The following is a guest post by L. Marvin Overby, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri and 2018-2019 Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the John W. Kluge Center.
During my fellowship at the Kluge Center I am researching a book with my University of Missouri colleague James Endersby. Tentatively titled “Elections that Echo”, our book examines the most important congressional elections in American history. There is a voluminous literature on presidential elections, but far less attention focuses on congressional elections, though Congress is a co-equal branch of government with a similar fascinating history. We help correct this imbalance by telling stories of some of the most interesting, important, and consequential congressional campaigns since 1789.
What constitutes a “significant” congressional election?
As James and I struggled to put together a list of 20 such races, we argued about that quite a bit. Some of the cases are obvious and well known.
Among these is the 1789 race between James Madison and James Monroe to represent Virginia’s 5th Congressional District in the First Congress. It is the only congressional contest to feature future presidents campaigning against each other. Arguably, it also involved America’s first gerrymandered congressional district, created even before the term was coined.
Another obvious case is the 1858 Illinois Senate contest between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Though Lincoln lost the campaign, the race catapulted him to national prominence and set the stage for his victory over Douglas in the 1860 presidential race.
We also attempted to reflect the diversity of the institution, seeking important campaigns across all four centuries of the Congress’s existence and from all regions of our country. Our list attempts to capture the expansion of democratic participation by highlighting contests such as:
- The 1934 race in the Illinois 1st Congressional District between two inspiring African-Americans, Oscar DePriest and Arthur Mitchell, the first black representative from the North and the first black Democrat in Congress;
- The 1878 race in California’s 4th District, which elected Romualdo Pacheco as the first Hispanic-American to represent a state in the House of Representatives;
- The 1916 campaign in Montana’s at-large Congressional District, which elected the first female representative: Jeannette Rankin. A life-long pacifist, she would vote against the U.S. entering World War I, oppose war with Japan after Pearl Harbor, and abstain on declaration of war against Germany and Italy; and
- Dalip Singh Saund’s election in 1956 to represent California’s 29th District as the first Asian-American member of Congress.
In other chapters, we focus on the early congressional careers of individuals who later distinguished themselves in other offices, particularly the presidency. Among those we highlight are:
- Richard Nixon’s 1950 campaign for the Senate in California against Helen Gahagan Douglas; the first time politics and Hollywood overlapped and the race that earned Nixon the nickname “Tricky Dick”;
- Harry Truman’s election in 1934 as senator from Missouri, the candidate of Kansas City’s notorious Pendergast political machine; and
- Lyndon Johnson’s narrow (87-vote) victory in the fraud-filled Texas Senate election of 1948, a race that would earn him the moniker “Landslide Lyndon.”
Significant but Unknown
We explore some individuals largely unknown to the public, but who had huge impacts on Congress as an institution or American politics in general. Two of these are George Hunt Pendleton and Thomas Brackett Reed. A “peace Democrat” during the Civil War and candidate for vice president in 1864, Pendleton’s election in the 1878 Ohio Senate race placed him in position to author the “Pendleton Act” of 1883 that created the modern federal civil service.
After winning election to represent Maine’s 1st Congressional District in 1876, Reed would twice serve as speaker of the House, implementing the “Reed Rules” that limited minority party obstruction in the House of Representatives, making it a much more majoritarian (and efficient) institution.
Significant Election Years and Cycles
In some instances, we focus on a representative case illustrative of an election cycle rather than critical for particular seats. We have chapters devoted to:
- The landmark elections of 1964, which returned huge Democratic majorities to both chambers, setting the stage for President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Programs … but also triggering realignment in the South as conservative Democrats began switching party allegiances;
- The Watergate elections of 1974, which arguably brought to Washington a new type of politician, younger, more diverse, more entrepreneurial, more disruptive; and
- The “Gingrich elections” of 1994, when after 40 years in the minority, an aggressive GOP majority assumed control of the House of Representatives.
One final goal of our study is to illuminate the underlying dynamics of congressional elections and sometimes how they have changed. For instance, we examine the 1816-1817 election cycle, the first “throw-the-bums-out” elections. Reacting to an extremely unpopular retroactive congressional pay raise, fewer than 37 percent of incumbents sought reelection; of those who ran for reelection, fewer than 49 percent were successful.
We also tell the story of Truman Handy Newberry. In his 1918 race for Michigan’s Senate seat, he participated in the first round of direct election of senators, defeated manufacturing mogul Henry Ford (who ran at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson). He was also the first congressional candidate to use and be condemned for video ads and massive campaign expenditures.
Finally, in our last chapter, we relate the story of the 2000 primary race in Illinois’s 1st District, which underscores the contemporary power of incumbency. In that race a young, talented, energetic, and articulate state senator by the name of Barack Obama challenged three-term incumbent Rep. Bobby Rush. And the man who just eight years later would sweep into the White House lost in the primary with less than 30 percent of the vote. Sometimes losing a congressional campaign has a greater historical impact than winning.