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Major Political Upsets Over the Past 75 Years

With election Tuesday underway, here are the top 15 (in chronlogical order) political upsets over the past 75 years. Let me know if I missed any.

• 1937 – Virtually unknown 29-year-old Lyndon B. Johnson won the special election over the House Seat of Texas Tenth Congressional District in a landslide. He achieved this by heavily campaigning the country side of the district.

•1945 – Winston Churchill called a snap election at the end of World War II to take advantage of his heroic status as a war leader and 83% approval rating in the polls. Labour had never had a majority in the House of Commons, but they took 239 seats, the Tories lost 190 and Clement Attlee became prime minister with an overall majority of 145. It was one of the biggest landslides in British politics and the most unexpected.

•1948 – Unpopular Democratic United States President Harry Truman defeated the highly favored Republican candidate Thomas Dewey, which featured in a famous newspaper headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman”. It is considered by most historians to be the greatest election upset in American history.

•1972 – New York attorney Elizabeth Holtzman defeated 50-year incumbent congressman Emanuel Celler, who was also the Judiciary Committee chairman in the Democratic primary.

•1989 – Ernesto Ruffo Appel was elected Governor of Baja California, defeating the Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate and becoming the first state governor not belonging to the PRI since 1929.

•1990 – Paul Wellstone, an underfunded professor, defeated popular Senator Rudy Boschwitz in the United States Senate race.

•1992 – Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton overcame several damaging scandals to come in second in the New Hampshire Primary, famously calling himself the “comeback kid”. Clinton went on to win the Democratic Primary and defeat incumbent President George H. W. Bush in a three-way race that also included Texas businessman Ross Perot.

•1994 – Texas Republican George W. Bush defeated highly favored and popular Democratic incumbent Ann Richards in the race for Texas governor.

•The 1994 U.S. House of Representatives elections, during which Republicans gained 54 seats, featured a number of notable upsets:

  • Republican George Nethercutt defeated Democratic Speaker of the House and 30-year incumbent Tom Foley. It was only the second defeat of a sitting Speaker of the House in U.S. History and the first since 1860.
  • Plastic Surgeon Greg Ganske a Republican defeated 36-year incumbent Iowa Congressman Neal Edward Smith.
  • Steve Stockman a Republican defeated 41-year incumbent Texas Congressman and Chairman of Judiciary Committee Jack Brooks (politician).
  • Republican attorney Michael Patrick Flanagan defeated 36-year incumbent Illinois Congressman and Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee Dan Rostenkowski.

•1998 – Retired dairy farmer Fred Tuttle, who had starred in a independent mockumentary about a retired farmer who ran for Congress, won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator from Vermont. Tuttle defeated Jack McMullen, a multimillionaire businessman who had spent most of his life living in Massachusetts, by ten points. Tuttle ran a tongue-in-cheek campaign that highlighted McMullen’s perceived lack of knowledge about the state. After winning the primary, he endorsed his general election opponent Democrat Pat Leahy but received 22% of the votes nonetheless.

•2000 – Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (Mexico) was elected President of Mexico in the 2000 presidential election defeating the Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate Francisco Labastida. It was the first time that the PRI lost a presidential election.

•2006 – Dave Loebsack, a Democrat and a political science professor at Cornell College, defeated 30-year incumbent Iowa congressman Jim Leach.

•2006 – Dawn Marie Sass, a parole officer and store clerk at Boston Store, defeated incumbent Wisconsin Treasurer Jack Voight a Republican. She had run for the office twice previously, in 1998 and 2002. In her 2006 campaign, Sass won in a narrow upset (8,648 votes, or 0.42%), with little party support. She had spent almost $4000 on the race, most of it coming from her own pocket

•2006 – Jim Webb, a Democrat who had served as Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, upset incumbent Republican senator and former Governor of Virginia George Allen, after Allen had made a series of mistakes, starting with the Macaca Controversy during the 2006 Midterm Elections in Virginia.

•2008 – New Orleans lawyer Joseph Cao a (Republican) defeated scandal-plagued nine-term Democratic U.S. Representative William Jefferson in a district that usually voted 75 to 80 percent Democratic. That same year, Charlottesville attorney Tom Perriello, a Democrat, defeated incumbent Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode.

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