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.

Follow Smart Politics on X/Twitter.


  1. Flickertail-Pembina on September 30, 2023 at 3:32 pm

    The date of the passing of Senator Feinstein seems to have been *revised* in news accounts, from 28th to 29th (Friday); one wonders if it is just a matter of time difference (Thursday in Pacific Time, Friday in Eastern Time)?

  2. Dr Eric J Ostermeier on September 30, 2023 at 3:39 pm

    Indeed – local time should prevail for this history books. But it’s also possible she may have passed on Thursday night but was not declared dead by the medical examiner until early Friday morning, which would make Friday the 29th the official date on her death certificate.

  3. John Chessant on September 30, 2023 at 7:03 pm

    Since Feinstein died in her Washington, D.C. residence, it looks like the initial confusion may have stemmed simply from the fact that “Friday at 2 a.m. (ET)” was informally referred to in the statement her office issued on Friday as “last night” rather than the more technically accurate “early this morning”.

    With Feinstein’s passing, Patty Murray is expected to become the longest-serving female U.S. senator in history on Nov. 29, 2023; Murray had been the second-most senior Democrat in the U.S. Senate after Feinstein and accepted the position of president pro tempore since Feinstein declined it.

    Also, once Gavin Newsom names Feinstein’s successor he will have appointed senators to both seats in his state’s delegation, the first governor to do so since Deval Patrick, who appointed Paul G. Kirk after Ted Kennedy’s death and Mo Cowan after John Kerry’s resignation.

    This will also mark the first time since 1978 where two senators appointed by the same governor served concurrently: Rudy Perpich appointed Wendell R. Anderson after Walter Mondale’s resignation and Muriel Humphrey after Hubert Humphrey’s death. Other governors who achieved this feat include Earl Warren (appointed William F. Knowland and Thomas H. Kuchel), William B. Umstead (appointed Alton A. Lennon and Sam Ervin), and Robert B. Crosby (appointed Eva Bowring and Samuel W. Reynolds).

  4. Cecil Crusher on October 2, 2023 at 9:22 am

    *Robert Berkey Crosby of NE also (technically) appointed Carl Thomas Curtis to a Senate vacancy in late 1954 – after having lost to him in the primary election months prior. He is surely one of a very small number of state governors who ended up making _more than two_ such appointments – even more remarkable given his single two-year term (1953-1955) in the post.

    *Had Feinstein _won_ the 1990 gubernatorial election, she might well have lost her presumed re-election bid four years later, given the very strong anti-Democratic sentiment, along with greater willingness of the electorate to vote in members of the minority party to state-level offices. Sure, she would have attained media and academic notoriety as the first female CA governor, but she would not have become an institutional icon of the US Senate (Edward Moore Kennedy after his 1980 loss and John Sidney McCain after his 2000 and 2008 losses similarly would become ‘lions’ within the chamber as well).

    *Should Laphonza Romanique Butler opt to stand for a full 6-year term, she stands a very good chance of making onto one of the two spots for the general election (Representative Adam Bennett Schiff seems assured of landing a spot, given the surfeit of his cash haul and institutional support, IMO).

Leave a Comment