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The Live Fix: Top 10 Senate races of the decade

Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009; 11:00 AM

This Tuesday, The Fix goes live, as Chris Cillizza discusses the top 10 Senate races of the aughts and the decade in politics.

Vote for the best and worst campaigns of the year and the biggest political scandal of the decade.

Check out the discussion archive.

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Chris Cillizza: Good morning everyone! Thanks for joining the Live Fix a little earlier in the week than our usual date on Friday mornings.

I am coming to you live from the Fix official home office HQ in funky Falls Church, VA.

Neko Case's "Middle Tornado" is playing.

Let's do this thing.

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Reston: Since the decade isn't over until the end of 2010, aren't you starting a little early?

I know a lot of people are in ignorance of that, but I'd think that the WaPo would be able to count to 10!

Chris Cillizza: A fair point...but should 2010 count in the next decade? After all, this decade has already had five sets of Senate races -- 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.

If we want to talk about what Senate races in 2010 might make the next decade's list, the most obvious is Pennsylvania where party switching Sen. Arlen Specter has to face Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary and, if he wins that one, will move on to a general election fight against former Rep. Pat Toomey who he narrowly ousted in a Republican primary in 2004.

Ironies abound!

Other possibilities in the 2010n cycle for "best of" recognition down the line: Connecticut and Nevada where long-serving and powerful Democratic incumbents are facing their toughest challenges ever, and Delaware where a Rep. Mike Castle (R) vs. state Attorney General Beau Biden (D) race would be a clash of the titans.

Other 2010 possibilities we are missing?

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2002 N.J.: Forrester vs Torricelli/Lautenberg: I worked on this campaign for Forrester (terrible candidate) and, while I'm biased, this was one of the biggest stealing of elections in recent memory. "The Switch" as it should be known was really outrageous and I still can't believe the Democrats got away with it.

Chris Cillizza: That race, which came in at #5 on the Fix list of the 10 best Senate races of the decade, should serve as a reminder that the party that is in charge of making the rules almost always wins.

The Lautenberg for Torch switch didn't feel right to most close observers of the process but voters, who have better things to do than spend all their time thinking about politics, didn't care and simply voted with their natural partisan leanings.

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San Diego: Did you have any second thoughts including races in which candidates died? You wouldn't include RFK's final race on such a list, right?

Chris Cillizza: I didn't.

The #2 (Missouri 2000) and #3 (Minnesota 2002) races were ones that, in conversations with people who follow the Senate closely, came up constantly.

Of course, it is a tragedy that the lives of Mel Carnahan and Paul Wellstone (among others) were cut short.

But, the fact that Carnahan was posthumously elected and his wife, who had never served in office before, stepped in to take his place is a remarkable storyline.

Ditto for the fact that the memorial service meant to honor Wellstone was widely regarded as too over the top partisan and almost certainly cost Democrats the seat.

My goal in putting together the 10 best list was to find the races that were the most memorable and unpredictable. It's hard to argue that the two races I mentioned above don't qualify under those parameters.

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Birmingham, Alabama: There were so many great ones this decade. One that comes to mind is Corker vs. Ford, Jr. in Tennessee in 2006. What do you think of that race, and was it close to making your list?

Chris Cillizza: It was close to making the list.

Lots of people suggested its inclusion for two main reasons: 1) it proved that an African American candidate could be a viable candidate for Senate in the south and 2) the "Harold, call me" ad that drew national attention and scorn. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1smE1Es-8QA]

Both true. But, ultimately I didn't see a race I could bounce out of the top 10 to put Tennessee 2006 in. If Ford had won, that may have been a different story. But, he didn't.

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Fairlington, Va.: I enjoyed the list, but noticed that there were relatively few races in which women were involved (the exception being Hillary Clinton). Did you consider the Marie Cantwell vs. Slade Gorton or Debbie Stabenow vs Spencer Abraham races? In both cases, an incumbent was knocked off in a close race and the Cantwell race got particularly heated.

Chris Cillizza: HMMM. I didn't notice that and can assure you it was not intentional.

Let's take the races you mention one by one -- and each was in the honorable mention category.

1. Michigan 2000: Stabenow's unbelievable comeback -- she was down double digits late in the campaign -- and the fact that she did it in what was then a swing state makes it all the more impactful. This remains the most expensive Senate race in the history of the Wolverine State and also has the distinction of being the first race since 1942 in which neither party candidate won a majority of the vote. (Thank you Almanac of American politics.

My problem with this one was that it didn't have some of the longer term impact of a race like Georgia 2002 or Virginia 2006. The former provided a blueprint for Republicans to run against Democrats on national security issues, the other knocked George Allen out of the presidential sweepstakes.

2. Washington 2000: The Cantwell Gorton race was better than most people remember simply because the state's massive absentee voting program. Cantwell trailed on election night but when all the absentee votes were counted she won by around 2,000 votes out of 2.4 million cast. Like Michigan 2000, however, I didn't see the national impact or the long term echo of this race as much as some of the other that made the list.

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Vienna, VA: Do you think Chambliss-Cleland could have been higher? I think people forget just how bitter that campaign was and how upset Democrats were with some of the tactics Chambliss used.

Chris Cillizza: It could have been in terms of how it previewed what was to come with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Of course, many Democrats lambasted me for including it at all because of the ads that Chambliss ran against Cleland suggesting he was soft on terrorism because he was opposed to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

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I can count to 10...: 1. 2000 2. 2001 3. 2002 4. 2003 5. 2004 6. 2005 7. 2006 8. 2007 9. 2008 10. 2009

Looks like 2000-2009 is a decade to me...

Chris Cillizza: Yes! My math is true!

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Seacoast, N.H.: Shaheen-Sununu '02 and '08. Sununu breaks the law to win the first time around, then Shaheen comes back and beats him fair and square

Chris Cillizza: I thought about one or both of these on the list.

2002 was the more interesting race as Sununu ousted Republican-turned-Independent-turned Republican Sen. Bob Smith in the Democratic primary and then faced off against Shaheen, the state's governor in the general election.

But, there were just too many other races that were either a) closer (Sununu won 51-47) or b) populated by more interesting and charismatic candidates.

In truth, the 2008 race was not particularly interesting. Shaheen started out ahead, stayed ahead and won.

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CoHi on The Hill: Since this race didn't make the top 10, an honorable mention should go to the Kay Hagan/Elizabeth Dole race. This NC contest was one that on paper looked like a real longshot with Democratic heavyweights like Mike Easley and Brad Miller taking a pass. But with Hagan's political prowess, Dole's epic "Godless" FAIL, and Obama's coattails, it became a marquee event and was the most unlikely flip that the Democrats would have thought about earning at the start of 2008.

Chris Cillizza: Yes...that was a GREAT race -- the toppling of an icon.

Dole had done herself so much damage by almost never going back to the state in her first six years in office that she was far more vulnerable than I -- or many other political folks -- realized.

What almost puts it on the list is the stunningly bad judgment exposed by Dole's decision to question state Sen. Kay Hagan's religious bona fides, a move that came to be symbolic of the death throes of Dole's political career.

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San Diego: While it was an interesting race until Keyes got in, the Obama victory in that contest was more of a let down. Will you be doing this same list for House, Governor races?

Chris Cillizza: Don't forget the primary!

Obama was expected to finish third behind Blair Hull and Dan Hynes but surged when Hull's ugly divorce records were made public.

Then, the Republican nominee was forced to drop out of the race after it went public that he had frequented sex clubs with his actress wife!

Also, did I mention that the next president of the United States emerged in this race? Hard to leave it off.

Not sure if I am doing it for govs and House races.

Would people be interested in that?

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Minneapolis, MN: Norm Coleman is on the list twice. Once for losing to Franken; once for winning in an election that, contrary to your post yesterday would not have been close had Wellstone not been killed. (The StarTribune had a poll coming out the next day that had Wellstone with a 9.3 lead.) (And Coleman had already lost to Jesse Ventura.)

Does Coleman really deserve to be on the list of "best Senate races" twice in the decade? Will he try to use this honor is next race, losing the governorship of Minnesota once again?

Chris Cillizza: I think he does.

Both of those races are not on the list because of Coleman but because of the amazing circumstances that surrounded each of them.

I dealt with Minnesota 2002 above so let's look at 2008.

The Democratic nominee was Al Franken, a double-edged sword of a candidate thanks to his celebrity, which helped him raise vast sums of money and draw national attention but also made him answerable for any number of impolitic statements he had made over the years.

Franken looks down and out over the summer of 2008 but manages to scrap back into a dead heat. On election night it looks like Coleman has won but a statewide recount hands Franken a 200-vote lead. Coleman sues and the case doesn't resolve until June 2009 -- more than eight months after the initial election!

That reads like a novel. In fact, I still can't believe it happened.

As for Coleman and the 2010 governors race, my guess is he does decide to run. He is a political animal. He can't help himself.

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Belfast, ME: Chris, as there was no year zero, the first decade was 1 through 10. Some silly nitpickers think all decades should still be that way.

Chris Cillizza: Aha. Well I am not one of those "silly nitpickers".

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Kent, Ohio: I think of 2006 mid-terms as the Karl Rove mid-terms and so many races that he personally took an interest in (being in Ohio, we all remember the CGI of smoke from the World Trade Center).

What do you think is the legacy of Karl Rove since his attack style was consider brilliant since the 1994 race for Governor of Texas (where he basically implied that Ann Richards was a lesbian), but all that changed with the massive Republican loss of seats in 2006.

Chris Cillizza: I think Karl Rove -- like all consultants -- gets too much credit when things go right and too much blame when things do wrong.

Take David Plouffe, the super-genius manager of the president's campaign.

Back in 2000, Plouffe was the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when the expectation in political Washington was that his party was going to take back control of the House.

They didn't.

It didn't mean that Plouffe was an idiot. He was, as he is now, a tremendously efficient manager of people and someone meticulously obsessed with every detail of political campaigns.

But, the political environment in 2000 was much tougher for Democrats than it was in 2008.

Fortunes can change quickly in politics. One day's moron is the next day's genius.

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McLean, VA: I can't see how the election where John Ashcroft lost to a Dead Guy didn't get #1. It's certainly #1 on my list of "Top 10 Funniest Senate Elections of the Decade." I mean, come on, he lost to a -Dead Guy-.

That loss resulted in a promotion, for some reason, to Sec. of Defense.

Chris Cillizza: Funny is not the word I would use to describe it. And, Ashcroft got appointed as Attorney General not Secretary of Defense.

Weirdness of that comment aside, there is a real argument to be made that Missouri 200 should be number one. The stakes of South Dakota 2004 were so high though, and the money spent was so exorbitant that it's hard to ignore it for the top spot.

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"Would people be interested in that?": We're Fix Dorks, how could we -not- be interested in that?

Chris Cillizza: Ok...maybe I should do a "best of" governors and House race list. I'll take any and all suggestions at chris.cillizza@wpost.com

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San Jose, CA: The 2010 Texas race is definitely one to watch, wouldn't you agree? Perry/Hutchinson, then White against the winner. Whether you're an R, D, or I, this will be a fun one to watch (it's already had a few twists)!

Chris Cillizza: Absolutely. That's a gov race though and it is in 2010 -- so it is double whammied of the Senate list.

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Albany, NY: It looks as though every race named by chatters was on your honorable mention list. Why don't you give us your honorable mention list so that we can just relax? If you do this for governors -- and you should; I think there are too many House races to tell 'em apart at the remove of a decade -- you should tack on your honorable mention list.

Chris Cillizza: Honorable Mention:

South Dakota 2002: Tim Johnson (D) vs John Thune (R)

Michigan 2000: Debbie Stabenow (D) vs Spence Abraham (R)

Washington 2000: Maria Cantwell (D) vs Slate Gordon (R)

New Hampshire 2002: Jeanne Shaheen (D) vs John Sununu (R)

Tennessee 2006: Harold Ford Jr (D) vs Bob Corker (R)

Did I miss any?

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Illinois: Corker-Ford should've cracked the list. What about Salazar-Coors?

Chris Cillizza: Salazar-Coors wasn't all that great a race. Coors came into the contest with LOTS of hype -- he's the Coors beer guy! -- but lived up to almost none of it.

He was a listless candidate who seemed entirely uninterested in doing the basic blocking and tackling you need to do to win.

Salazar, the state's Attorney general, started the race with the lead and never relinquished it. Kind of a snoozer.

Now Colorado 2010's Senate race....

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Arlington, VA: Numbers have meanings. Words have meanings. The 20th century ended on December 31, 2000, NOT on December 31, 1999. This is a fact, it is not nit-picking. Decades go from 1 to 10, hence the current decade will end in 2010. This is a FACT, it is not nit-picking.

I think we should treat words with the same casual disregard. So I would then say, rubber fork into silly potato.

See???

Chris Cillizza: Rubber fork? I don't follow ;)

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Washington, DC: Chris,

What about the Texas Senate in 2002? Dems were so convinced that their "Brown-Black-White Strategy" (Gov-Sen-Lt. Gov) was going to work due to the demographics in Texas, and they failed, even with a good candidate in the Senate race.

Chris Cillizza: Like Colorado Senate 2004, that was a race with tons of promise that never delivered.

Then Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk was touted as the best Senate candidate in the country by Democrats and he drew considerable national attention as an African-American running for statewide office in the deep south.

But, the race was never all that close. Sen. John Cornyn wound up winning 55 percent to 43 percent.

Interesting factoid from that race: White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was tasked with aiding Kirk's press operation.

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Rosleand, NJ: I think Hillary v Lazio should be higher... if only because of the Hillary v Rudy freak show that preceded it.

To this day, the political dark ride named Giuliani continues to thrill children of all ages...

Chris Cillizza: It could have been higher although, ultimately, the general election between Clinton and Lazio wasn't close.

I think that race suffers a little bit from the "what might have been" problem.

A Clinton-Giuliani race would have been one for the ages. Clinton-Lazio didn't have the same appeal.

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Abingdon, Md.: To clarify on the "decade" thing: A decade is simply any set of ten consecutive years--we have this tendency to make it mean something beyond that. I disagree with the "there was no year zero" comment. Sure there was, 2000. (Let's not confuse decades with centuries.) Surely when we talk about the 20's 30's etc. we include 1920 and 1930 just as we will do in the years starting with 20xx.

Chris Cillizza: The "decade debate" rages on!

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New York: A bit off-topic, but what's going on with Harold Ford Jr. now? Every time I see him on a talk show I'm impressed with his intellect and eloquence. Seems he should have been given a highly visible position in government party politics after his loss.

Chris Cillizza: HFJ is currently the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council.

As far as I know he spends most of his time in New York and a little birdie told me a month or so ago he had been making calls to test the waters for a potential primary challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in 2010.

I can't imagine that coming to pass but Harold clearly wants to run again for something. His problem is that his home state of Tennessee isn't terribly hospitable to Democrats on the statewide level at the moment.

He's young, however, and has the luxury to pick his spots.

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Tuscaloosa, Ala.: I think the Missouri 2006 race should at least be an honorable mention. That race was so intense, and so close. And then it got so nasty with Limbaugh's comments after the Michael J. Fox ad. What do you think?

Also, I would say definitely do a list of Gov races of the decade. I'll email you some of my picks.

Chris Cillizza: Great race between two terrific candidates. Long term impact on national politics? Minimal. But just a terrific race.

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Brooklyn: I can't believe that Rick Lazio is running for office again. What an empty suit. What a lame candidate he turned out to be against Hillary Clinton.

Chris Cillizza: He is running for governor and, assuming Rudy Giuliani doesn't get into the race, will be thee GOP nominee.

Which will set him up nicely to be the sacrificial lamb for state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in 2010.

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It burns!: Ahhhh, "was tasked"??? AHHHHHH. Was GIVEN THE TASK! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

Chris Cillizza: Grammar police/arrest this man

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Abingdon, Md.: I'd like to see Lieberman run today as a Democrat...wonder how he'd fare? (IF he runs again, he'd more than likely pull a Specter and make the switcheroo from D to R.)

Chris Cillizza: As I wrote yesterday in the Fix, there is NO viable path for Lieberman to win the Democratic nomination. None.

Based on his recent actions on health care, my guess would be that he has made up his mind not to run in 2012 and is following the policy course he believes to be right no matter how bad the politics of such moves are.

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Kevin (Jacksonville, FL): Enjoyed this list a lot.

Your thoughts on FL 2004? Martinez narrowly defeats Castor and the added Republican Hispanic presence on the ballot helps deliver the state to Bush. Bush had a double digit lead with FL Hispanics.

That's one of the biggest Pres. impacts from a USN campaign in the last decade, in my opinion.

Chris Cillizza: Ah, yes. A good one that should have been on the honorable mention list.

Mel Martinez never wanted to run for that seat but was talked into it/forced into it by the Bush Administration. He got out as soon as he could, resigning earlier this year.

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Capitol Hill: Is it possible that Harry Reid might just retire? Is there any obvious Democratic successor?

Chris Cillizza: Just no possible. The leader of Senate Democrats can't/won't retire.

Reid is in this for the long haul. It remains to be seen though whether he can win in 2010 given his dismal poll numbers.

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the Fightin' Franken: For Senate race of the decade, I'd take Franken vs. Coleman for race build-up (hello, SNL), election day drama, post-election maneuverings and Franken's fightin' spirit on the Senate floor afterwards. Anytime a Senate Republican leader needs to go off the Senate floor(playground?) to go get his big brother (McCain) to fight his fight against a freshman Senator, you know that election had consequences.

Chris Cillizza: AGREED. Hard to argue against that one being on the list.

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2002 Minn.: Coleman vs Wellstone/Mondale: Don't know if it was the best, but to me it was the saddest. I'm a life long Republican (not from MN) and work in politics here in DC and I can't tell you how sad I was that Senator Wellstone died in that crash. I disagreed with him on most issues, but he was one of the increasingly few politicians in either party that stood by his convictions and knew what he believed in, not to mention being a brilliant person. For that I will always remember this election.

Chris Cillizza: Absolutely a sad day.

Whether you agreed with Paul Wellstone or not, you had to respect him. Unlike most politicians, he actually believed what he said.

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Washington, DC: I'd like to see profile on Sen Lautenberg, he beats my old friend Millicent Fenwick for NJ senate seat in 82, then gives it up then runs again after Torricelli is booted, he is singlehandedly responsible for no smoking on planes and other things yet he is unrecognized by the media in this town.

Chris Cillizza: Also, he is 85, super-rich and had a long-running feud with former New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Torricelli!

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Arlington, VA: fellow Nutmegger again...

If the health care reform bill fails, does CT 2006 (Lieberman-Lamont) move up the list?

Chris Cillizza: It just may....and Lieberman-whoever 2012 (if he runs) already has a spot reserved on my next decade list.

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Somebody get the Decade guy some Valium: While he has a point about the centuries, he's wrong about the decades. Like he said, "Words have meanings."

Example: Do you consider 1930 to be part of the "Roaring Twenties?" I don't. I do consider 1920 to be part of it, though.

Do you consider 1990 to be part of the "Eighties," of course not, that would be silly.

I don't know what's correct as far as the calendar and official gregoriologists or whatever, but in modern terminology, we refer to "decades" by the 3rd number in the year - 80s, 90s, 00s, etc.

Chris Cillizza: "Gregoriologists"!!!!

Hard to top that. With that, I declare the "decade debate" ended.

Verdict: 2000-2009 encompasses ten years and five sets of Senate races. Hence, decade.

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New York,, N.Y.: OK, maybe this isn't top ten, but in terms of history, the "let's make her parade around the state before we decide we don't want her" campaign of Caroline Kennedy will be one of the most memorable Senate campaigns of all time.

Chris Cillizza: Ooh, that was a good/bad one.

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Chris Cillizza: Folks,

Thanks so much for playing along today. I had SO much fun coming up with the list and debating people about why certain races made the cut and other didn't.

So, thanks.

Have a great rest of the week. And, if you don't already, make sure to make the Fix daily reading!

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