Nearly four times as many U.S. Senators died per year from 1789 through 1972 than during the last half-century
The passing of California Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein this week marks the first death in the chamber since Arizona Republican John McCain in August 2018.
Five years, one month, and three days spanned the period of time between the deaths of McCain and Feinstein – which is the fourth longest in the history of the nation’s upper legislative chamber.
The longest stretch between U.S. Senators dying in office was 7 years, 1 month, 17 days: North Dakota Democrat Quentin Burdick (September 8, 1992) and Rhode Island Republican John Chafee (October 24, 1999).
Two slightly longer periods also occurred:
- 1978-1983 (5 years, 3 months, 1 day): Alabama Democrat James Allen (June 1, 1978) and Washington Democrat Scoop Jackson (September 1, 1983)
- 2013-2018 (5 years, 2 months, 22 days): New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg (June 3, 2013) and McCain (August 25, 2018)
There have been only five other periods in U.S. Senate history in which more than two calendar years passed without a sitting member’s death:
- 1793-1798 (5 years, 20 days): Connecticut’s Roger Sherman (July 23, 1793) and Delaware Federalist Joshua Clayton (August 11, 1798)
- 1809-1814 (4 years, 5 months, 29 days): Delaware Federalist Samuel White (November 4, 1809) and New Hampshire Democratic-Republican Nicholas Gilman (May 2, 1814)
- 1886-1890 (3 years, 6 months, 25 days): New Hampshire Republican Austin Pike (October 8, 1886) and Kentucky Democrat James Beck (May 3, 1890)
- 1972-1976 (4 years, 5 months): Louisiana Democrat Allen Ellender (July 27, 1972) and Michigan Democrat Philip Hart (December 26, 1976)
- 2002-2007 (4 years, 7 months, 11 days): Minnesota DFLer Paul Wellstone (October 25, 2002) and Wyoming Republican Craig Thomas (June 4, 2007)
Following McCain’s passing in 2018, the only remaining state which has not endured a U.S. Senate vacancy due to death is Utah.
Oklahoma (Robert Kerr, 1963) and Alaska (Bob Bartlett, 1968) have also only had one senator die in office.
Hawaii (Spark Matsunaga in 1990 and Daniel Inouye in 2012), Montana (Thomas Walsh in 1933 and Lee Metcalf in 1978), New York (Royal Copeland in 1938 and Robert Kennedy in 1968), and Washington (Wesley Jones in 1932 and Scoop Jackson in 1983) have had two each.
Seven states have had at least 10 members of their U.S. Senate delegation die in office: South Carolina (14), Connecticut (12), Georgia (11), Maryland (11), Virginia (11), Michigan (10), and Vermont (10).
The number of deaths in the chamber has dropped significantly during the last half-century.
From 1789 through 1972, an average of 1.53 sitting U.S. Senators died each year.
Since 1973, that number has plummeted to an average of just 0.41 senators per year.
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