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The biggest political upsets of the decade

When President TrumpDonald TrumpCIA chief threatened to resign over push to install Trump loyalist as deputy: report Azar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments Justice Dept. argues Trump should get immunity from rape accuser's lawsuit MORE 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

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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 ObamaBarack Hussein Obama'Nationalize' Facebook and Twitter as public goods Millennials and the great reckoning on race Biden's chief aide says president wants teams, no rivals MORE 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 WalshJoe WalshSacha Baron Cohen pens op-ed on the dangers of conspiracy theories Sunday shows preview: Protests continue over shooting of Blake; coronavirus legislation talks remain at impasse Republicans officially renominate Trump for president MORE, 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 DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthBiden taps Atlanta mayor for senior DNC role The best way to handle veterans, active-duty military that participated in Capitol riot Overnight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee MORE, and now he’s running a quixotic bid to challenge President Trump.

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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 FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdThe biggest political upsets of the decade Members spar over sexual harassment training deadline Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations MORE 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 RubioMarco Antonio RubioConfirmation hearing for Biden's DNI pick postponed McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time The Hill's Morning Report - Trump impeached again; now what? MORE, 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 CristCharles (Charlie) Joseph CristLawmakers introduce bill to award Capitol Police officer Congressional Gold Medal Lawmakers share New Year's messages: 'Cheers to brighter days ahead' Florida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum MORE, 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

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Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) wrapped up two terms in office in 2014 with the hopes that his lieutenant, Anthony BrownAnthony Gregory BrownDemocrats to levy fines on maskless lawmakers on House floor Growing number of lawmakers test positive for COVID-19 after Capitol siege Democrats offer bill fining lawmakers who don't wear masks in Capitol MORE (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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi mum on when House will send impeachment article to Senate Democratic senator: COVID-19 relief is priority over impeachment trial The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history MORE 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 ComerJames (Jamie) R. ComerHouse GOP raise concerns over Biden's top Cabinet nominees Sackler family points fingers at Purdue Pharma during House hearing on opioids Republicans press FBI for briefing on efforts by Chinese government operatives to gain influence with lawmakers MORE, 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 VitterDavid Bruce VitterBiden inaugural committee to refund former senator's donation due to foreign agent status Bottom line Lysol, Charmin keep new consumer brand group lobbyist busy during pandemic MORE (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 CantorEric Ivan CantorLeaving on a high note: Outgoing NRCC head looks to build on 2020 Overnight Defense: US sanctions NATO ally Turkey over Russian defense system | Veterans groups, top Democrats call for Wilkie's resignation | Gingrich, other Trump loyalists named to Pentagon board Gingrich, other Trump loyalists named to Pentagon advisory panel MORE (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 SpanbergerAbigail Davis Spanberger'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack Chamber of Commerce slams GOP effort to challenge Biden's win Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE (D).

One of Spanberger’s freshmen colleagues was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-Cortez'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate New York AG sues NYPD over excessive force at Black Lives Matter protests Pressley's chief of staff said her office's panic buttons 'had been torn out' before Capitol riot MORE (D-N.Y.), a young former bartender and Bernie SandersBernie Sanders'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Biden to seek minimum wage in COVID-19 proposal Former Sanders spokesperson: Progressives 'shouldn't lose sight' of struggling Americans during pandemic MORE backer who had upset House Democratic Caucus chairman Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyBottom line Biden's gain is Democratic baseball's loss with Cedric Richmond Business groups breathe sigh of relief over prospect of divided government MORE 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.

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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 StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeAlabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Sessions hits back at Trump days ahead of Alabama Senate runoff The biggest political upsets of the decade MORE (R) to fill a Senate seat left vacant when President Trump elevated Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' Sessions, top DOJ officials knew 'zero tolerance' would separate families, watchdog finds Sen. Hawley tramples the 2020 vote in his run to 2024 MORE 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 MooreRoy Stewart MooreAlabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Long-shot Espy campaign sees national boost in weeks before election Ocasio-Cortez slams Tulsi Gabbard for amplifying ballot harvesting video MORE, 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. 

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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 ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Overnight Defense: Trump impeached for second time | National Guard at Capitol now armed, swelling to 20K troops for inauguration | Alabama chosen for Space Command home Space Command to be located in Alabama MORE — 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 CunninghamJoseph CunninghamWe lost in November — we're proud we didn't take corporate PAC money Chamber of Commerce slams GOP effort to challenge Biden's win Coalition of 7 conservative House Republicans says they won't challenge election results MORE (D), since the 1970s. Rep. Kendra HornKendra Suzanne HornThe US's investment in AI is lagging, we have a chance to double it What should Biden do with NASA and the Artemis Program? Here are the 17 GOP women newly elected to the House this year MORE (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 LoveLudmya (Mia) LoveVoters elected a record number of Black women to Congress this year — none were Republican Democrats lead in diversity in new Congress despite GOP gains McAdams concedes to Owens in competitive Utah district MORE (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 ValadaoDavid Goncalves ValadaoUpton becomes first member of Congress to vote to impeach two presidents The Hill's Morning Report - Trump impeached again; now what? Kinzinger says he is 'in total peace' after impeachment vote MORE (R). And in Pennsylvania, Rep. Susan WildSusan WildHouse Democrats push Biden's Pentagon pick on civilian control of military Democratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief Democratic Rep. Susan Wild wins reelection in Pennsylvania MORE (D) won the right to replace retired Rep. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder Dent22 retired GOP members of Congress call for Trump's impeachment Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 The magnificent moderation of Susan Collins MORE (R) by just under three-tenths of a percentage point.