Arkansas Democrats Poised to Make History
The 12-year gap between no GOP and Democratic Arkansas U.S. Senate nominees will be the shortest in the direct election era
On Tuesday, the only Democratic candidate slated to challenge one-term U.S. Senator Tom Cotton announced he was ending his campaign – mere hours after the filing deadline closed for the 2020 election cycle.
Josh Mahoney’s unexpected exit leaves Democrats on track to be without a nominee for the office for the first time in the direct election era.
If Arkansas Democrats’ attempt to find a loophole to field a nominee does not bear fruit, the party will find itself in an unusual position next November.
For starters, just four states have failed to field Democratic and Republican U.S. Senate candidates on the general election ballot since the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913: Alabama, California, Mississippi, and Virginia.
California joined that list in 2016 when Democrats placed in the top-two spots in the state’s U.S. Senate jungle primary (state Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez), leaving no Republican on the ballot in the general election.
California Democrats had been without a U.S. Senate nominee in 1934, 1940, and 1952. [Technically, there were also no Republican and Democratic nominees in 1946’s special election when appointed GOP Senator William Knowland defeated Democratic Congressman Will Rogers, Jr. as write-in candidates].
Alabama became a member of this small club in 2014 when Republican Jeff Sessions ran unopposed to win his fourth term. The GOP did not field a nominee in the state on 10 occasions (1914, 1918, 1930, 1938, 1942, 1946, 1950, 1956, 1974, 1978).
Mississippi Republicans did not field a nominee 17 times (1916, 1918, 1924, 1928, 1930, 1934, 1936, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1946, 1948, 1952, 1958, 1964, 1970, 1976) before Democrats failed to do so in 1990 and 2002 against the late Thad Cochran.
Similarly, Virginia Republicans were without a nominee in 11 cycles (1916, 1918, 1928, 1930, 1940, 1942, 1952, 1954, 1958, 1960, 1976) with Democrats falling short against Senator John Warner in 1990 and 2002.
Arkansas would become the fifth state on this list with state Democrats doing so in the shortest span since their chief rival failed to provide voters with a nominee on the general election ballot.
In 2008, Arkansas Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Pryor ran without a Republican opponent en route to a second term.
Pryor was unseated in 2014 by Cotton – becoming the first of 89 U.S. Senators to lose a general election coming off a victory in which there was no major party opponent on the ballot.
And now, just 12 years after Pryor’s win without a Republican on the ballot, it looks like the Democrats will be shut out.
That would break the current 14-year mark between cycles without Republican and Democratic nominees set in Mississippi (1976 and 1990) and Virginia (1976 and 1990).
Cotton will not run unopposed next year with Libertarian Ricky Harrington and progressive independent Dan Whitfield also meeting the state candidate filing deadlines.
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Speaking of Senate election shake-ups near early filing deadlines, Jeff Sessions announced last week that he would seek to return to his old Senate seat in Alabama. Should he win, he would be the fourth U.S. senator from Alabama to serve non-consecutive terms, and the first since the Civil War; the three so far were William R. King (who later served as vice-president), John McKinley (who later served on the U.S. Supreme Court), and Benjamin Fitzpatrick.
Sessions also joins a considerable number of former U.S. attorneys general to seek elective office. With the exception of Robert F. Kennedy, who served as U.S. attorney general (1961–64) and then as U.S. senator from New York (1965–68), no former AG has been successful in the past century in attaining elective office. This is not from lack of effort, however.
*Mitchell Palmer, attorney general from 1919 to 1921, ran for president in 1920, placing third in the first 39 out of the 44 ballotings at the Democratic National Convention that year.
*Howard McGrath, attorney general from 1949 to 1952, sought to return to his old Senate seat in Rhode Island in 1960, losing the Democratic primary to Claiborne Pell.
*Ramsey Clark, attorney general from 1967 to 1969, ran twice for U.S. Senate from New York; he was the Democratic nominee in 1974, losing the general election to incumbent Jacob Javits, and in the 1976 Democratic primary he placed third behind Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bella Abzug.
*Elliot Richardson, attorney general from May to October 1973 and the target of the Saturday Night Massacre (in addition to having been undersecretary of state, HEW secretary, defense secretary, and commerce secretary), ran for U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 1984; he was originally favored to win the seat, but in the Republican primary he lost to Ray Shamie, the more conservative candidate who had lost to incumbent Ted Kennedy for the state’s other Senate seat in 1982. Shamie lost the 1984 election to John Kerry.
*Richard Thornburgh, attorney general from 1988 to 1991, resigned to run for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania in the 1991 special election necessitated by the death of John Heinz. He was defeated in a major upset by Harris Wofford.
*Janet Reno, attorney general from 1993 to 2001, ran for governor of Florida in 2002, narrowly losing the Democratic primary in an upset to Bill McBride (husband of 2010 nominee Alex Sink), who then lost the general election to incumbent Jeb Bush.
Eric Holder, attorney general from 2009 to 2015, has been a speculated 2020 presidential candidate, even in recent weeks. But my guess is that Holder will not enter the race, unlike Deval Patrick [former U.S. *assistant* attorney general (1994–1997) and governor of Massachusetts (2007–2015) and subject of speculation to be Holder’s successor], who is slated to announce his late entrance to the still-crowded 2020 presidential field tomorrow.
1. CA Ds technically had a Senate nominee in 1934, 1940, and 1952. However, in each instance, the nominee was the R incumbent who took shrewd advantage of the “cross-filing” option to effectively eliminate his major-party competition (reverse of 1946, as noted). Also, there were Republican aspirants for the Senate in both 2016 and 2018 – it is just that none succeeded in landing on either spot for the general/November balloting.
2. It is more likely than not that a Democrat would launch a write-in bid, should a ‘loophole’ fail to materise in timely fashion (e.g. ID in 2004).
3. The Pelican State at least deserves a mention here; a Democrat failed to advance to the ‘final round’ of balloting in 2004 – just as no Republican did in 1998, 1992, 1990, 1984, and 1980 (no GOPer even launched a bid in 1978, though ultrarightist though nominal D State Representative Louis Elwood “Woody” Jenkins garnered 40.6% of the vote against centre-right 1-term incumbent John Bennett Johnston, perhaps the baseline GOP vote at the time).