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Year in Review: Top 12 Political Surprises of 2010

3 years ago
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The predictions game was hard to play in 2010. It was a year of upsets, comebacks and feats of survival. In rough chronological order, here are a dozen developments that we didn't expect this year:

Massachusetts miracle: Republican state Sen. Scott Brown wins the U.S. Senate seat held for 47 years by liberal lion Ted Kennedy. State Attorney General Martha Coakley, Brown's lackluster Democratic opponent, is not the only victim of the year's first "shellacking." President Barack Obama and his party are stunned by the loss of their 60-vote super majority, and their ambitious health care agenda is thrown into doubt. Democrats eventually summon the will and parliamentary tactics to pass their health bill anyway, and Brown, his eye on a 2012 race in a liberal state, forges a path as a Senate moderate.

Tectonic plate shift: In a preview of the tea party movement's clout and what's in store for the GOP establishment, Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, a three-term incumbent Republican, places third at a state party nominating convention. It is an abrupt and shocking end to his career. The first- and second-place finishers go on to a primary that is won by a tea party-driven candidate, Mike Lee. Bennett later describes conservative votes he took "looking down the barrel of the convention," and says his work on the Troubled Asset Relief Program was instrumental to his defeat.

Above and beyond foot-in-mouth: Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, calls Afghanistan a war of Obama's "choosing" and says there's no way to win a land war there. Republicans are astonished not just by Steele's factual inaccuracy (George W. Bush started the war in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks), but also by the way he casually undercuts his party's core position in support of the war. Coming after a series of other gaffes and missteps, it prompts (yet another round of) calls for his resignation. Steele does not heed them, but will likely lose his job in a party election in January.

Tea party capstone: Christine O'Donnell defeats nine-term Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware's Republican Senate primary, capping a string of improbable tea party victories from Florida to Alaska. GOP voters overlook O'Donnell's history of financial problems, odd statements and lost elections in their zeal to oust the moderate Castle. The nominee re-introduces herself to Delaware voters with an unusual TV ad in which she announces, "I am not a witch." Nor will she be a senator. O'Donnell goes on to lose a seat that Castle, who never endorsed her, almost certainly would have won.

The survivor: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prevails in Nevada. Arguably the most at-risk senator of 2010, Reid draws a tea party-backed opponent, former state Rep. Sharron Angle, who says she doesn't consider it her job to create jobs and raises the idea of "Second Amendment remedies" for people unhappy with their government. From Sharia law to autism, from the role of the free press to the role of government, Angle's positions and statements are so controversial that many Nevada Republicans and business people stick with Reid.

Back to the future I: As voters elsewhere turn to untested, unfamiliar or path-breaking candidates, the tried and true prevails in Iowa. Make that the very, very tried. Republican Terry Branstad served four terms as Iowa governor (yes, that's four as in 4, from 1983 to 1999). He defeats Democrat Chet Culver and says he's "ready to lead the change."

Back to the future II: Democrat Jerry Brown served two terms as California governor starting in 1975, when he was young, ascetic and so unconventional he was nicknamed Governor Moonbeam. This year, after stints as Oakland mayor and state attorney general, he overcomes the $144 million in personal funds (yes, that's $144 million) spent by former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman and returns as governor at age 72. He's just in time to cope with a projected $28 billion budget deficit (yes, that's billion with a "b"). Brown says he's bringing know-how, experience and something new -- "a first lady," the result of his marriage five years ago.

No surrender I: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, becomes the first senator to prevail on a write-in vote since Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in 1954. It is the third and final surprise in a series. First Murkowski loses to tea party candidate Joe Miller in an August primary. Then she defies the GOP establishment and runs as a write-in candidate. She wins by more than 10,000 votes and returns to Washington as an independent operator, backing all of Obama's priorities in the lame-duck session.

No surrender II: After the great shellacking, Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not quit Congress, and Democrats do not choose a new leader. Pelosi, 70, will return to her old job as minority leader in the next Congress, where she says she will work to protect Democratic accomplishments from being dismantled by Republicans.

The resurrection of a president: Obama decides he's done letting Democrats in Congress try to cut deals and arranges one on taxes himself. Confounding the conventional wisdom that he's a lousy negotiator, the president wins an array of goodies (that is, stimulus) for the not-rich, including tax cuts and a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits up to 99 weeks. The tax deal passes the lame-duck Congress, as does repeal of the military's "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy for gay service members; a major food-safety reform law; aid to 9/11 responders sickened by cleanup at the World Trade Center site, and the New START nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia. Pundits stop declaring Obama weak and an uncertain bet in 2012. For now.

The party of maybe: For nearly two years, nearly all Republicans say no nearly all of the time. But in the lame-duck session following a triumphant election, Senate GOP unity shatters. On issues ranging from START to the failed DREAM act to help the children of illegal immigrants, Republicans break ranks. The START deal wins 13 GOP votes. Eight Republicans vote to repeal DADT. Three vote in favor of DREAM. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warns "angst-ridden" Democrats that things will be worse for them next year. But that's only if he can keep his troops in line.

The party of who, us? The biggest mystery of 2010 may be Democrats' failure to explain and sell their landmark health law, and the public's sustained resistance to it despite the popularity of many of its components. Polls show strong support, for instance, for requirements that insurance companies sell policies to people with existing medical conditions and let parents keep children on their policies until they turn 26. Republicans are determined to repeal the whole law or at least block funding for various parts of it. The battles ahead give Democrats another chance to explain what they did and why, this time in their outside voices.

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Filed Under: Analysis

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