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Roll Call’s 10 Best Senate Races

D’Amato again attacked his opponent as a liberal — a trademark tactic of his bare-knuckled pollster, Arthur Finkelstein. Finkelstein would serve as D’Amato’s right hand man for his entire political career, which included a stint as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 1996 cycle.

Holtzman was plagued by Javits’ refusal to back out of the race and endorse her.

In the end, D’Amato took 46 percent to Holtzman’s 45 percent. Javits received 11 percent. D’Amato served — colorfully — until 1998, when he was ousted in another barnburner by Democratic Rep. Charles Schumer.

1984 North Carolina Senate race: Jesse Helms (R) vs. Jim Hunt (D)

No contest was more frequently cited as one of the best ever than this battle between the two men who have dominated North Carolina politics for the past three decades.

Soon after Hunt was re-elected to a second term (of an eventual four) as governor in 1980, he turned his attention to the race against Helms.

Even early on, Helms was viewed as a divisive figure with high negative ratings; the popular Hunt held leads as large as 20 points in 1983.

Sensing that the only way to win re-election was to sully Hunt’s squeaky-clean image, Helms launched an unremitting onslaught of television ads beginning in the spring of 1983 that attacked Hunt as too willing to compromise on tough issues.

He funded that 18-month long effort with millions of dollars from his Congressional Club, a massive nationwide fundraising organization he had formed in the 1970s.

Hunt was no shrinking violet himself, attacking Helms in one memorable television ad featuring machine gun noises and images of dead Salvadorans.

Helms won the race, 52 percent to 48 percent. Total spending by the two candidates topped $26 million; in today’s dollars the price tag would be approximately $48 million. Helms retired in 2002; Hunt retired from the governorship in 2000.

1992 Georgia Senate race: Paul Coverdell (R) vs. Wyche Fowler (D)

It took four separate elections for former Peace Corps Director Paul Coverdell to claim a Senate seat.

The first was a four-way Republican primary in July 1992, where he led the field with 37 percent. In the runoff Coverdell faced former U.S. Attorney (and later 7th district Congressman) Bob Barr; Coverdell edged Barr by 1,500 votes.

After escaping from the primary, Coverdell faced off against freshman Sen. Wyche Fowler (D), who had defeated Mack Mattingly (R) six years earlier.

Coverdell accused Fowler of bouncing checks at the House bank and maintained that the Senator was more closely tied to Washington, D.C., than Georgia.

On election night, Fowler took 49.2 percent, Coverdell 47.7 percent. Georgia law mandated that if no candidate received 50 percent, a runoff would be held between the top vote-getters.

The general election runoff took on a national profile. Newly elected President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore campaigned on Fowler’s behalf. Outgoing first lady Barbara Bush, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and Jack Kemp stumped for Coverdell.

Coverdell ended up defeating Fowler, 50.4 percent to 49.6, percent on Nov. 24.

Then and now, Republicans point to Coverdell’s victory as the first sign of the GOP tidal wave that pushed their party into Congressional majorities in 1994.

1994 California Senate race: Dianne Feinstein (D) vs. Michael Huffington (R)

When Huffington, then a freshman Representative, announced that he would run against Feinstein in 1994, few political observers paid much attention.

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