When President TrumpDonald John TrumpLA Times editorial board torches Trump on climate Spotify to pause the selling of political advertising Fed study: Trump tariffs backfired, caused job losses and higher prices 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
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 ObamaControversial radio host Don Imus dies at 79 Obama shares photo of family Christmas tree with holiday wishes: ‘Merry Christmas!’ Michelle Obama shares family Christmas card 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 WalshMinnesota voter sues over Trump-only GOP primary ballot Bill Weld: As many as six GOP senators privately support convicting Trump Trump challenger Bill Weld rules out 2020 independent bid 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 DuckworthLawmakers call for investigation into program meant to help student loan borrowers with disabilities Overnight Energy: Protesters plan Black Friday climate strike | ‘Father of EPA’ dies | Democrats push EPA to abandon methane rollback Democratic senators push EPA to abandon methane rollback MORE, and now he’s running a quixotic bid to challenge President Trump.
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 FarentholdMembers spar over sexual harassment training deadline Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations Lawmaker seeks to ban ex-members from lobbying until sexual harassment settlements repaid 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 RubioBipartisan consensus on Venezuela talks Congress looks to Mediterranean allies to counter Turkey, Russia Rubio: Confirmations of Trump judges not getting enough attention 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 CristRepublicans disavow GOP candidate who said ‘we should hang’ Omar The Hill’s Morning Report — Trump’s new controversy Florida Rep. Charlie Crist endorses Biden 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
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) wrapped up two terms in office in 2014 with the hopes that his lieutenant, Anthony BrownAnthony Gregory BrownSunday Show Preview: Trump’s allies and administration defend decision on Syria A dozen House Democrats call on EU ambassador to resign amid Ukraine scandal Assault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress 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 McConnellBiden says he would not comply with a Senate subpoena in Trump’s impeachment trial Amy McGrath files for Kentucky Senate bid against McConnell Blumenthal: Five to 10 Republicans have ‘severe misgivings’ about McConnell strategy 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. ComerNew hemp trade group presses lawmakers on immigration reform, regs Kentucky Senate president: Bevin should concede if recanvass confirms results Overnight Energy: Jerry Brown testifies on emissions fight | Brown presses climate action: ‘Impeachment is important, but the climate is even more important’ | Dems look to protect Grand Canyon from drilling 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 VitterRed-state governor races put both parties on edge Louisiana Republicans score big legislative wins Trump calls on Republicans to vote out Democratic Louisiana governor amid GOP infighting 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 Bottom line Meet Trump’s most trusted pollsters 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 SpanbergerHow the 31 Democrats in Trump districts voted on impeachment Lobbying World The Hill’s Morning Report – Vulnerable Dems are backing Trump impeachment MORE (D).
One of Spanberger’s freshmen colleagues was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezWorld’s richest 500 people saw their wealth jump 25 percent in 2019 Progressive activist Zephyr Teachout endorses Bernie Sanders The rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019 MORE (D-N.Y.), a young former bartender and Bernie SandersBernie SandersWorld’s richest 500 people saw their wealth jump 25 percent in 2019 Progressive activist Zephyr Teachout endorses Bernie Sanders The rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019 MORE backer who had upset House Democratic Caucus chairman Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyThe rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019 Pass USMCA Coalition drops stance on passing USMCA Democrats work to bring labor on board trade deal 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.
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 StrangeState ‘certificate of need’ laws need to go GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries Roy Moore trails Republican field in Alabama MORE (R) to fill a Senate seat left vacant when President Trump elevated Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMcCabe accuses Trump officials of withholding evidence in lawsuit over firing Senate Democrat says he’s not worried about losing Alabama seat if he votes against Trump in Senate trial Lisa Page sues DOJ, FBI over alleged privacy violations 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 MooreGOP predicts bipartisan acquittal at Trump impeachment trial Senate Democrat says he’s not worried about losing Alabama seat if he votes against Trump in Senate trial The job no GOP senator wants: ‘I’d rather have a root canal’ 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.
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 ShelbySusan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama Trump signs .4 trillion spending package, averting shutdown Senate sends .4 trillion spending package to 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 CunninghamHouse GOP vows to use impeachment to cut into Democratic majority How the 31 Democrats in Trump districts voted on impeachment The Hill’s Morning Report – Vulnerable Dems are backing Trump impeachment MORE (D), since the 1970s. Rep. Kendra HornKendra Suzanne HornHouse GOP vows to use impeachment to cut into Democratic majority House votes to temporarily repeal Trump SALT deduction cap How the 31 Democrats in Trump districts voted on impeachment 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) LoveFormer GOP lawmaker: Trump’s tweets have to stop Congressional Women’s Softball team releases roster The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority 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 ValadaoCalifornia Republican ousted in 2018 announces rematch for House seat The 8 House Republicans who voted against Trump’s border wall The Hill’s Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — The political currents that will drive the shutdown showdown MORE (R). And in Pennsylvania, Rep. Susan WildSusan WildThe Hill’s Morning Report – Vulnerable Dems are backing Trump impeachment Vulnerable Democrats signal support for impeachment articles this week Vulnerable Democrats feel heat ahead of impeachment vote MORE (D) won the right to replace retired Rep. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentEx-GOP lawmaker: Former colleagues privately say they’re ‘disgusted and exhausted’ by Trump Overnight Health Care — Presented by Better Medicare Alliance — Federal judge blocks Trump from detaining migrant children indefinitely | Health officials tie vaping-related illnesses to ‘Dank Vapes’ brand | Trump to deliver health care speech in Florida The Hill’s Morning Report — Mueller testimony gives Trump a boost as Dems ponder next steps MORE (R) by just under three-tenths of a percentage point.