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Russ Feingold, Joe Sestak and the Improbable Senate Race Rematch

Feingold isn't running yet, but all signs point to a rematch against his 2010 opponent. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate is filled with members who lost previous races. But Democrats Joe Sestak and Russ Feingold are trying to pull off a rare electoral feat: defeating the people who defeated them six years prior.  

In 2010, Republican businessman Ron Johnson defeated Feingold, the incumbent Democrat, 52 percent to 47 percent, in Wisconsin. Feingold’s 2016 candidacy isn’t a guarantee, but all signs point to a rematch , particularly now that he has left his post at the State Department .  

But in order to get back to the Senate, Feingold will have to do something that hasn’t happened in nearly a century. According to the Senate Historical Office, 35 senators have served non-consecutive terms going back to 1913, when 17th Amendment established the direct election of senators.  

But not all of those senators ended their first tenure in defeat like Feingold did. Twenty senators resigned, retired or didn’t seek election after being appointed and were elected later after being out of office for varying time spans of time.  

Fourteen senators lost re-election and came back later to be elected to the Senate again, but none of them defeated the candidate who beat them the first time.  

For example, Republican Slade Gorton of Washington lost re-election in 1986 to Democrat Brock Adams, but he returned to the Senate when he beat Democrat Mike Lowry in 1988. (Gorton lost re-election for a second time in 2000.)  

Kentucky Republican John Sherman Cooper has one of the most remarkable runs of Senate wins and losses. He was elected in 1946 to fill a vacancy, lost re-election in 1948, won again in 1952, lost re-election in 1954 and won election in 1956. He was subsequently re-elected in both 1960 and 1966.  

Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz lost re-election by two points to Paul Wellstone of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in 1990. He failed in a rematch by 9 points six years later.  

“My sense was that people felt like I was just trying to get even,” Boschwitz told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview.  

According to the former senator, Republican Rep. Rod Grams was going to defer to him in 1994 when the state’s other Senate seat came open, but Boschwitz told him to go ahead and make it a race. It would gave Boschwitz time to focus on the family business during the recession and admittedly look ahead to a rematch with Wellstone to get back his old seat, while also passing up the greatest Republican cycle in a generation.  

“It shows what a deep political thinker I am,” Boschwitz joked 20 years later.  

But avenging a loss against the same candidate is not unprecedented. In 1928, two-term Sen. Peter Gerry, D-R.I., lost re-election to Republican Felix Hebert, 51 percent to 49 percent. Six years later, Gerry came back to handily defeat Hebert, 57 percent to 43 percent.  

While that was more than 80 years ago, the road map for Feingold could be encouraging. Gerry (the great-grandson of Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry of gerrymandering fame) lost re-election in 1928. That was a great Republican cycle which saw the GOP pick up eight Senate seats and the White House. But Gerry came back to win in 1934, a great Democratic year which saw his party pick up nine seats during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first midterms.  

Sestak’s challenge this cycle is slightly different than Feingold’s, considering the Pennsylvania Democrat wasn’t an incumbent when he lost to Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, 51 percent to 49 percent, in 2010. Like Feingold, Sestak’s path to victory is rare, but not unprecedented.  

In 1996, Republican Wayne Allard defeated Democrat Tom Strickland, 51 percent to 46 percent, in an open seat in Colorado. Six years later, Allard defeated Strickland, 51 percent to 46 percent, in a rematch.  

North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms defeated Democrat Harvey Gantt in 1990 and 1996. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III defeated Republican John Raese by 10 points in a 2010 Senate special election and by 25 points in the regular election just two years later. And longtime Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Democrat, defeated Republican Cam Cavasso handily in 2004 and 2010.  

But a fairly recent pair of races in New Hampshire might be Sestak’s best reason for hope.  

In 2002, Republican Rep. John Sununu defeated Sen. Bob Smith in the Republican primary and Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in the general election, 51 percent to 46 percent. Six years later, Shaheen avenged her loss by defeating Sununu, 52 percent to 45 percent.  

Ironically, Toomey might have pulled off in 2010 what Sestak is attempting in 2016. Toomey lost to Sen. Arlen Specter, 51 percent to 49 percent, in the 2004 Republican primary and would have had a great chance of defeating Specter in a 2010 primary before Specter switched to the Democratic Party. Even then, Toomey might have defeated Specter in the general election if the senator hadn’t lost to Sestak in the Democratic primary.  

Sestak and Feingold should be top contenders in 2016, but their path to the Senate is more complicated than simply getting to run in a better electoral environment than 2010.  

Correction 12:31 p.m. An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Felix Hebert.  

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