Top 10 Political Upsets of 2008

Top Political Upsets of '08

Every election cycle has its share of upset winners, the candidates who pulled off long-shot victories that surprised the pundits, the political professionals and sometimes even themselves. 

This year was no different — and was perhaps even a little more eventful because of the dramatic presidential nomination battles in both parties. 

Here’s Politico’s list of the top 10 political upsets of 2008, the memorable ones that remind us that political handicapping is an inexact science. 

Mike Huckabee (Iowa Republican caucus): By the time Iowans went to their caucus locations in January, it was clear that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was surging. After a series of strong debate performances and some offbeat advertising featuring martial arts expert Chuck Norris, buzz was building around the GOP longshot’s candidacy. 

Huckabee wasn’t supposed to be able to compete with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s money and organization, yet he trounced Romney by nine points, changing the course of the Republican nominating contest and establishing the former preacher as a national player. 

Hillary Clinton (New Hampshire Democratic primary): In fall 2007, no one would have been surprised by a prediction that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) would win the New Hampshire primary. She was, after all, the inevitable nominee. But after Barack Obama’s Iowa victory, and her third-place finish there, virtually every poll showed Clinton hemorrhaging support in the nation’s first presidential primary election. 

How did she pull out a three-point victory? Experts and campaign advisers disagree, though most believe it had to do with some combination of Clinton’s strong connection with New Hampshire women, resilient support among white working-class voters, a strong field operation and voter unwillingness to hand Obama the Democratic nomination on a silver platter. 

John McCain (South Carolina Republican primary): In 2008, the state that felled McCain’s 2000 presidential bid validated his strength by delivering an unexpectedly solid victory. 

South Carolina was supposed to favor Huckabee, with his strong appeal to evangelical voters, or former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, with his Southern roots – or even Romney, who ran a strongly conservative campaign with the backing of the state’s junior senator, Jim DeMint. 

But things turned out differently for McCain this time around, as his rivals splintered the anybody-but-McCain vote and allowed the Arizona senator to win by three points over his nearest rival. Deprived of their best chance to slow McCain’s campaign, the other primary candidates started fading fast. 

Bill Foster vs. Jim Oberweis (Illinois 14th District): This March special election should have been a lay-up for Republicans. The district had twice voted for George W. Bush by comfortable margins and had been held for more than two decades by former GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert. 

Instead, this seat offered the first solid sign that 2008 was going to be a very bad year for the Republican Party. In the contest to finish Hastert’s term, wealthy Democratic physicist Bill Foster bested Republican businessman Jim Oberweis — the first of three special election victories in 2008 that presaged the broad Democratic victories in the fall. 

Oberweis, a familiar figure to Illinois voters after previous Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, proved to be an ineffective campaigner and was bloodied in a bitter GOP primary. Foster, on the other hand, benefited from strong Democratic support, including television commercials by then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. 

Foster held on to the seat in the November general election, defeating Oberweis again by a margin broad enough to suggest he has already settled in. 

Tom Perriello vs. Rep. Virgil Goode (Virginia 5th District): Virginia has taken on a bluish hue in recent elections, but even so, few had the 5th District – represented by the Republican party-switcher Virgil Goode – on their radar. Even the liberal bloggers who supported Democrat Tom Perriello conceded he was a longshot. 

Indeed, Perriello, a 34-year-old lawyer who spent time prosecuting war crimes in Africa, started out trailing Goode by more than 30 points. But Goode’s reelection bid hit a couple of potholes, which included comments he made about Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) that were considered anti-Muslim and a late-breaking flap involving the incumbent’s tenuous connection to a racy 2003 film, “Eden’s Curve.” 

When all the ballots were cast, counted and then recounted, Perriello’s strong margin among the progressive-minded university community around Charlottesville helped propel him to victory by less than 1,000 votes.

Rep. Don Young vs. Ethan Berkowitz (Alaska at Large): In the contest for Alaska’s lone House seat, most analysts had left incumbent Republican Don Young for dead. Though Young has served in the House since 1973, bringing in piles of federal money for Alaskan projects, a federal corruption investigation was supposed to spell ballot box doom for the cranky appropriator.

After barely surviving a primary challenge from Sarah Palin’s lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, Young faced a strong Democratic opponent in former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz. But Young ended up winning by a five-point margin – confounding polls that showed him trailing consistently and thus escaping the fate of Sen. Ted Stevens, another veteran Alaska Republican under an ethics cloud who met with defeat.

Kay Hagan vs. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (North Carolina Senate): North Carolina was good to Democrats this year, and no one benefited more than state Sen. Kay Hagan, the upset winner over incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

Dole, a former Cabinet secretary and presidential candidate — and the wife of former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) — had star power and imposing fundraising skills. Democrats had a tough time recruiting a top-tier candidate to oppose her, and when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee settled on Hagan, she wasn’t expected to have much of a shot at taking the seat.

But Dole’s national profile proved to be a double-edged sword. Hagan used it to portray the incumbent as a Washington politician who had lost touch with North Carolina. She gained steadily throughout the summer and the fall, leading Dole to unleash a barrage of blistering attack ads that ended up hurting her own image even more than they damaged Hagan.

The result on Election Day? A nine-point win for the Greensboro legislator.

Barack Obama (Indiana presidential election): Until this year, Democrats had carried Indiana just once in presidential elections since 1936. And in 2004, President Bush won there by a landslide.
So despite polls showing a competitive race for the state’s 11 electoral votes, it was still a bit hard to believe that Obama could win Indiana.

In the end, Obama won in a squeaker, by less than 30,000 votes. He lost most of the state’s counties but he ran up the score where it mattered — in Democratic northwestern Indiana and in Indianapolis’s Marion County.

Barack Obama (Nebraska presidential election): Of the 365 electoral votes Obama collected on November 4, none may be quite as sweet as the one he took from Nebraska.

Nebraska is one of two states that allocates electoral votes by congressional district (the other is Maine), and for the first time in history Obama forced Nebraska to split its support between two contenders by winning the Omaha-area 2nd Congressional District.

At the outset of the campaign, almost no one would have believed that Obama could pick off one of Nebraska’s electoral votes. This was a state that delivered 66 percent to Bush in 2004—and Bush had won 60 percent in the 2nd District.

Yet there were signs throughout the fall that the district’s electoral vote might be in play — Sarah Palin made an unexpected campaign stop there and Republican Congressman Lee Terry, running for reelection, made an explicit pitch for area voters to split their support between him and Obama.

On Election Night, it wasn’t clear who had captured the Omaha-based electoral vote. It turned out not to matter since Obama won a sweeping national victory. But even so, when it was finally determined that he had picked off one of Nebraska’s five electoral votes, the victory was just as gratifying for Democrats.

Anh “Joseph” Cao vs. Rep. William Jefferson (Louisiana 2nd District): If you set out to find an unlikelier new member of Congress than Cao, you’d have your work cut out for you. A Republican, he’s the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress, representing a solidly Democratic district that’s majority African-American. His New Orleans-based seat is the only one in Louisiana that voted for Barack Obama.

It helped, of course, that Democratic incumbent Bill Jefferson had been indicted. And Cao’s political success may be short-lived, given that he’ll have to run for reelection against a presumably unindicted opponent on deeply unfriendly turf. He’ll have two years to make his case, though, and if he’s smart he’ll take full advantage of his current moment in the sun.

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