The biggest political upsets of the decade

When President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says inviting Russia to G7 'a question of common sense' Pentagon chief does not support invoking Insurrection Act Dershowitz: Does President Trump have power to declare martial law? 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 ObamaPelosi, holding a Bible, urges Trump to help the country heal Do you harbor racist thoughts? On The Trail: Trump didn't create these crises, but they are getting worse 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 WalshBottom line ABC's Whoopi Goldberg to headline Biden fundraiser with Sen. Tammy Duckworth Trump shares video of protesters confronting reporter: 'FAKE NEWS IS NOT ESSENTIAL' 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 DuckworthCalls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress Trump stokes backlash with threat to use military against protesters Biden unveils disability rights plan: 'Your voices must be heard' 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 senators dodge on treatment of White House protesters Murkowski: Treatment of White House protesters 'not the America I know' Rubio: Protesters outside White House 'deliberately stayed to trigger police action' 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 CristGOP sees groundswell of women running in House races The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden's Tampa rally hits digital snags Biden rise calms Democratic jitters 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 lobby Biden on VP choice Democrats try to force McConnell's hand on coronavirus aid Aides expect Schumer, Mnuchin to reach deal on coronavirus relief 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 McConnellTrump congratulates Steve King challenger on GOP primary win The Hill's Morning Report - Protesters' defiance met with calls to listen Republicans turning against new round of ,200 rebate checks 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 GOP post on Oversight draws stiff competition The biggest political upsets of the decade New hemp trade group presses lawmakers on immigration reform, regs 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 VitterBottom line Bottom line The biggest political upsets of the decade 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 The Democrats' strategy conundrum: a 'movement' or a coalition? The biggest political upsets of the decade 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 SpanbergerGun control group rolls out House endorsements The Hill's Campaign Report: DOJ, intel to be major issues in 2020 Human Rights Campaign rolls out congressional endorsements on Equality Act anniversary MORE (D).

One of Spanberger’s freshmen colleagues was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezNew York City issues Monday night curfew amid protests Engel primary challenger drops out, endorses fellow challenger Trump says he will designate antifa a terrorist organization MORE (D-N.Y.), a young former bartender and Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden wins DC primary Biden wins Montana primary Biden wins New Mexico primary MORE backer who had upset House Democratic Caucus chairman Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyEngel primary challenger drops out, endorses fellow challenger Ocasio-Cortez challenger drops out of GOP primary Ocasio-Cortez, Schiff team up to boost youth voter turnout 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 StrangeThe biggest political upsets of the decade State 'certificate of need' laws need to go GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries MORE (R) to fill a Senate seat left vacant when President Trump elevated Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines What you need to know about FBI official Dana Boente's retirement Rosenstein steps back into GOP crosshairs 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 MooreSessions goes after Tuberville's coaching record in challenging him to debate The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Sessions fires back at Trump over recusal: 'I did my duty & you're damn fortunate I did" 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 ShelbyHouse pushes back schedule to pass spending bills Top Republican says Trump greenlit budget fix for VA health care GOP senators not tested for coronavirus before lunch with Trump 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 CunninghamOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump rule limits states from blocking pipeline projects | EPA finalizes rule to regulate cancer-linked chemical | Democrats want Congress to help plug 'orphan' oil and gas wells Gun control group rolls out House endorsements The Hill's Campaign Report: DOJ, intel to be major issues in 2020 MORE (D), since the 1970s. Rep. Kendra HornKendra Suzanne HornHuman Rights Campaign rolls out congressional endorsements on Equality Act anniversary The 14 Democrats who broke with their party on coronavirus relief vote Congress must return to session 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) LoveThe biggest political upsets of the decade Former GOP lawmaker: Trump's tweets have to stop Congressional Women's Softball team releases roster 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 ValadaoDemocratic Rep. Cox advances in California primary The 14 other key races to watch on Super Tuesday The biggest political upsets of the decade MORE (R). And in Pennsylvania, Rep. Susan WildSusan WildKey races to watch in Tuesday's primaries Democrats press OSHA official on issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard Gun control group rolls out House endorsements MORE (D) won the right to replace retired Rep. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: WHO vs. Trump; Bernie's out The biggest political upsets of the decade Ex-GOP lawmaker: Former colleagues privately say they're 'disgusted and exhausted' by Trump MORE (R) by just under three-tenths of a percentage point.