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Roll Call’s 10 Best Senate Races

Picking the 10 best Senate races of the past 50 years is akin to asking people to name the 10 best albums of all time.

Some opt for rock and roll; others for jazz, rap or country music. Some choose albums that have been the most influential over the past five decades; others name the top-sellers.

So it goes with choosing the top 10 Senate races during the time that Roll Call has been covering Capitol Hill and the campaign trail.

In conversations with numerous campaign consultants, party strategists and political watchers for this article, they all had their own pet lists of the best races.

Some — like the epic 1984 battle between North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms (R) and Gov. Jim Hunt (D) or the 1994 Virginia Senate race — were no-brainers that made it onto almost everyone’s list.

Others took more time and consideration, with our sources weighing the race’s closeness, cost and long-term impact on the Senate and American politics.

Chuck Todd, editor in chief of the Hotline, a daily political tipsheet and the author of an upcoming book on classic Senate contests may have said it best.

“A great Senate race is one where re-telling the tale of the race never gets old and interests junkies of all ages,” Todd said.

What follows is an (admittedly) subjective look at the 10 races that are likely to linger in political junkies’ memories when Roll Call celebrates its 100th anniversary. They are listed in chronological order.

1961 Texas Senate race: John Tower (R) vs. William Blakley (D)

A special election triggered by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson’s resignation to become vice president, this race presaged the switch of the solid South from Democratic to Republican control.

Tower had taken on the Herculean task of challenging Johnson in 1960 and lost, 58 percent to 41 percent.

When Johnson vacated the seat the following year, oilman William Blakley was appointed to hold the seat until a special election could be scheduled. No less than 71 candidates, including Tower, filed for the special.

Blakley made the runoff, beating out then-Rep. (and later Speaker) Jim Wright (D), among others, but so did Tower.

Liberal Democrats abandoned the conservative Blakley, voting strategically for Tower in the belief that he would be more easily beaten in six years time than would a conservative Democrat.

Tower won the May 27 special election by 10,000 votes — the first Republican elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. He served until 1984.

1970 Tennessee Senate race: Al Gore Sr. (D) vs. Bill Brock (R)

If Tower’s victory telegraphed the political change coming to the South, Gore’s loss to Brock left no question that the change was well under way.

Brock, a youthful Congressman and heir to his family’s candy fortune, was the linchpin of President Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which was designed to turn the region from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican, using race as a wedge to split the Democratic base.

Gore had emerged as an outspoken proponent of civil-rights legislation and supported school busing — an extraordinarily controversial issue at the time. He was also an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War.

Brock slammed Gore on both issues, calling him the third Senator from Massachusetts.

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