Fewer than 10 incumbents from the nation’s upper legislative chamber have placed outside of the top two candidates on the general election ballot

When Arizona U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced she had switched her partisan affiliation from Democratic to independent on Friday, speculations on how that decision would impact her (likely) 2024 reelection bid ran the gamut.

Would the move cause a split in the Democratic vote to enable a GOP nominee to win the seat? Will Arizona’s substantial independent-identifying electorate give Sinema a chance to win a second term?

It seems a case could be made that Sinema could place first, second, or third should she decide to run for another term in two years in the purple state.

There are certainly a number of examples over the last 100+ years of independents or third parties winning U.S. Senate seats including two currently seated in the chamber. But how rare is it for a sitting U.S. Senator to end up in third place?

Smart Politics reviewed the more than 270 instances since 1914 in which a sitting U.S. Senator was defeated in a general or special election and found that the incumbent failed to finish first or second in only eight cases.

The most recent example took place more than 40 years ago when four-term New York Republican Jacob Javits lost his renomination bid to Al D’Amato.

Javits did secure the nomination of the Liberal Party but finished in third that November with 11.0 percent behind D’Amato and Democratic U.S. Representative Elizabeth Holtzman.

New York is the only state to see two of its U.S. Senators fail to place among the top two candidates.

In 1968, Republican Charles Goodell was appointed to the chamber following the assassination of Democrat Bobby Kennedy.

Goodell easily won the GOP nomination in 1970 but his 24.3 percent that November trailed both Conservative nominee James Buckley (38.8 percent) and Democrat Richard Ottinger (36.8 percent).

Goodell is one of two U.S. Senate incumbents who placed third while running as a major party nominee, joining Wisconsin Democrat F. Ryan Duffy in 1938.

Duffy rode FDR’s coattails in 1932 winning 57.0 percent of the vote, but the GOP-friendly 1938 cycle saw the incumbent’s support dwindle by more than half with 24.7 percent. Duffy was bested by both Republican attorney Alexander Willey (47.7 percent) and former GOP Assembly Speaker, Commissioner of Insurance, and Attorney General turned Progressive nominee Herman Ekern (26.6 percent).

Five other U.S. Senators have finished third or worse in general elections:

  • 1920, Colorado Democrat Charles Thomas (4th place, 3.0 percent): Thomas did not run in the Democratic primary but secured the National Party nomination. Thomas lost the general election to Republican mining executive Samuel Nicholson (54.5 percent) and also ran behind Democratic state Supreme Court Justice and former state Senator Tully Scott (39.3 percent) and Farmer-Labor nominee G.F. Stevens (3.2 percent).
  • 1926, Oregon Republican Robert Stanfield (3rd place, 22.5 percent): Stanfield lost the GOP primary to state Senator Frederick Steiwer by 8.5 points in an eight-candidate field. He appeared on the general election ballot as an independent and lost to both Steiwer and Democrat Bert Haney, a former member of the U.S. Shipping Board.
  • 1932, Iowa Republican Smith Brookhart (3rd place, 4.3 percent): Brookhart lost the six-candidate GOP primary to farmer and radio station owner Henry Field. The incumbent ran as a Progressive in the general election and lost to Field and the victorious Democrat, Richard Murphy – a former journalist and income tax counselor.
  • 1968, Alaska Democrat Ernest Gruening (3rd place, 17.4 percent): Gruening lost an open primary to former Democratic state House Speaker Mike Gravel. Gruening launched a write-in campaign that November, but ran third behind Gravel and Republican banker Elmer Rasmuson.
  • 1970, Connecticut Democrat Thomas Dodd (3rd place, 24.5 percent): Dodd did not seek his party’s nomination for a third term but instead ran as an independent. He lost to Republican Lowell Weicker and Democrat Joe Duffey.

Arizona Democrats have won three consecutive U.S. Senate elections for the first time since the party won 10 in a row from 1922 to 1950.

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  1. Flickertail-Pembina on December 11, 2022 at 10:36 pm

    Hm, this piece _leapfrogged_ another scheduled report about the US senate, I think?

    Hattie Ophelia Wyatt Caraway of The Natural State finished FOURTH (with 13.5%) in 1944 when she sought a third six-year term. While it was for the Democratic PRIMARY ELECTION, this tidbit is arguably worthy of mention, since the Democratic contest had been the de facto general election in the state (and throughout the “Solid South”) at the time.

  2. […] in their general elections, something the University of Minnesota's Eric Ostermeier reports has happened eight times since voters began electing upper chamber members in […]

  3. Flickertail Pembina on December 14, 2022 at 1:11 am

    Quite a few Copper State politicians have stood for – and even won – elections on different party labels during its comparatively brief statehood. However, at the STATEWIDE level, only Kristin Kay Mayes apparently has won at the ballot box on two different party labels, as a Republican for a state Corporation Commission seat and as a Democrat for attorney general (Mark Edward Kelly, the junior senator, never won any election as an Independent).

    For all the uproar over her so-called party switch, the announcement, made on both paid media and free media (CNN), is arguably meaningless, at least as far as the composition and function of the chamber is concerned (49+2 = 48+3). Indeed, the closest recent parallel to this event is one that occurred in 1999. NH Senator Robert Clinton “Bob” Smith went from R to Taxpayers’ Pary (Constitution Party today) to Independent and back to R, in order to fill a vacancy in the chairmanship of the Environment Committee. During all those switches in allegiance he had always remained a member of the Republican Caucus within the chamber.

    While the 2024 US Senate election landscape within the state has become (even more) volatile, one thing is 100% certain: if the mercurial first-termer (before her Democratic years, Sinema had been a Green Party member who stridently denounced capitalism and foreign entanglements) leaves without completing her term, the seat shall be filled by a DEMOCRAT, in accordance with the ‘same elected party successor’ provision of state election statute. Should that occur, the state Democrats will have control over both Senate seats and the governor post – something they have not had since “Ana” Frohmiller failed to hold the post for her party in the 1950 election.

  4. Himanshu on December 17, 2022 at 1:47 am

    what amazing an amazing research

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