President Trump descended the escalator into a lobby of screaming fans in 2015, few believed it marked the beginning of an ascent to the White House. But Trump’s upset victory the following year shows why we hold elections, rather than base our leaders on the polls.
Most of those elections turn out to meet what the political class expects. But occasionally, there are surprise results — and each of those upsets carve a special niche in history. Here are the greatest upsets of the last decade:
Massachusetts Previews a Bad Year for Democrats
Massachusetts voters had not sent a Republican senator to Washington since Edward Brooke lost reelection in 1972. But Bay State voters weren’t feeling so blue in 2010, when they elected state Sen. Scott Brown (R) to finish the remainder of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (D) term.
Even national Republicans didn’t put a lot of stock in Brown’s chances. But a late wave of grassroots donations let Brown capitalize on anger building over the stagnant economy and the Affordable Care Act, and on his lackluster opponent, Attorney General Martha Coakley. He won 52 percent of the vote, edging Coakley by about 108,000 votes in what proved to be a preview of the Tea Party wave building across the country.
The Tea Party Stunners
Republicans picked up 63 seats in the 2010 midterm elections as pent-up frustrations with President Barack Obama spilled over to his party. From his office on Capitol Hill, Guy Harrison, the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, knew most of them. But he didn’t know Joe Walsh, a Tea Party activist waging a long-shot challenge against Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.).
On Election Night, Walsh led Bean by only a handful of votes. Republicans spent two days tracking him down, because Walsh was living in his car after a bank foreclosed on his condo. He spent a term in Congress before losing to Tammy Duckworth, and now he’s running a quixotic bid to challenge President Trump.
Farther south, a conservative radio host launched an equally improbable campaign against Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas), an 18-year veteran of Congress. Republican Blake Farenthold bested Ortiz by just 799 votes. He lasted longer in Congress thanks to a redistricting cycle in which Republicans added more conservative voters to his district, but he resigned in 2018 after using public money to settle sexual harassment allegations.
Marco Rubio, Giant-Slayer
When Sen. Mel Martinez (R) opted to retire in 2010 after a single term, Florida state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) announced he would run for the seat. He may not have counted on Gov. Charlie Crist, then a fellow Republican, jumping into the race as well. The first polls in the race showed Crist crushing Rubio by a huge margin.
But the Tea Party wave that built across the country helped vault Rubio to prominence over Crist, and almost a year after he jumped into the race those same polls showed Rubio wiping the floor with the sitting governor. Crist bolted the Republican Party to run as an independent, splitting the vote with Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Democratic nominee. Rubio took 49 percent of the vote, a million more votes than Crist — and with it, a seat in the Senate.
A Republican in Maryland
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) wrapped up two terms in office in 2014 with the hopes that his lieutenant, Anthony Brown (D), would take his place. Brown only had to defeat Larry Hogan, a businessman who ran an anti-tax organization who had lost his two previous bids for public office. Polls showed Brown leading Hogan by double digits virtually from the beginning.
Brown’s lead started to slip in September and October, after his role in Maryland’s botched rollout of its Affordable Care Act health care exchange. Hogan positioned himself as a centrist who would not fight gun control or abortion laws, and he promised to roll back some of the tax increases the O’Malley administration had implemented. He won election by about 65,000 votes — and four years later he skated to reelection by a double-digit margin. Hogan became the first Republican to serve two consecutive terms in office since Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin in the 1950s.
Outsiders Show Candidates Matter
Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the 2014 primary election and got walloped. So when Bevin decided to run for governor in 2015, he seemed an unlikely candidate to win the blessing of the state’s most senior Republican. Most of the state’s political establishment lined up behind James Comer, then the state agriculture commissioner, or Hal Heiner, a former Louisville council member.
Bevin spent heavily from his own bank account, and narrowly edged Comer by just 83 votes, two-hundredths of a percentage point. General election polling showed him losing to Jack Conway, the state attorney general, until the last minute, when Bevin pulled into a tie. The polls were most definitely wrong — and Bevin won election by 9 percentage points.
In Louisiana, sitting Sen. David Vitter (R) had decided to return home at the end of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) two terms in office. Vitter faced competition from two other Republicans, and a growing bevy of scandals that dogged his campaign.
After Vitter and state Rep. John Bel Edwards (D), the only prominent Democrat to enter the race, advanced to the runoff election, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (R) — a Republican who finished fourth in the primary — backed Edwards, and the third-place finisher stayed mum. Edwards led the public polls, but his big 12-point win shocked Louisiana politicos. Vitter retired from the Senate the next year.
The Leadership Losers
When Virginia voters went to the polls on June 10, 2014, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) was in Washington, confident he would win the GOP primary in his Richmond-area district. Voters had other ideas, and little-known Randolph-Macon College professor Dave Brat scored a shocking win that reverberated around Washington. Brat went on to represent the district until 2018, when he lost to Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D).
One of Spanberger’s freshmen colleagues was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a young former bartender and Bernie Sanders backer who had upset House Democratic Caucus chairman Joe Crowley in her own stunning primary upset. Ocasio-Cortez and her Justice Democrats had canvassed a district that looked very different than the one Crowley had first won in 1998, and the young Democrat painted her older rival as deeply out of touch.
Members of Congress almost never lose their bids for their own party’s nomination. Members of leadership are virtually invincible. But both Brat and Ocasio-Cortez proved that districts can change, and that keeping an ear to the ground can make the difference between a graceful retirement and an ignominious end.
Two Upsets for One
When Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) chose Attorney General Luther Strange (R) to fill a Senate seat left vacant when President Trump elevated Jeff Sessions to head the Department of Justice, Republicans were confident that Strange could hold a seat in a state Trump won easily.
But lurking in the background was Roy Moore, the arch-conservative former state Supreme Court chief justice who had lost his office when he refused to move a monument to the Ten Commandments from government property. Moore had a strong following in Alabama Republican circles, and he led the initial round of voting in August 2017. Moore trampled Strange in a September runoff, even after Trump weighed in on Strange’s behalf.
Moore, though, had some unpleasant press to come. On Nov. 9, The Washington Post reported allegations that Moore had been accused of sexual conduct with four women who were teenagers at the time. Prominent Republicans including Sessions asked Moore to drop out, but Moore insisted the allegations were made up.
Moore’s opponent, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, might have started the race as a sacrificial lamb. After all, the last Democrat to represent Alabama in the Senate was Richard Shelby — who changed parties a quarter century ago. The allegations against Moore, and big turnout among Alabama’s large black electorate, were just enough to let Jones slip into the Senate, the second upset Alabama had delivered in just the space of a few months.
The Blue Wave Babies
Just as the 2010 Tea Party wave sent some unexpected contenders to Congress, so too did the Democratic wave in 2018 deliver its share of upsets. A well-to-do South Carolina district elected its first Democratic congressman, Rep. Joe Cunningham (D), since the 1970s. Rep. Kendra Horn (D) became the first Democrat to represent Oklahoma in Congress since Dan Boren left office in 2013, and the first Democrat to represent Oklahoma City since John Jarman switched parties in 1975.
In Utah, Ben McAdams beat Rep. Mia Love (R) by a quarter of a percentage point, or about 700 votes. Rep. T.J. Cox (D-Calif.) had to wait a few weeks as slow-counting California elections officials declared him the winner over Rep. David Valadao (R). And in Pennsylvania, Rep. Susan Wild (D) won the right to replace retired Rep. Charlie Dent (R) by just under three-tenths of a percentage point.