Floor leaders in the U.S. Senate have won reelection 87 percent of the time since the position was created in 1920

mitchmcconnell10.jpgThe Republican U.S. Senator with the biggest target on his back heading into the 2014 election cycle survived Tuesday.

With one-third of precincts reporting, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky led Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes by a double-digit margin with Libertarian David Patterson netting approximately three percent of the vote.

McConnell’s victory is emblematic of a few historical electoral trends.

First, it is exceedingly rare for floor leaders to be defeated at the ballot box.

A Smart Politics analysis finds sitting U.S. Senate party floor leaders have won 87.1 percent of their reelection bids – 27 wins versus just 4 losses including 17 of 18 contests since 1954.

Majority and minority party leaders have averaged 61.4 percent of the vote during these reelection bids with the 27 winners notching an average margin of victory of 28 points.

Since 1920, there have been 11 Democratic and 16 Republican floor leaders in the U.S. Senate.

(Note: The data in this analysis includes Massachusetts Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, who was the GOP’s party conference chairman and served as an unofficial party leader when the Democrats elected their first leader, Oscar Underwood in 1920).

Only four party leaders have been defeated at the ballot box – three Democrats and one Republican.

Indiana Republican and Majority Leader James Watson was the first – losing to Democrat Frederick Van Nuys by 13.6 points during the Democratic landslide of 1932.

Democratic Majority Leaders Scott Lucas of Illinois and Ernest McFarland of Arizona were defeated in back-to-back election cycles in 1950 and 1952 respectively.

Lucas lost by 8.1 points to future GOP Minority Leader Everett Dirksen in 1950 while McFarland was narrowly defeated by 2.6 points by future Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater two years later.

Fifty-two years would pass before another Senate floor leader would be toppled at the polls – South Dakota’s Daschle, who lost by 4,508 votes to John Thune in 2004.

Secondly, given the fact that McConnell’s party gained seats in the 2014 mid-term, it would have been unprecedented for him to lose his seat. In the four instances mentioned above in which floor leaders were defeated, their party lost seats in the chamber that cycle:

● 1932 (Watson): Republicans lost a net total of 12 seats as Democrats took back control of the chamber
● 1950 (Lucas): Democrats shed a net total of five seats
● 1952 (McFarland): Democrats lost a net total of two seats as the GOP took back control of the chamber
● 2004 (Daschle): Democrats lost a net total of four seats

Another way to illustrate the rarity of Senate majority and minority leaders losing their seats is that more sitting Senate floor leaders have exited the chamber through death (six) than at the ballot box (four).

Of the 25 former majority and minority leaders, nearly one-quarter (six) died while still holding their post: Democrat Joseph Robinson of Arkansas (in 1937) and Republicans Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts (1924), Charles McNary of Oregon (1944), Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska (1951), Robert Taft of Ohio (1953), and Everett Dirksen of Illinois (1969).

An additional 11 leaders either did not seek another term or resigned from the U.S. Senate mid-term, including four who became presidential or vice-presidential nominees: Republicans Charles Curtis of Kansas (to become vice-president under Herbert Hoover), Wallace White, Jr. of Maine, William Knowland of California, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, Howard Baker of Tennessee, and Bob Dole of Kansas (to run for President), and Democrats Alben Barkley of Kentucky (to become vice-president under Harry Truman), Lyndon Johnson of Texas (to become vice-president under John Kennedy), Mike Mansfield of Montana, and George Mitchell of Maine.

Another four party floor leaders stepped down from their position, without immediately retiring from the Senate: Democrat Oscar Underwood of Alabama (due to illness), Republican Styles Bridges of New Hampshire (to become Appropriations Committee chair and president pro tempore), Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia (to become Appropriations Committee chair and president pro tempore), and Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi (under pressure from his caucus).

Despite the long record of success of party floor leaders winning reelection, few have been given a free pass: only once has a floor leader run unchallenged in the general election: Democratic Minority Leader Joseph Robinson of Arkansas in 1930.

Still, although McConnell survived the 2014 cycle, it took a significant amount of resources and it was at times a rough road to victory lane.

For starters, the 60 percent won by McConnell in May’s primary was the lowest support registered by a sitting Kentucky U.S. Senator from either party since 1938 when Democrat Alben Barkley won 56.1 percent in a seven-candidate primary field that included Governor Happy Chandler.

It was also the weakest primary win by a U.S. Senate floor leader by either party since 1938 (also Barkley). The previous 21 primaries featuring a floor leader since the early 1940s saw the incumbent win an average of 89.3 percent of the primary vote.

No party floor leader has lost a renomination bid across the 31 such attempts since 1920.

Electoral Fate of U.S. Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, 1920-2014

Year
State
Party leader
Leader

Party

Result
%
MoV
1920
AL
Oscar Underwood
Minority
DEM
Won
66.1
33.0
1922
MA
Henry Cabot Lodge
Majority
REP
Won
47.6
0.9
1924
AR
Joseph Robinson
Minority
DEM
Won
73.5
47.0
1926
KS
Charles Curtis
Majority
REP
Won
63.6
28.9
1930
AR
Joseph Robinson
Minority
DEM
Won
100.0
100.0
1932
IN
James Watson
Majority
REP
Lost
43.2
-13.6
1936
AR
Joseph Robinson
Majority
DEM
Won
84.1
69.0
1936
OR
Charles McNary
Minority
REP
Won
49.7
1.4
1938
KY
Alben Barkley
Majority
DEM
Won
62.0
24.0
1942
OR
Charles McNary
Minority
REP
Won
77.1
54.2
1944
KY
Alben Barkley
Majority
DEM
Won
54.8
9.9
1950
IL
Scott Lucas
Majority
DEM
Lost
45.8
-8.1
1952
AZ
Ernest McFarland
Majority
DEM
Lost
48.7
-2.6
1954
TX
Lyndon Johnson
Majority
DEM
Won
84.6
69.7
1960
TX
Lyndon Johnson
Majority
DEM
Won
58.0
16.9
1962
IL
Everett Dirksen
Minority
REP
Won
52.9
5.8
1964
MT
Mike Mansfield
Majority
DEM
Won
64.5
29.0
1968
IL
Everett Dirksen
Minority
REP
Won
53.0
6.4
1970
MT
Mike Mansfield
Majority
DEM
Won
60.5
21.0
1970
PA
Hugh Scott
Minority
REP
Won
51.4
6.0
1978
TN
Howard Baker
Minority
REP
Won
55.5
15.2
1982
WV
Robert Byrd
Minority
DEM
Won
68.5
37.7
1986
KS
Bob Dole
Majority
REP
Won
70.0
40.0
1988
WV
Robert Byrd
Majority
DEM
Won
64.8
29.6
1992
KS
Bob Dole
Minority
REP
Won
62.7
31.7
1998
SD
Tom Daschle
Minority
DEM
Won
62.1
25.7
2000
MS
Trent Lott
Majority
REP
Won
65.9
34.3
2004
SD
Tom Daschle
Minority
DEM
Lost
49.4
-1.2
2008
KY
Mitch McConnell
Minority
REP
Won
53.0
5.9
2010
NV
Harry Reid
Majority
DEM
Won
50.3
5.7
2014
KY
Mitch McConnell
Minority
REP
Won
TBD
TBD

Note: Seven U.S. Senators never went up for reelection while holding their party floor leader title: Republicans Wallace White (ME), Kenneth Wherry (NE), Styles Bridges (NH), Robert Taft (OH), William Knowland (CA), and Bill Frist (TN) and Democrat George Mitchell (ME). Election data compiled from the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives by Smart Politics.

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