The Stump

Odds Don't Favor Murkowski; Only One Senator Lost Primary But Kept Seat

Lieberman and Javits buttons

Lieberman (D-CT), who lost his primary in 2006, then ran and won as an independent.  Javits (R-NY) lost his 1980 primary but failed to keep his seat as a third-party candidate. hide caption

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We've already pointed out that in the history of the U.S. Senate, only one — Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in 1954 — was able to win election as a write-in candidate.

For those of you who weren't reading the Political Junkie blog back in 1954, the story is this:  Sen. Burnet Maybank, seeking a third full term, died two months before the '54 election.  The Democratic Party's executive committee decided to anoint state Sen. Edgar Brown as its nominee — a decision that left Thurmond furious.  A former governor and 1948 third-party presidential candidate, Thurmond had long made it clear he was interested in the Senate.  (In 1950, he challenged but lost to incumbent Olin Johnston in the Dem primary.)  Thurmond's write-in votes swamped the total received by Brown.  As promised, however, Thurmond resigned from the Senate in 1956 in order to give Democratic primary voters the final word on who should be in the Senate; Thurmond won without opposition and held the seat for 46 additional years.

What Lisa Murkowski is attempting is different, of course.

She is trying to hold onto her Senate seat AFTER being defeated in the primary.  Others have tried a similar tack and one, Bob Bennett (R) of Utah, briefly considered the option this year.  But only one senator in the past half-century or so has succeeded.

Joe Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, had alienated many in his party for his strong support for President Bush's war policies in Iraq.  The anger was so intense that he was defeated in the August 2006 Democratic primary by Ned Lamont.  And much of the anger increased when he decided to shun Lamont and run as an independent.

But Lieberman's gamble paid off; he won the three-way race handily that November, capturing nearly a majority of the vote to 40 percent for Lamont and less than 10 percent for GOP nominee Alan Schlesinger.

Jacob Javits suffered a similar fate in 1980.  Way to the left of many New York Republicans and facing the first primary challenge of his long career, the four-term senator was ousted by Al D'Amato in the '80 GOP primary.  Javits, who was already on the ballot as the candidate of the (since defunct) Liberal Party, decided to stay in the race and run on that line.  The 11 percent he received as the Liberal Party candidate helped split the small-l liberal vote (with Democratic nominee Elizabeth Holtzman), allowing D'Amto to squeak in by just over one percentage point.

Thomas Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who was censured by the Senate for financial improprieties in 1967, was not going to get his party's nomination for a third term in 1970.  So he ran as a "Dodd Independent" that year, and while he didn't come close to keeping his seat, he won nearly a quarter of the vote.  His candidacy helped split the Democratic vote and elect Republican Lowell Weicker.

One Alaska senator tried exactly what Murkowski is attempting this year.  Back in 1968, Sen. Ernest Gruening, beaten in the Democratic primary by Mike Gravel, decided to wage a write-in effort to keep his seat.  He received more than 17 percent of the vote, but it was not enough to keep Gravel from winning; Alaska had not begun voting Republican for Senate until Ted Stevens, appointed to the post, won his first race in 1970.

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