Senator Blanche Lincoln Headed for a Historic Defeat

Last week Rasmussen came out with a poll showing Senator Blanche Lincoln trailing by 38 points in her re-election campaign in Arkansas. Pollster.com and Fivethirtyeight.com each currently estimates that she is trailing her opponent Representative John Boozman by 32 points. I took a look at those numbers and asked “Has this has ever happened before?”
Well, with a little research thanks to our old reliable references – America Votes and Congressional Quarterly’s Guide to U.S. Elections – I found the answer. No, it never has.
If Blanche Lincoln does indeed lose in November by over 28 points it will be the largest margin of defeat for an incumbent senator in a two-party race since Americans first started voting for senators after the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.
I put together the following list of all of the incumbent senators who have lost a race for re-election by 17 points or more.
Incumbent Senators Defeated by Largest Margins in a General Election:
1914-2008

Year State Party Incumbent Senator Margin of defeat
1980 NY Rep* Jacob Javits 33.8
1932 WA Rep Wesley Jones 27.9
1968 AK Dem* Ernest Gruening 27.7
1964 MD Rep James Glenn Beall 25.6
1938 WI Dem F. Ryan Duffy 23.0
1978 ME Dem William Hathaway 22.7
1928 DE Dem Thomas Bayard 21.9
1958 ME Rep Frederick Payne 21.6
1934 OH Rep Simeon Fess 20.6
1942 NE Ind George Norris 20.4
1948 MN Rep Joseph Ball 20.2
1946 MA Dem David Walsh 19.9
1934 MO Rep Roscoe Patterson 19.8
1946 PA Dem Joseph Guffey 19.5
1930 AL Dem* James Thomas Heflin 19.4
1980 SD Dem George McGovern 18.8
1958 WV Rep John Hoblitzell 18.6
1922 NE Dem Gilbert Hitchcock 18.6
1978 CO Dem Floyd Haskell 18.4
1976 IN Dem Vance Hartke 18.3
1976 MD Rep John Glenn Beall 17.7
1974 CO Rep Peter Dominck 17.7
1956 ID Rep Herman Walker 17.5
2006 PA Rep Rick Santorum 17.4
1926 OR Rep* Robert Stanfield 17.3
1970 CT Dem* Thomas Dodd 17.2
1916 NJ Dem James Martine 17.1
1934 NJ Rep Hamilton Kean 17.0
1916 UT Rep George Sutherland 17.0

* defeated in the primary – ran as a third party candidate in the general election
There are a few interesting things to note about this list.
First, the list is actually kind of short – only 29 senators have lost by as wide a margin as 17 percentage points in 48 election cycles covering more than 1,000 re-election bids. That’s less than 3%. When incumbent senators lose they usually lose by small margins. And with the advent of modern polling, when they realize they are heading for a big loss they tend to withdraw from the race first. That is probably why the only recent name on the list is Rick Santorum in 2006.
Second, the largest margin on this list belongs to Jacob Javits in 1980 with an asterisk. Javits had already lost the Republican primary to Alfonse D’Amato and continued running as the Liberal Party nominee in November, finishing third more than 33 points behind. There are five senators on this list who had lost a party primary but continued running as a third party candidate in the general election. It makes you realize what a rare feat Joe Lieberman pulled off in 2006.
Third, the largest margin of defeat for an incumbent senator who had been re-nominated by his party was Wesley Jones, Republican of Washington, who rode Herbert Hoover’s reverse coattails in 1932 to a 28 point defeat. Amazingly, Jones had won election four times before that.
And just because I like to point these things out, there is a father-son combo on the list – James Glenn Beall and his son John Glenn Beall of Maryland hold that distinction.
So on election night the question of whether Senator Lincoln is going to be re-elected is not likely to be in doubt, but you may want to keep an eye on the final margin. It could be a record.

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