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The decade's Top 10 statewide races

 

From NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro
Over the next two weeks, we'll be publishing various political "Top 10" lists for the past decade (2000-2009). Today we start with the Top 10 statewide races. What did we get right and wrong? What are your thoughts?

1. California Recall (2003): It's likely we'll never see something like this again -- the recall of incumbent Gov. Gray Davis (D), a motley crew of candidates vying to replace him (including various California politicians, Larry Flynt, a porn actress, Gary Coleman, Arianna Huffington), and the election of action-hero actor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) as governor.

2. Connecticut Senate (2006): The Lieberman-Lamont primary continues to reverberate in Democratic politics (see the Senate health-care bill debate). Backed by anti-war liberal groups upset with Lieberman's support for the Iraq war, Lamont upset Lieberman in the primary. Undeterred, Lieberman took the extraordinary step of running anyway in the general election -- as an independent. And thanks to the Republican candidate getting just 10%, Lieberman won. Can he do it again in 2012?

3. New York Senate (2000): While the race didn't end up being close, the fact that you had a sitting first lady (Hillary Clinton) running for this seat, as well as -- at one time -- the popular mayor of New York City (Rudy Giuliani), definitely qualifies this as a top-10 race.

4. Illinois Senate (2004): This race wasn't close, either. But it featured Barack Obama winning a very crowded (and competitive) Democratic primary; the GOP nominee Jack Ryan withdrawing after a sex-club revelation; former football coach Mike Ditka flirting with entering the race; and the eventual entry of Marylander Alan Keyes (R). The outcome of the race, of course, set the stage for Obama's presidential victory four years later.

5. South Dakota Senate (2004): It wasn't as close as the Johnson-Thune contest two years earlier, but this race resulted in the ouster of a sitting majority leader, Democrat Tom Daschle. It also turned the winner, John Thune, into an instant GOP star (and possible 2012 presidential contender).

6. Virginia Senate (2006): Had Jim Webb (D) not defeated incumbent Sen. George Allen (R) in this contest, Democrats wouldn't have won back control of the Senate. The race also ended Allen's presidential hopes, and it immortalized this word in the political lexicon: "Macaca." And THAT has revolutionized the use of technology in covering campaigns. YouTube became a household name in politics after this...

7. Georgia Senate (2002): This Senate race -- between incumbent Sen. Max Cleland (D) and challenger Saxby Chambliss (R) -- became the quintessential post-9/11 battle over national security. Chambliss' inflammatory TV ad linking Cleland to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, as well as Cleland's loss, set the stage for the 2004 presidential election.

8. Minnesota Senate (2002): Minnesota has had its share of great races (Jesse Ventura's election in '98, Wellstone-Coleman in '02, Coleman-Franken in '08), but this 2002 race makes our list -- and 2008 does not -- simply because you couldn't have had last year's amazingly close (and amazingly long) race without Coleman's '02 victory that came after Paul Wellstone's tragic plane crash.

9. Missouri Senate (2000): This race also saw a tragedy: the death of Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was running against incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft. In the end, even though he had passed away, Carnahan beat Ashcroft. And Carnahan's wife, Jean, filled the Senate seat.

10. Rhode Island Senate (2006): Much like the Lieberman-Lamont primary the same year, this contest featured a fairly popular incumbent (Lincoln Chafee, a Republican with a family political legacy) receiving a tough primary (from conservative Steve Laffey). Unlike in Connecticut, Chafee won the primary, but it wounded him in the general election -- leading to Sheldon Whitehouse's (D) victory. In a way, this race helped plant the seed for the emboldened conservative/Tea Party movement we see today. Question: If Laffey had NOT challenged Chafee, would Democrats have won back the Senate?

Honorable mentions: Minnesota Senate 2008 (the recount lasted 238 days!), New Hampshire Senate 2002, South Dakota Senate 2002, Missouri Senate 2006.