1) Harry Reid (D-NV) Beats Sharron Angle (R)
Nevada is ground zero of the country’s foreclosure crisis. One of every 25 homes in Las Vegas is underwater. Unemployment hovers above 14 percent. All of which makes it a tough time to be an incumbent, let alone Senate majority leader, dedicated to bringing home the bacon. Plus, for a state already suffering from Reid fatigue, Harry’s son, Rory, was on the ballot, angling for governor. Sharron Angle, running with a crusader’s faith and Annie Oakley’s gusto, hoovered in nearly as much cash as the mighty Reid. With labor and gambling big wheels on his side, Reid outlasted his chippy opponent, showing that the former boxer has some fight in him yet.
2) Joe Manchin (D-WV) Beats John Raese (R)
The West Virginia Senate race provided a test better than any other of how high the Republican wave would rise. Manchin’s win showed that Democrats didn’t completely drown. But Manchin wasn’t too cocky. He released a dramatic ad featuring the candidate literally shooting down Obama’s environmental agenda. Plus, Manchin is the popular Democratic governor in a state accustomed to its representatives, like the late Robert Byrd, bringing home the bacon. Raese, heir to a steel fortune, delivered one of the election’s best lines: “I made my money the old-fashioned way, I inherited it.” A perennial candidate, Raese has run for statewide office four times now without a victory.
3) Marco Rubio (R-FL) Beats Charlie Crist (I) & Kendrick Meek (D)
The Florida Senate race got dramatic at the last minute. Not because the campaign was close—Marco Rubio seized the lead months ago and never let go—but because Bill Clinton tried to get the Democrat, Kendrick Meek, to bow out of the race in favor of former Republican Charlie Crist. That the Big Dog was willing to nose around Meek showed how weak the congressman’s campaign was. Rubio’s ascendance marks the coming of a pack of Hispanic Republicans, many of whom are not so in tune with the Latino agenda on immigration. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Meek supporter, summed up the weird vibes surrounding Crist and Meek’s fight over the same slice of the electorate: “This is the strangest political environment that I have ever seen.”
4) Rand Paul (R-KY) Beats Jack Conway (D)
Rand Paul’s stated opposition to the Civil Rights Act caught the national media’s attention. After that, the campaign proved itself plenty worthy of the klieg lights. Jack Conway’s craven ad focusing on Paul’s collegiate shenanigans added this line to the political record books: “Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her her to bow down before a false idol, and say his God was ‘Aqua Buddha’?” Continuing the race to the bottom, a Paul supporter was caught on tape stomping on the head of a protester. Closing the door on the histrionics, the real question for the Republican Party is whether Paul and his fellow Tea Party senators will cause trouble for Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP leadership.
5) Chris Coons (D-DE) Beats Christine O’Donnell (R)
She lives in the second smallest state. And got blown out on Election Day. But Christine O’Donnell goes down in history as the most covered candidate of the 2010 election. Part of her appeal is that she bottled the Tea Party frustrations, toppling an established Republican, Mike Castle, along the way. The other part of her appeal was that, well, O’Donnell put it best in her own ad, declaring, “I’m not a witch. I’m you.” And with her penchant for burning chocolate chip cookies and inability to name Supreme Court cases, she did seem like any number of people we know. Fortunately for Chris Coons, Delaware voters had something else in mind for their senator.
6) John Hickenlooper (D-CO) Beats Tom Tancredo (C) & Dan Maes (R)
That sound you heard just after 10 p.m. Tuesday night was a massive Democratic sigh of relief. Democrats planned their party convention in Denver in 2008 in hopes of planting their flag in Colorado. Tom Tancredo, coasting on the powerhouse American Constitution Party ticket, gave Democrats and Republicans a real scare. It took some serious misplays by Republican candidates to make that a reality. First, the presumed nominee, Scott McInnis, was fouled up by a plagiarism scandal, handing the reins over to the Tea Party’s Dan Maes. Then Maes was caught fudging about his record as a police officer. In came Tancredo, sensing opportunity. The same man who declared in February that Barack Obama was put in the White House by illiterates threatened to become the leader of a state with a population that is 20 percent Hispanic. Tancredo’s candidacy— given a final push by Sarah Palin—shocked even his own allies in the anti-immigration fight. One activist told The Daily Beast, “I never gave it a chance.” Turns out, he was right.
7) Nikki Haley (R-SC) Beats Vincent Sheheen (D)
The 38-year-old Republican Haley and 39-year-old Democrat Sheheen spent the final weeks of the campaign shadowboxing with two people not on the ticket. Sheheen took shots at Mark Sanford, South Carolina’s Republican governor, who jumped into the national spotlight after his hike down the Appalachian Trail landed him in the arms of his Argentinean mistress. Haley, backed by Sarah Palin and her pack of Mama Grizzlies, clawed at President Obama, saying his statist ways were dragging the country backward. The Indian-American Haley caught the attention of the national party, which relied on some pretty familiar faces to help win the Republican majority in Washington. South Carolina is a proving ground for Republican candidates in presidential elections. (See John McCain’s Palmetto State debacle in 2000.) Haley’s victory was less impressive than many expected. What the 2010 campaign proved was that the local GOP remains a fractious group with in-fighting the norm. The presidential primary should be a humdinger.
8) Jerry Brown (D-CA) Beats Meg Whitman (R)
Here’s a job that no one should want: preventing California from sinking into the Pacific. But Golden State voters think Jerry Brown is up to the task. Whitman, the billionaire business executive, plunked more than $160 million of her own reserves into her gubernatorial campaign. Brown, whose father was governor and who has served in California public office seemingly since gold was first struck, put a lie to the claim that voters wanted to reject career politicians this time around. The campaign provided plenty of sizzle: Whitman’s longtime housekeeper was revealed to be undocumented. Someone on Governor Moonbeam’s team called Whitman a “whore.” All the while, Whitman saw Latino voters—who make up a fifth of California’s electorate—break away from her campaign, putting victory out of reach.
9) Barbara Boxer (D-CA) Beats Carly Fiorina (R)
The mythic year of Republican women found one of its leading ladies in Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive, who took aim at Democrat Barbara Boxer, California’s “sub-compact” senator, in Barack Obama’s phrase. The race got off to a catty start when Fiorina was caught cracking wise about Boxer’s hairdo. A foreign policy neophyte, Fiorina tried to up her diplomatic chops by schlepping to Israel for a long weekend in September. But it was for naught. Boxer’s saving grace? While other Democrats ran from Obama, she featured the president heavily in her campaign in a rare state where the Obama stamp of approval could actually lift a Democrat.
10) Pat Toomey (R-PA) Beats Joe Sestak (D)
Another primary challenger who defied party pressure to stay out of the race, Joe Sestak found himself moving from one underdog fight to another. First he bettered Arlen Specter, the 30-year Senate veteran, who abandoned the Republican Party in order to avoid a primary challenge from conservative Pat Toomey. Then Sestak ran smack into Toomey. Sestak worked to make Toomey, the former Club for Growth chief, looked like a Wall Street apologist. Toomey stretched to make Sestak a patsy for Nancy Pelosi. Toomey was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool, chasing Specter out of the party. His win might have been the perfect match of man and moment.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.