Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Comeback Kids: Senate Second Acts

Isaac Wood, U.Va. Center for Politics June 23rd, 2011

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Bill Clinton is far from the only “comeback kid” in American politics. As we noted last week, many presidents have experienced election losses before they reached the promised land of the White House. A similar story can be told in the U.S. Senate, with 31* senators leaving the chamber only to return at a later date, since the mandate of popular election was passed with the Seventeenth Amendment (a full list is available here).

That is good news for a current Senate candidate — Virginia’s George Allen — and a prospective Senate candidate — Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold. Allen, a Republican, was defeated in 2006 and is seeking to retake the Senate seat he lost to Democrat Jim Webb, who has announced he will retire, leaving the seat open. Feingold, a Democrat, was a victim of the 2010 Republican tidal wave and seems to be mulling a shot at Wisconsin’s other Senate seat, left open by the retirement of his former colleague Herb Kohl.

A third 2012 candidate who fits this category is George LeMieux, the Republican appointed in 2009 to a Florida Senate seat to replace Mel Martinez after his resignation. LeMieux chose not to run in 2010 for a full term, but this April announced that he would vie for the state’s other Senate seat, currently held by Democrat Bill Nelson.

Feingold and LeMieux would join a select group of 21 senators who have filled both of a state’s Senate seats since the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913. That exclusive club includes two current senators, Democrats Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Kent Conrad of North Dakota. However, only 14 of those class-swapping senators accomplished the feat by winning a regularly-scheduled election, as both Feingold and LeMieux hope to do.

Allen’s goal has actually been achieved even less. Since 1913, only 12 men have ever served twice in the same Senate seat. Allen might look to the example of current Sen. Dan Coats, the Republican from Indiana who served for 10 years before retiring in 1999, but won back his old seat in 2010. Coats is one of only four senators to regain his old Senate seat after at least a full term’s length of six years out of office, a feat Allen must emulate as well.

The major difference between Coats and Allen is that Coats retired on his own terms, while Allen was booted by the voters, a fate he shares with Feingold and 15 past senators who eventually returned to the chamber. Of those 15 rebounding politicians, eight had served full terms prior to their defeat, like Feingold and Allen. Perhaps the two can take inspiration from the somewhat recent example of Slade Gorton (R-WA), as he served one full term before being defeated in the 1986 election, but returned to win election just two years later. Of course, Gorton’s case is not a perfect analogy to either Feingold’s or Allen’s, as Feingold had served three terms prior to his defeat in 2010 and Allen is seeking redemption after six years instead of just two.

For his part, LeMieux has eight role models who were elected to the Senate after serving previously only as an appointed senator. Six of those senators, like LeMieux, never sought election after their initial appointment, while two were defeated in their bids to retain the seat electorally.

Feingold, Allen and LeMieux seem far from ready to embrace early retirement. The good news for them is that while their path back to Capitol Hill may be unusual, it is far from unprecedented. And after November 2012, the Comeback Kid Club may have some new members.

As always, if we have missed any historical examples (from 1913 to present), please e-mail us at goodpolitics@virginia.edu and we will credit you in a future Crystal Ball newsletter.

* A total of 21 senators have served in both of their state’s Senate seats, although one (Kent Conrad, D-ND) did not have his Senate service interrupted (he was sworn in to one seat, while still holding the other). Twelve senators have served nonconsecutive terms in the same Senate seat and one (Matthew M. Neely, D-WV) also served in both of his state’s Senate seats. The total number of senators to serve nonconsecutive terms is then 31, excluding Conrad and counting Neely only once.