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.
As a result of the racial tone of the campaign, Gore underperformed his past showings in the state’s rural areas as well as in sections of the state that had supported the 1968 segregationist presidential campaign of Alabama Gov. George Wallace. (Wallace took 34 percent of the statewide vote in his presidential bid.)
Brock won 51 percent to 47 percent, a 42,000 vote victory. He served until 1976 when he lost to Jim Sasser (D).
1974 Nevada Senate race: Paul Laxalt (R) vs. Harry Reid (D)
This open-seat race brought on by the retirement of Democratic Sen. Alan Bible pitted two future titans of state and national politics against each other.
Laxalt had lost a race 10 years earlier to Sen. Howard Cannon (D) by just 48 votes, then bounced back in 1966 to win the Silver State governorship. He left that post in 1971 to become a casino executive.
Reid was an up-and-coming Democratic lawmaker, having been elected to the Nevada General Assembly at age 28 in 1968. Two years later he ran and won the lieutenant governor’s race.
Laxalt held a comfortable early lead, but he saw his edge erode following the resignation of President Richard Nixon (R) and Nixon’s subsequent pardon by newly installed President Gerald Ford (R).
In the final count on election night 1974, Laxalt held a 624-vote lead. A recount trimmed Laxalt’s margin to 611 votes. Laxalt served until 1986. Reid later won election to the Senate and now serves as Minority Leader.
1980 Idaho Senate race: Frank Church (D) vs. Steve Symms (R)
First elected to the Senate in 1956 at age 32, Church — the head of a high-profile committee that investigated controversial activities by U.S. intelligence officials — appeared to be in strong shape heading into the 1980 race.
Three things happened that changed that calculus.
First, a group known as Anybody But Church formed that began bashing the Senator for his alleged liberal stances more than a year before the election. ABC was one facet of a movement organized by the National Conservative political action committee (NCPAC) to oust Democratic Senators.
Second, conservative Rep. Steve Symms, who had held the 1st district House seat from 1972 to 1980, decided to challenge Church.
And finally, President Jimmy Carter ran a disastrous re-election campaign against Ronald Reagan, winning just 25 percent of Idaho’s votes and conceding the election before the polls had even closed in the state.
Symms won by 4,262 votes — a 50 percent to 49 percent margin. Church remains the last Democrat to hold an Idaho Senate seat.
1980 New York Senate race: Al D’Amato (R) vs. Elizabeth Holtzman (D)
D’Amato’s rise from the presiding supervisor of the town of Hempstead to U.S. Senator featured two races in one.
In the first, the conservative D’Amato challenged moderate Sen. Jacob Javits in the Republican primary.
Javits had held the Senate seat since 1956. D’Amato made an issue of Javits’ age, 76, his ill-health (he had a degenerative nerve disease) and his liberal positions.
D’Amato unseated Javits, 56 percent to 44 percent.
In the general election, D’Amato faced liberal Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D). Javits, who had won the Liberal Party’s nomination, was also on the November ballot.
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.
Huffington, a onetime Defense Department official, moved from Texas to California in 1991 to be with his wife, Arianna, and had quickly used the millions he had made in the oil business to jump-start a political career.
He ousted 22nd district Rep. Robert Lagomarsino in a 1992 Republican primary fueled by $3 million of his own money. He easily won the general election.
Huffington brought that same approach to his race against Feinstein. He dumped millions of his own dollars into a year-long statewide ad campaign that sought to link Feinstein to President Bill Clinton and cast her as a tax-and-spend liberal.
Feinstein didn’t see the writing on the wall until it was almost too late. In the race’s final weeks, Feinstein began running television commercials calling Huffington “a Texas oil millionaire who Californians just cannot trust.”
She survived — but barely. Feinstein received 46.7 percent to Huffington’s 44.7 percent. Huffington wound up spending $30 million — the vast majority of which came from his own pocket — and setting the stage for a host of self-funding candidates in the late 1990s.
1994 Virginia Senate race: Chuck Robb (D) vs. Oliver North (R)
For sheer drama and colorful personalities, no race on this list holds a candle to the 1994 race that saw Robb win a second term against almost insurmountable political odds.
Robb entered his race for a second term badly damaged from allegations that he had attended parties in Virginia Beach where cocaine was used and that he received a nude massage from a former Miss Virginia and Playboy playmate.
North brought to the race his own political baggage as an outspoken participant in the Iran-Contra affair.
Added to that mix were two other candidates: former Democratic Gov. Doug Wilder, whom Robb aides had illegally taped having a phone conversation in 1991 in which he rejoiced in the Senator’s personal problems, and Republican-turned-Independent J. Marshall Coleman.
The charismatic but polarizing North drew the bulk of the media coverage and money in the race. His campaign agreed to have a documentary (“A Perfect Candidate”) made about the race; thanks to national direct-mail appeals, he raked in nearly $21 million. Robb spent just $5 million.
Robb appeared to be on the brink of defeat until President Bill Clinton intervened to get Wilder out of the race in its final weeks. Robb received 46 percent, North 43 percent and Coleman 11 percent. Robb’s victory only staved off the inevitable: He was ousted by then-Gov. George Allen (R) six years later.
2004 South Dakota Senate race: Tom Daschle (D) vs. John Thune (R)
In the year following his 524-vote defeat at the hands of Sen. Tim Johnson (D), Thune was hounded about whether he would challenge Daschle.
By the time he finally entered the race in January 2004, Daschle had been on statewide television for six months touting his accomplishments for the state during his 18 years in the Senate.
Thune held his fire for several more months before beginning his own advertising effort. He believed that the primary reason for his loss in 2002 was the non-stop, 18-month campaign he and Johnson waged.
As expected, the race shattered all previous fundraising records in the state. Daschle brought in $20 million; Thune raised $16 million in just 10 months. Those totals don’t include the millions spent by independent groups seeking to influence the outcome.
Daschle struggled to differentiate himself from a national party decidedly more liberal than the average South Dakota voter. He was also hurt by the fact that he had not been seriously challenged since 1986.
Thune ran an ad late in the race that featured footage of Daschle saying he was a “D.C. resident” and defending the right of women to have abortions. This seemed to crystallize the choice for many voters.
Thune won by 2,000 votes — the first candidate to oust a Senate leader since 1952.