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Harry Reid & The Senate Survivors

A Commentary By Geoffrey Skelley

By some measures, Reid is the steeliest of them all

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball January 15th, 2015

If history is any indication, it would be hard to pick against Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) if he runs for another term next year. His races are often close, but he has shown a remarkable amount of resilience over the years, frustrating Republican attempts to dislodge him. In fact, by some measures Reid has had a tougher time retaining his seat than any of the longest-serving senators during the century-long era of popular Senate elections. He is, in many ways, the heartiest of the “Senate survivors.”

In the Crystal Ball’s first batch of 2016 Senate ratings in December 2014, we identified Reid as probably the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in this Senate cycle. While we rate the contest as Leans Democratic, the prospect of a possible challenge from popular Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-NV) could seriously endanger Reid’s future in Congress’ upper chamber, and Reid’s weak approval ratings also make him potentially vulnerable to other, less heralded Republicans. It’s also possible that he will retire, although his heavy fundraising and public comments suggest that he’s running again. That said, Reid just suffered significant injuries in an exercising accident, and his wife and daughter have also had recent illnesses.

A close race would not be noteworthy for Reid. Just consider his 2010 reelection, when three-fourths of post-Labor Day polls found him trailing Republican challenger Sharron Angle. Proving that the overused maxim that “the only poll that matters is on Election Day” isn’t just for losers, Reid went on to win by nearly six points.

Reid has won five straight elections for Senate, starting in 1986. His average share of the vote in those contests was 52.1%. If we compare Reid to other senators who won at least five consecutive contests (including special elections), his mark is the lowest average percentage won by any qualifying senator. Reid also had the lowest median percentage (50.3%). Overall, as shown in Table 1 below, there are 72 senators who qualify for such a list, eight of whom later lost renomination or reelection. Note that this list does not include any losses before a senator was first elected to the Senate — after all, Reid narrowly lost in his first Senate race in 1974 to Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-NV).

Notes: “#” is the number of popular general elections, regular or special, that a senator ran in. Sen. Russell Long’s (D-LA) figures include his 1980 jungle primary result. *Denotes a senator who won at least five straight elections but lost reelection to end his career. “@” denotes a senator who won at least five straight elections but lost renomination in his party’s primary to end his career. ^Denotes the five senators who won at least five straight elections, but not in immediate succession due to retirement, resignation, or appointment to other office. Two of those senators, Alben Barkley (D-KY) and Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), exited the Senate upon becoming vice president but later won Senate elections to return. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) retired after three terms in 2001, but was a last-minute replacement on the Democratic ballot line in 2002; Lautenberg won that election and a subsequent one in 2008. In his 1986 campaign, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) pledged not to run for reelection if the federal budget deficit did not shrink; when it did not, Conrad did not seek reelection. But Sen. Quentin Burdick (D-ND) died in September 1992, necessitating a special election for North Dakota’s other seat in December 1992. Conrad won the special and three more elections after that. In 1954, Sen. Burnet Maybank (D-SC) died two months before he was up for reelection, and the state Democratic Party replaced Maybank on the ballot with state Sen. Edgar Brown. Strom Thurmond (D-SC) (who later became a Republican) challenged Brown in the general election as a write-in candidate, pledging that if he won, he would resign in 1956 to run in a special Democratic primary. Thurmond won the 1954 election, followed through on his pledge, and went on to win the 1956 special Democratic nomination and the special election (as well as seven more elections after 1956).

Remarkably, Reid has only won more than 51.0% of the vote once, cruising to victory with 61.1% in 2004. Otherwise, his percentages have been very low for a winner — 50.0% in 1986, 51.0% in 1992, 47.9% in 1998, and 50.3% in 2010. Granted, only one of those contests wound up being extremely close: In 1998, Reid defeated future Sen. John Ensign (R) by just 428 votes (0.1 points). But of the 72 senators in Table 1, Reid’s contests had the third-closest average race margin and the closest median race margin.

Like any list, this one has complicating factors. Most of the names at the bottom (i.e. those who won huge percentages, on average, throughout their careers) are Democratic senators who served during the age of the Old Solid South, when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election in November. Many of these senators faced little or no opposition in the general election.

Where a senator is or was from is an important variable because some of these senators came from states that are or have been frequently competitive at the two-party level, like Nevada, while others came from states that are or have been dominated by one party or the other. For example, during Reid’s Senate tenure, Nevada has been a fairly competitive two-party state. In fact, it’s been one of the more competitive states in the country at the presidential level. The Silver State finished in the top 10 states for closest margin in five of the seven presidential elections that have occurred while Reid has been a senator. Compare this to, say, Sen. Richard Russell (D-GA), the bottom name on the list. Throughout much of Russell’s time in the Senate (1933 to 1971), Georgia was a bedrock Democratic state like much of the Old South. Until 1964, the Peach State was regularly the most or one of the most Democratic states in each presidential election. In the 10 presidential elections that took place during Russell’s tenure, including his initial special election win in November 1932, Georgia was one of the 10 closest states just once, in Lyndon Johnson’s blowout 1964 win, when the Deep South went Republican (including Georgia) while most other states saw landslide wins for LBJ.

In Reid’s case, another issue is Nevada’s unique “None of These Candidates” ballot line, a part of Silver State elections since 1975. One could argue that this has artificially lowered Reid’s percentage by creating another vote-getter of sorts: The none-of-the-above choice has finished third in every one of Reid’s contests, ahead of any third-party and/or independent candidates. In other states, a voter has to hold his or her nose and vote for someone, if that person chooses to vote at all, but Nevadans can record their displeasure by literally voting for no one. If we remove the votes for “None of These Candidates” from each of his five contests, Reid’s average percentage grows slightly to 53.3%, placing him just behind Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) at 52.9% and Jesse Helms (R-NC) at 53.1%. Still, it’s difficult to say how the none-of-above-vote would have played out if the choice didn’t exist. Some of those voters would have chosen someone, but others might not have voted at all. Additionally, Reid’s median vote percentage would still be the lowest of this group (51.9%) if we exclude the none-of-the-above vote. So with the “None of These Candidates” caveat, Reid is the lowest average vote-getter among these 72 senators who won at least five consecutive elections.

Along with Reid, some other active senators also have relatively low average vote percentages in their five-or-more Senate contests. Reid’s successor as majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), places eighth at 55.2%. Recently retired Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Carl Levin (D-MI) are 11th and 16th, respectively, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) ranks 12th. After McConnell, the next-highest sitting Republican is Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) at 19th, though his 58.8% average isn’t exactly low.

Besides Reid, six other senators averaged below 55% (regardless of how one counts Nevada): Sens. Lautenberg, Helms, Arlen Specter (R, D-PA), James Murray (D-MT), Key Pittman (D-NV), and Bob Packwood (R-OR).

Lautenberg decided against running for reelection in 2000 after three terms. But in 2002, the occupant of the Garden State’s other seat, Sen. Bob Torricelli (D), suddenly withdrew from seeking reelection after an ethics scandal damaged his candidacy, and the New Jersey Democratic Party replaced Torricelli with Lautenberg on the ballot. The Senate’s last World War II veteran, Lautenberg won in 2002 and again in 2008 before passing away in 2013. Now-Sen. Cory Booker (D) won the special election to fill the seat. Lautenberg’s final election win in 2008 proved to be his largest (56.0%), though Barack Obama’s sizable win at the top of the ticket probably helped. Otherwise, Lautenberg consistently won 50-53.9% of the vote in his other four wins.

Helms had an amazingly consistent electoral track record that reflected his polarizing nature. The Tar Heel senator never won more than 54.5% of the vote in any election — but he also never won less than 51.7%. In fact, besides Sens. Russell and Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith (D-SC), neither of whom ever faced real general election opposition, Helms’ percentage of the vote over the course of his five elections has the smallest standard deviation of any of these 72 senators (1.2%).

As for Murray, the New Dealer twice won by less than one point in 1942 and 1954 after first winning his Senate seat in a 1934 special election. Packwood, Pittman, and Specter are discussed below.

The fate of five-time consecutive winners

Given Reid’s relative vulnerability — Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) is the only other Democrat in a seat we rate Leans Democratic (the other current Democratic seats are all Safe) — it’s also worth noting what happened to senators who were positioned to try for a sixth consecutive popular election win. Chart 1 below lays out the fate of these 72 senators.

Note: Sen. Key Pittman (D-NV) is included in both the reelected and died in office categories. He was reelected in 1940 but died just after the election and prior to the start of the next term. Sen. Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith (D-SC) is included in both the lost primary and died in office categories. He lost renomination in 1944 but died before the end of his final term.

Of the 72 senators in question, six, including Reid, are active senators who could conceivably for try for a sixth straight win. Out of the remaining 66, 40 sought reelection and a sixth consecutive election victory. Of those, 36 successfully won another term, a 90% success rate. Again, history suggests Reid would be a decent bet if he runs again. Incumbency is and has always been a good predictor of electoral success.

By the way, of the four senators who lost while going for a sixth straight win, three lost in primaries while only one lost in the general election.

The most recent primary loser was Arlen Specter in 2010. Specter famously switched parties to give Democrats a short-lived 60 votes in the upper chamber, but lost renomination to then-Rep. Joe Sestak (D) in the Democratic primary. Sestak went on to lose narrowly to now-Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) but is itching for a rematch in 2016.

The other two primary losers were both Southern Democrats. One, Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR), is remembered for, among other things, the fellowship program bearing his name that provides merit-based educational grants for international exchanges. But Fulbright’s criticism of American involvement in the Vietnam War opened him up to attacks from conservative Democrats, and he lost renomination in 1974 to Arkansas Gov. Dale Bumpers. The other primary loser was the aforementioned “Cotton Ed” Smith, who had one of the more memorable nicknames in politics. In 1944, Smith was technically seeking a seventh straight election win, having first been elected by the state legislature in 1908. But as this piece is focusing only on popular elections, it considers Smith’s tenure from his first such win in 1914. A virulent white supremacist, Smith ensured himself a long career in good part by fanning the flames of hatred in the Palmetto State — Time once said Smith was a “conscientious objector to the 20th century.” However, Smith’s age and his opponent, South Carolina Gov. Olin Johnston, got the better of him in the 1944 Democratic primary. In fact, Smith would die just 10 days after the November election, prior to finishing out his final term.

The lone general election loser among senators who could have won a sixth straight election was Sen. William Roth (R-DE), who lost to then-Gov. Tom Carper (D) in 2000. Carper took advantage of presidential coattails (Al Gore won Delaware by 13 points) in an increasingly Democratic state to defeat Roth by 12 points.

Of the remaining 26 senators, 14 opted to retire. As for the other 12, three resigned, one upon being appointed to another office (current Secretary of State John Kerry). In the summer of 1996, having sewn up the Republican nomination for president, Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) resigned his Senate seat, saying that he had “nowhere to go but the White House or home.” The other senator who resigned was Bob Packwood. Allegations of sexual abuse and assault against Packwood led the Senate Ethics Committee to recommend that he be expelled from the Senate. Packwood resigned before that happened, effective Oct. 1, 1995, and current Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) won the special election to fill the seat.

The other nine senators all died in office, though this list actually grows to 11 if we include the aforementioned Smith as well as Key Pittman, who is included in the “reelected” category. Pittman is in many ways the most interesting case in this group, particularly as one of Harry Reid’s Silver State forbears. First elected in a very close 1912 popular special election, actually one year before the ratification of the 17th Amendment, Pittman won his sixth consecutive election on Nov. 5, 1940. However, his campaign had hidden the serious effects of a heart attack the incumbent suffered just days before the election, which came in the midst of a bacchanalia at the Riverside Hotel in Reno. Pittman wound up dying on Nov. 10, 1940, just five days after the election. This outcome allowed the Democratic governor to appoint a replacement, keeping the seat in Democratic hands until at least 1942, when a special election would occur. A lurid myth developed around Pittman’s reelection and death, with the claim he had actually died before the election and that his friends kept his body in a bathtub filled with ice in order to keep Pittman’s GOP opponent from winning by default. It’s only a myth, but it’s not completely incredible as tales go; after all, this is Nevada we’re talking about. Perhaps what happens in Reno, stays iced in Reno.


The age of popular elections for U.S. Senate stretches back to the early 20th century, and in that time, no senator who has won at least five consecutive Senate elections has done so with less support than Harry Reid. Some might interpret this as a slight on his record as a senator, but in our view, Reid’s longevity is made more impressive by his record of winning in mostly close contests in a state with healthy two-party competition. There are 71 other senators who have won at least five straight elections, but Reid’s record arguably makes him the greatest of the Senate survivors.

Geoffrey Skelley is the Associate Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Geoffrey Skelley

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