Leahy and his predecessor George Aiken own the mark for the longest period of time two U.S. Senators have continuously held the same seat

The retirement announcement by Vermont Democratic U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy this week not only opens a seat that has been held by the same lawmaker for nearly a half-century, but one that has been held uninterrupted by just two individuals for more than 80 years – a chamber record.

Leahy’s predecessor, Republican George Aiken, served 33 years, 11 months, and 24 days across six terms from January 1941 until his retirement after the 1974 cycle.

Aiken and Leahy have held the seat for 80 years, 10 months, and 7 days through Wednesday. Should Leahy serve through the remainder of the 117th Congress, their record will end at 81 years, 11 months, 24 days in January 2023.

Throughout the history of the U.S. Senate, just 22 pairs of lawmakers have held the same seat back-to-back for 50 or more uninterrupted years. [Eight additional pairs have done so but with the seat being vacant for a few days to a few months due to death or resignation].

Only one other pair occupied the same seat for more than 70 years: Mississippi Democrat James Eastland (1943-1978) and Republican Thad Cochran (1978-2018) occupied the state’s Class II seat for 75 years, 2 months, and 29 days.

Six other pairs reached the 60-year mark, including two that are still active:

  • South Carolina’s Class II seat (65 years, 9 days): Democrat-turned-Republican Strom Thurmond (1956-2003) and GOPer Lindsey Graham (2003-present)
  • Rhode Island’s Class II seat (60 years, 10 months, 13 days): Democrats Claiborne Pell (1961-1997) and Jack Reed (1997-present)
  • Mississippi’s Class I seat (60 years, 1 month, 13 days): Democrat John Stennis (1947-1989) and Republican Trent Lott (1989-2007)
  • New Mexico’s Class II seat (60 years): Democrat Clinton Anderson (1949-1973) and Republican Pete Domenici (1973-2009)
  • Rhode Island’s Class II seat (60 years): Democrats Theodore Green (1937-1961) and Claiborne Pell (1961-1997)
  • Utah’s Class I seat (60 years): Democrat Frank Moss (1959-1977) and Republican Orrin Hatch (1977-2019)

One other active streak eclipsed the 50-year mark this year and another will do so at the end of the 117th Congress.

Delaware Republican William Roth (1971-2001) and Democrat Tom Carper (2001-present) have held the Class II seat for 50 years, 10 months, and 15 days.

Meanwhile, Kentucky’s Class II seat has now been held by Democrat Walter Huddleston (1973-1985) and Republican Mitch McConnell (1985-present) for the last 48 years, 10 months, and 14 days.

Each of the 22 uninterrupted streaks of two senators occupying the same seat for a period of 50 or more years have taken place since the turn of the 20th Century including 15 that bled into the 21st Century.

The first pair to notch this mark was Virginia Democrats Claude Swanson (1910-1933) and Harry Byrd, Sr. (1933-1965) who held the Class I seat for 55 years, 3 months, and 9 days.

There have also been several pairs of U.S. Senators who eclipsed the 50-year mark, but their collective service was interrupted by vacancies brought about by the death or resignation of the predecessor.

Two of these involve a current member of the chamber:

  • Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden’s predecessor, Republican Bob Packwood, took office 52 years, 10 months, and 14 days ago, but the special election to fill Packwood’s Class III seat after his resignation in early October 1995 was not conducted until the end of January 1996.
  • Hawaii Democrats Dan Inouye (1963-2012) and Brian Schatz (2012-present) have held the state’s Class III seat for 58 years, 10 months, and 14 days but the seat was vacant for one and one-half weeks prior to Schatz’s appointment in December 2012

One pair interrupted by a vacancy dates back to the 19th Century: the 53+ year cumulative service between Iowa Republicans William Allison (1873-1908) and Albert Cummins (1908-1926) was separated by a vacancy of three and a half months following Allison’s death.

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  1. Flickertail-Pembina on November 17, 2021 at 4:56 pm

    MS class 1, 3 January – 21 August 1947: An extended de facto vacancy occurred when Theodore Gilmore Bilbo was not sworn in following his 1946 re-election, one that was marred by charges of “personal corruption and civil rights violations” (Member’s Death Ends a Senate Predicament; 21 August 1947, Senate.gov).

  2. Connor Cobb on November 17, 2021 at 9:57 pm

    Rhode Island’s Class II seat (60 years): Democrats Theodore Green (1937-1961) and Claiborne Pell (1961-1997)
    Rhode Island’s Class II seat (60 years, 10 months, 13 days): Democrats Claiborne Pell (1961-1997) and Jack Reed (1997-present)
    Why aren’t these combined?

    Side note Patrick Leahy at the end of his term will be the 3rd longest senator in us history.

    • Dr. Eric Ostermeier on November 17, 2021 at 10:27 pm

      They are not combined because that 120+ year streak would involve *3* US Senators and this report is only looking at pairs. Sen. Pell is the sandwich to two pairs.

  3. Flickertail Pembina on November 17, 2021 at 11:39 pm

    Other “sandwiches”: John Cornelius Stennis (? I am in the camp who thinks the state’s seat “1” was for all practical purposes vacant from early January to early November of 1947); Robert Carlyle Byrd; Daniel Ken Inouye; and J J “Whispering Willie” Williams, who by the way resigned on 31 of December 1970, creating a brief vacancy (of less than two days).

  4. John Chessant on November 18, 2021 at 12:34 am

    A farewell to the last of the Watergate class…

    Had Leahy run for another term and remained in office past June 28, 2026, he would have eclipsed the solo record of 51.5 years of service held by Robert Byrd (D-WV). With Leahy’s retirement, if no current senator will still be in office at age 92, then Byrd’s record is safe for at least another four decades. Byrd was 92 when he died in office in 2010; the only senators who were in office past age 92 were Theodore F. Green (D-RI) who was 93 when he retired in 1961 and, of course, Strom Thurmond (R-SC) who was 100 when he retired in 2003. Meanwhile, Leahy will be just(!) 86 on the day he would have set the new record, and we might even have seen him go for a never-seen-before *tenth* term at age 88 in 2028.

  5. Flickertail-Pembina on November 18, 2021 at 4:07 am

    (Correction) DE: Meant to say W V “Bill” ROTH is a “sandwich” (between Williams and Carper); he was sworn in on 1 of January 1971, jumping the gun on the seniority (per Senate rules then in effect) over those also elected in the 1970 standing elections.

    Side note: the Class 2 seat also has a noteworthy lengthy back-to-back tenure, with “Cale” Boggs and “Joe I’m Irish” Biden having served for a combined 48 years plus 12 or 13 days.

  6. Daniel Fox on November 18, 2021 at 5:59 pm

    Virginia’s Swanson-Byrd pair was interrupted by Claude Swanson’s resignation. Per the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Swanson resigned from the Senate on March 3, 1933 “to accept a Cabinet portfolio” (SecNav under FDR), and Harry F. Byrd Sr. was appointed to fill the vacancy on March 4, 1933.

  7. Flickertail Pembina on November 22, 2021 at 12:22 am

    Trivia: One of Leahy’s opponents in his groundbreaking initial 1974 election (first every win by a Democrat) is a bloke by the name of Bernard Sanders, who garnered 4.1% of the vote as the nominee of the Liberty Union Party. Currently, just one other state has a delegation comprised of former opponents – though not for a US Senate election.

    • John Chessant on November 29, 2021 at 3:18 pm

      Actually two other states: Maine and Hawaii. Angus King (I-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) were candidates for governor of Maine in 1994; King won as an independent with 35% while Collins placed third with 23% behind the Democratic nominee Joseph Brennan. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) were candidates for the 2nd district U.S. House seat in 2006; Hirono won the Democratic primary with 22% while Schatz placed sixth with 7% behind four state senators. The runner-up in that primary was Colleen Hanabusa, who in 2014 came within 1 percentage point of ousting Schatz from his Senate seat.

      Two recent pairs of U.S. Senate opponents-turned-colleagues that come to mind are Harry Reid/John Ensign (Nevada, 2001-2011) and Tim Johnson/John Thune (South Dakota, 2005-2015). In both cases, a sitting Republican member of the U.S. House challenged the Democratic incumbent, lost by just a few hundred votes, and won the state’s other seat two years later.

      Also, had Scott Brown won the 2014 election in New Hampshire, or had Ted Kennedy lived to 2019, there would have been opponents-turned-colleagues *from different states*: either Elizabeth Warren/Scott Brown or Ted Kennedy/Mitt Romney.

      • Flickertail Pembina on November 29, 2021 at 8:19 pm

        Wonder if Senator Hirono even remembers her in-state colleague as a onetime opponent of hers, given that he placed 6th in that de facto general election (the seat has been won and held exclusively by Democrats since its creation) ? Well, had I known of this very obscure tidbit before, I would have qualified my previous comment – to STATEWIDE elections – in all likelihood.

  8. […] Leahy Retirement Puts End Date on US Senate Record […]

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