A brief history of U.S. Senate elections with only one major party candidate on the ballot

The decision last spring by Utah Democrats to endorse the independent U.S. Senate bid of 2016 presidential candidate Evan McMullin has given the party at least an outside chance of unseating Republican Mike Lee.

While there was hardly universal support in the party to not have a nominee, the decision made strategic sense: Democrats have lost 16 consecutive U.S. Senate elections in the state dating back to 1974 (third longest current drought in the nation) and have not won even 40 percent of the vote since Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson received 41.4 percent against Orrin Hatch in 1982.

This means, however, that voters will not have a choice of two major party candidates in a Utah U.S. Senate election for the first time in state history.

Utah became the 29th state in which there has been at least one U.S. Senate contest since 1913 with only one major party candidate on a general or special election ballot.

The 21 states who have fielded major party nominees in every U.S. Senate election are: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wyoming.

The 2022 elections mark the 12th consecutive cycle since 2000 in which at least one state’s U.S. Senate ballot did not have candidates from both major parties:

  • 2000: Arizona (won by Republican Jon Kyl)
  • 2002: Kansas (Republican Pat Roberts), Massachusetts (Democrat John Kerry), Mississippi (Republican Thad Cochran), and Virginia (Republican John Warner)
  • 2004: Idaho (Republican Mike Crapo)
  • 2006: Indiana (Republican Dick Lugar) and Vermont (Independent Bernie Sanders)
  • 2008: Arkansas (Democrat Mark Pryor)
  • 2010: South Dakota (Republican John Thune)
  • 2012: Vermont (Sanders)
  • 2014: Alabama (Republican Jeff Sessions) and Kansas (Republican Pat Roberts)
  • 2016: California (Democrat Kamala Harris defeated Democrat Loretta Sanchez)
  • 2018: California: (Democrat Dianne Feinstein defeated Democrat Kevin de León) and Vermont (Sanders)
  • 2020: Alaska (Republican Dan Sullivan) and Arkansas (Tom Cotton)

By contrast, during the previous 10 cycles between 1980 and 1998, voters could choose from Democrats and Republicans in every U.S. Senate election but one of them – with the exception of 1990 (Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia).

Overall, there has been just one major party candidate on the ballot in 152 of the 2,004 U.S. Senate elections held during the direct election era (7.6 percent) – 120 without a Republican and now 32 without a Democrat.

Since 2000, however, Democrats have failed to field a candidate in 15 of 19 such elections.

The states with the largest tally on this list dating back to 1913 are, naturally, those in the South where there was effective one-party Democratic rule for decades: Louisiana (20 elections), Georgia (19), Mississippi (19), Arkansas (13), South Carolina (13), Virginia (13), and Alabama (11).

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  1. Flickertail Pembina on September 22, 2022 at 8:31 pm

    *…MCMULLIN (not that it matters too much, since, even without a split, the onetime presidential contender seems unlike to actually win anyway, and be more or less forgotten afterwards) *

    “…have fielded major party ‘nominees’…” WA and CA stopped having (official) party nominees beginning in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Also, unlike the Republicans in MA/2002 and AR/2008, their counterpart in CA in fact had a gaggle of aspirants in both ’16 and ’18. However, Duf Sundheim in ’16 garnered just 7.8% and Jim Bradley in ’18 garnered only 8.3% of the statewide vote – not quite sufficient to advance even as top votegetters for his party (of course, either or both might have mounted a write-in bid had that been permissible).

  2. John Chessant on September 22, 2022 at 9:07 pm

    If McMullin wins, then Utah would join neighboring Colorado in having two former presidential candidates in its U.S. Senate delegation: McMullin’s would-be colleague Mitt Romney ran for president in 2008 and 2012, while both senators from Colorado, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, ran for president in 2020.

    Some other instances where a state’s senators were both former presidential candidates include:

    *Maine, 1972-1973: Edmund Muskie ran in 1972, winning several states in the primaries; his in-state colleague until 1973 was Margaret Chase Smith, who was the first major female presidential candidate in 1964 and who lost re-election to the Senate in 1972.
    *South Dakota, 1980-1981: Larry Pressler ran in 1980 but withdrew before the primaries; his colleague until 1981 was George McGovern, who was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 and who lost re-election to the Senate in 1980.
    *South Carolina, 1984-2003: Fritz Hollings ran in 1984 but withdrew early in the primaries; his colleague until 2003 was Strom Thurmond, who was the Dixiecrat presidential nominee in 1948 and declined to seek re-election to the Senate in 2002.
    *North Carolina, 2004-2005: John Edwards ran in 2004, placing second to John Kerry who selected him as his running-mate. He left the Senate in 2005; his colleague was Elizabeth Dole, who ran for president in 2000 but withdrew before the primaries.
    *Massachusetts, 2004-2009: John Kerry was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004; his colleague was Ted Kennedy, who presented a serious challenge to incumbent president Jimmy Carter in 1980 and who died in office in 2009.
    *Indiana, 2006-2011: Evan Bayh campaigned in preparation for the 2008 election throughout 2005 and 2006; he formed an exploratory committee in 2006 but shortly afterwards announced he would not run. He then, unexpectedly, declined to seek re-election to the Senate in 2010; his colleague was Richard Lugar, who ran for president in 1996 but withdrew early in the primaries.
    *Connecticut, 2008-2011: Chris Dodd ran in 2008 but withdrew after the Iowa caucus. He declined to seek re-election to the Senate in 2010; his colleague was Joe Lieberman, who ran for president in 2004 but withdrew early in the primaries.

    • Dr. Eric Ostermeier on September 23, 2022 at 9:34 am

      Another great list, John! Extending the list a bit past the last half century would also add Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy in the 1960s. I think your list since ’72 is complete!

  3. Flickertail-Pembina on September 23, 2022 at 2:39 am

    ID 2004: No Gem State Democrat filed for the party nomination to challenge one-term R incumbent Michael Dean Crapo (thus, consecutively from 2000 to 2022).

    • Dr. Eric Ostermeier on September 23, 2022 at 9:04 am

      Good catch – Democrat Scott McClure’s campaign was a write-in. Updated above.

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