Sabatos Crystal Ball

Oops! They Weren’t Supposed to Win

November’s recent surprise winners, plus your suggestions

UVA Center for Politics, The Crystal Ball Team September 18th, 2014


U.Va. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato is contributing a regular column to Politico Magazine. This week he took a look at races that featured upsets and surprising outcomes in Senate and gubernatorial contests since 2002. In the piece, he asked for readers to let us know if we missed any races worth mentioning, and they didn’t disappoint. Here are the contests we heard the most about:

2008 Alaska Senate: The race we received the most emails and tweets about was the 2008 Senate contest in Alaska, and for good reason: Mark Begich (D) took down 40-year incumbent Sen. Ted Stevens (R) in a red state during a presidential election. Stevens was weighed down by scandal as he was indicted and initially convicted for failing to properly report gifts (the conviction was later thrown out). Begich, whose father, Rep. Nick Begich (D), disappeared in a plane while campaigning for reelection in 1972, was ahead in the polls — polling averages had him up four points over the incumbent. But in the end, the younger Begich only won by a little over a point, in part because of then-Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R) place on the Republican presidential ticket. In fact, on Election Night it looked like Stevens might actually hold on; only after absentee ballots and canvassing did Begich come out the narrow victor. It’s possible that Stevens would have considered challenging Begich in 2014 at the ripe old age of 90, but sadly he too died in a plane crash in 2010.

2002 Georgia Governor: We definitely overlooked this contest, which saw incumbent Gov. Roy Barnes (D) lose to Sonny Perdue (R) despite leading every pre-election poll and outspending the challenger six-to-one. This was a remarkable upset that no one saw coming, and it made Perdue the first GOP governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, a further indication of the growing Republicanism of Georgia and other Southern states. Not only did Perdue win unexpectedly, but he did so by five points — not exactly a squeaker.

2010 Delaware Senate: Some readers asked about this race and it merits inclusion, although it ended up being a blowout win for Democrats. Yet in the summer of 2010, most analysts were anticipating it being a blowout win for Republicans. Long-time Rep. Mike Castle (R) looked likely to defeat Chris Coons (D) in November. But the Sept. 14 GOP primary turned the race on its head as Tea Party fervor carried Christine O’Donnell to an upset win over Castle for the party’s nomination. Coons immediately became the favorite, and O’Donnell self-destructed over the next two months, leading to a nearly 17-point Coons victory.

In addition to these three races, a couple readers thought the piece should have mentioned the 2014 gubernatorial contest in Hawaii as an example of party factionalism potentially playing a role in an outcome. Independent ex-Democrat Mufi Hannemann, a former mayor of Honolulu, could potentially siphon off Democratic votes from the party’s nominee, state Sen. David Ige. If Hannemann remains relevant in the race, he could help give former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona (R) a real shot at winning the governorship. As we said last week, we tend to think Hannemann will fade, but his place in the race certainly makes the Aloha State worth mentioning.