The biggest political upsets of the decade

When President TrumpDonald TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot 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 ObamaObama to join NBA Africa as strategic partner Obama setting up big bash to celebrate his 60th A path to climate, economic and environmental justice is finally on the horizon 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 WalshThe Memo: 'Hillbilly Elegy' author binds himself to Trump after past criticism Joe Walsh says radio show canceled due to Trump criticism The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? 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 DuckworthOvernight Defense: Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill | House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors | US increases airstrikes to help Afghan forces fight Taliban Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan infrastructure deal 10 books that take readers inside the lives of American leaders 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 RubioGOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden Bipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks 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 CristCrist rips DeSantis over Florida COVID-19 spike: 'We don't have leadership' Pressure mounts for DeSantis in Florida Biden takes steps to review Cuba policy after protests 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 seek staffer salary boost to compete with K Street Bottom line House panel to take up 2002 war authorization repeal in 'coming weeks' 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 McConnellHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony McCarthy, McConnell say they didn't watch Jan. 6 hearing 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. ComerTop House Democrat presses Senate to take up watchdog bill House passes bill to strengthen authority of federal watchdogs Overnight Health Care: Fauci urges vaccination to protect against Delta variant | White House: 'Small fraction' of COVID-19 vaccine doses will be unused 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 CantorBottom line Virginia GOP candidates for governor gear up for convention Cantor: 'Level of craziness' in Washington has increased 'on both sides' 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 SpanbergerDemocrat unveils bill to allow only House members to serve as Speaker Moderate Democrats call for 9/11-style panel to probe COVID-19 origins Former staffer of Bob McDonnell launches challenge against Spanberger in Virginia MORE (D).

One of Spanberger’s freshmen colleagues was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezWomen's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement Grassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa JD Vance takes aim at culture wars, childless politicians MORE (D-N.Y.), a young former bartender and Bernie SandersBernie SandersWomen's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Democrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan MORE backer who had upset House Democratic Caucus chairman Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyCynthia Nixon backs primary challenger to Rep. Carolyn Maloney The Hill's Morning Report - McConnell pressures Dem leaders to follow Biden's infrastructure lead The Memo: The center strikes back 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 StrangePandemic proves importance of pharmaceutical innovation The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements MORE (R) to fill a Senate seat left vacant when President Trump elevated Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases 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 MooreRoy Moore loses lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen Shelby backs ex-aide over Trump-favored candidate in Alabama Senate race Of inmates and asylums: Today's House Republicans make the John Birchers look quaint 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 ShelbyOvernight Defense: Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill | House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors | US increases airstrikes to help Afghan forces fight Taliban On The Money: Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause | IMF estimates 6 percent global growth this year Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill 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 CunninghamTop cyber Pentagon official overseeing defense contractor project placed on leave Joe Cunningham to enter race for South Carolina governor Republicans race for distance from 'America First Caucus' MORE (D), since the 1970s. Rep. Kendra HornKendra Suzanne HornWhy does Rep. Johnson oppose NASA's commercial human landing system? The US's investment in AI is lagging, we have a chance to double it What should Biden do with NASA and the Artemis Program? 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) LoveBlack Republican advocates his case for CBC membership Black women look to build upon gains in coming elections Voters elected a record number of Black women to Congress this year — none were Republican 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 ValadaoPro-impeachment Republicans outpace GOP rivals in second-quarter fundraising Cheney, Kinzinger are sole GOP votes for Jan. 6 select committee Progressives nearly tank House Democrats' Capitol security bill MORE (R). And in Pennsylvania, Rep. Susan WildSusan WildOvernight Health Care: Fauci clashes with Paul - again | New York reaches .1B settlement with opioid distributors | Delta variant accounts for 83 percent of US COVID-19 cases Abortion rights group endorsing 12 House Democrats ahead of midterms Democrats face daunting hurdles despite promising start MORE (D) won the right to replace retired Rep. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentThe Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Influential Republicans threaten to form new party Loyalty trumps policy in Stefanik's rise, Cheney's fall MORE (R) by just under three-tenths of a percentage point.