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The Senate Race That Couldn’t Be Lost — And Was

U.Va. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato is contributing a regular column to Politico Magazine. This week, he goes into the history hutch to look back at the 1964 U.S. Senate race in California, which had an unexpected outcome. — The Editors

If there is one nightmare common to all U.S. senators, it’s the possibility of an unexpected upset by an underdog challenger come Election Day. Not only do they lose their seat, but the shock of defeat becomes one of the most notable parts of their biography. This November, no one wants to be the Senate’s Eric Cantor.

For my money, one of the most jaw-dropping Senate results in modern history occurred exactly 50 years ago. It’s barely remembered even by the political community, but it shouldn’t be forgotten. This old race teaches enduring lessons about politics, and in 2014 we’ll see some contenders come up short because they ignore those lessons. An “inevitable” victor can lose anytime due to overconfidence, over-reliance on a prevailing national trend, overestimation of their own skills plus underestimation of the opponent, and an insufficient regard for public opinion.

The 1964 election was destined to be a Democratic landslide. Riding a honeymoon wave after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson was practically handed a full term after the Republicans nominated conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Perceived at the time as an extremist, Goldwater sealed his fate with saber-rattling that unnerved the public during the tense Cold War (remember the infamous “Daisy” ad?). His vote against the Civil Rights Act just a few months before the election also energized and unified African Americans to back the Democratic ticket.

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