The Most Important Midterm Elections in American History: #1 – Illinois Senate Election, 1858

October 17, 2014

It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Illinois Senate Election of 1858 – the first midterm election to really be remembered – tops the list. However, it wasn’t the famous debates that put the Lincoln-Douglas election at the top; the candidates and the result did that.

At the time Stephen Douglas ran for his third term as U.S. Senator, he was already one of the most well-known politicians in America. Infamous for his role in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and just as well known for his recent (in 1858) opposition to the pro-slavery regime in Kansas itself, Douglas had already vied for the Democrats’ nomination for president twice, and was widely perceived to be the front-runner for the nod in 1860…but only if he could get re-elected.

On the Republican side, Lincoln was known to Midwest party leaders, Illinoisans, and no one else. Eastern Republicans were so thrilled at the defeat of the pro-slavery-Kansas “Lecompton Constitution” (which was defeated with Douglas’ help) that some wondered if it was worth opposing Douglas at all. Yet where outsiders saw strength, Lincoln saw weakness, and hit Douglas’ let-the-territories-do-what-they-want position on slavery (known as “popular sovereignty”) with both barrels.

The result was a contest between a polarizing yet moderate Democrat and a principled yet coalition-building Republican. Douglas’ position in his party all-but-ensured his re-election campaign would catch national attention. Lincoln’s performance as a candidate ensured his name would be remembered with the Democrat.

That said, the result itself had ramifications that flowed into the 1860 election and well beyond.

Of course, as well know (and were taught), Lincoln’s ability to essentially tie Douglas in the votes for the legislature that would choose a Senator (the Democrats had an overwhelming advantage in holdover seats, which enabled Douglas to win) made him a national figure…and it revealed to the Republicans a Midwestern alternative to the polarizing figures of William Henry Seward and Salmon Chase. It goes without saying how important that would become when the Republicans chose their nominee in 1860. Without a strong Lincoln performance, there’s no guarantee the Republicans even win at all in 1860.

However, the fact that Douglas won might even be more important. His victory validated his political position not just for himself, but for hundreds of northern Democrats holding elected offices. The fact that President Buchanan even tried to build an anti-Douglas Democrat ticket in 1858 (it was trounced in Illinois) was icing on the cake. Had Douglas lost, a whole slew of northern Democrats would have decided that playing the middle of the road on slavery was pointless, and that it would be better to toe the increasingly strident line of the southern Democrats. With Douglas shunted into premature retirement, its quite possible that Democrats would have united behind Vice President Breckinridge, making 1860 look very, very different.

How different? Well, for starters, about 10 electoral votes Lincoln did get thanks to the Douglas-Breckenridge division (different regions of the Democrats would nominate each one) would have vanished, and the “lower north” (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) would have been much more competitive. Even if Lincoln had won the electoral votes he needed in 1860 (and I think that’s still likely), it is just as likely he would have been a minority president. How much would the North have been willing to fight the Civil War if Lincoln had come in second in the popular vote? Given that the only previous example at the time was John Adams and 1824, the matter of legitimacy could have been front and center that year.

Instead, Douglas won, ensuring his faction would have enough strength to block any southern choice for the Democrats’ nominee. This led to the split amongst the Democrats that made Lincoln a plurality president (and eliminated any Jackson-Adams rehash). That split would also allow many northern Democrats to follow Douglas (albeit in spirit after his death in June 1861) in supporting Lincoln’s war effort. As bizarre as it might sound, Lincoln needed Stephen Douglas in Washington in 1860 – and arguably, so did the rest of us.

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift

The Most Important Midterm Elections in American History: #2 – Virginia US Senate election, 2006

October 16, 2014

Midterm elections that have a dramatic impact in American History are rare, and it should be no surprise that a majority of them (including #1) are from the very tumultuous 1850s. However, the 21st Century does have one that scrambled both political parties at once – and it happened be right here in Virginia: the Allen-Webb race of 2006.

The importance of the race in the moment was well known: as the last winner to be declared that year, Jim Webb provide the Democrats with the 51st vote they needed to control the U.S. Senate; they haven’t relinquished it since. Still, that would not be enough to make this list – let alone nearly top it.

What makes Webb’s victory over Allen so important was the effect on the 2008 presidential election…and beyond.

We’ll start with the winner. Webb’s victory (and the Democrats’ subsequent Senate majority) shifted the political center of gravity both in Washington and within the Democrats themselves. They became bolder, more willing to take a risk and swing for the fences. That led them to be far more dovish on the liberation of Iraq than they might have been with just the House, and it led them away from Hillary Clinton and toward Barack Obama. A Republican-controlled Senate, by contrast, would have made Democrats more cautious – and even a little more would have been enough to reverse the outcome of the nomination contest. We will never know how much differently things would have turned out with Hillary Clinton as the nominee (divisions within the Democrats; a potential Clinton-Obama ticket, etc.), but clearly, recent history would be very different.

Strangely enough, this may even be more true on the Republican side. Before Allen lost, he was considered a leading presidential candidate – and the most likely choice of the Republican leadership. His defeat sent the “establishment primary” into complete chaos; one could even argue that the establishment remained divided on its choice until the rest of the party chose John McCain for them. Moreover, given that Allen had very good ties to the conservative wing of the party in 2006, he was likely to be nominated.

Thus, instead of a McCain-Obama race, we likely would have Allen-Clinton instead, which would have meant dramatic departures from the current narrative. If Allen had lost, no one in the party would be safe from taking responsibility for it. Much of the arguments within the Republican Party are fueled in part by the assumption of many conservatives and insurgents that the moderates “had their chance” with McCain and Romney. Leaving aside the wisdom of that assumption, it could not survive an Allen defeat.

This, of course, assumes Allen would have lost to Clinton. If he hadn’t…

Thus did the Allen-Webb race of 2006 become one of only two midterm elections that had immediate impact in both parties’ presidential nominations. That puts it on this list, and the fact that the election impacted was 2008 (the first African-American president elected) rather than 1856 moves this election to number 2…

…but not number 1.

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift

The Most Important Midterm Elections in American History: #3 – Illinois US Senate Election, 1854-5

October 15, 2014

The cracks in the Second Party system that were revealed in Massachusetts in 1850 became chasms four years later. The Kansas-Nebraska Act essentially destroyed the Whig Party in the South. In the North, however, it was a different story. Both major parties fell into a mess in various states, reacting to angry Northern antislavery voters determined to send a message to the South and antislavery Congressman to Washington. The chosen messenger was a lot less clear. In New England, anger at the South, anger at the Democrats in the Pierce Administration, and anger at the Irish-Americans who voted for the Democrats combined to lead to a Know-Nothing sweep of the region. In the Mid-Atlantic, the Whigs declared themselves the antislavery party, and voters listened. In the upper Midwest, Free Soilers and Whigs combined to form the Republican Party, which also did well.

Yet there was no place for antislavery Democrats in any of these formations as of yet, until the Illinois legislature elected its U.S. Senator. There were three candidates: Incumbent Democrat James Shields, Whig Abraham Lincoln, and antislavery Democrat Lyman Trumbull. Lincoln had the most support in the legislature, but not a majority. As such, the legislature repeatedly deadlocked…until Governor Joel Mattieson’s name was put forward as a compromise choice for allDemocrats.

This was when Lincoln made his move: he ordered his Whig supporters to back Trumbull, who promptly won and sent shockwaves through the state and the nation. Among other things, it damaged the standing of the leading politician in the state – Democrat Stephen Douglas. That could very well have impacted his presidential candidacy two years later.

More importantly, it gave Democrats a place in the Northern antislavery coalition, and pushed Northern leaders and voters towards the Republican party as their vehicle, rather than the Whigs or the Whig-like Know-Nothings. Had Lincoln been elected as a Whig (or been defeated by Madison as such), it would have extended the Whig-Democrat divide on slavery all the way to the Mississippi River. Instead, it was halted somewhere between Chicago and Pittsburgh, before receding in 1855 when the New York Whigs merged with the various antislavery factions outside of it to form the Republicans.

Illinois’ 1854-5 Senate election marked the true hammer blow for the Second Party system. With Whigs and Democrats working together against slavery in a major northern state, the model for the antislavery alliance was set.

The Most Important Mid-Term Elections in American History: #4 – Massachusetts U.S. Senate Election 1850

October 13, 2014

The Second Party System may be the least understood of the three, yet it will have two elections in this list – of course, both hastened its demise. The first one makes the list largely because of where it took place: the ultimate redoubt of conservative Whiggery, Massachusetts. Back then, the Whigs were the party of big-government corporatism, so mid-19th century conservatives naturally did far better in Massachusetts than their 21st Century counterparts. In fact, the Whigs only lost two elections in total in the Bay State from 1830 to 1850. Both were to antislavery Democrat Marcus Morton (for Governor), and both times Morton won by exactly one vote (one voter in 1939, and one defecting Whig state senator in 1842).

Then came 1850. In the first election after the Compromise of that year, most of the focus was on the South, where it proved a serious impediment to disunionists. Even the Whigs, who were racked by division on the matter in the North, held there own in the slave states. But in Massachusetts, the Whig coalition completely broke down. As Daniel Webster moved to Secretary of State in Millard Fillmore’s Administration, a coalition of Free Soilers and Democrats sent Robert Rantoul, Jr., to Washington to replace him – the only Democrat to represent Massachusetts in the Senate between 1818 and 1918. A Democrat was also installed as Governor, while (eventually) Charles Sumner replaced Rantoul.

It is Sumner’s election that makes the grade. It revealed that antislavery voters could work with Democrats to break a previous impenetrable Whig lock. In the short term, it so badly damaged the pro-Compromise forces in the Whig Party that Fillmore became the first incumbent president in American history to be denied his party’s nomination. The Whigs instead rejected the Compromise in their platform and ran General Winfield Scott; the resulting 1852 landslide spelled the beginning of the end of the Whig Party, especially in the South. Politics in Massachusetts would be in flux for most of the decade, a harbinger of northern politics in general.

This is due to the larger, long-term impact of the Sumner shocker: antislavery voters were at long last the swing vote they craved to be. The Liberty and Free Soil parties had previously tried and failed to pull this off, but they hit the jackpot in 1850. From then on, both parties knew that antislavery voters could be part of their local coalitions, and they strived for those voters. Thus did the northern parties feel compelled to address issues that no southern politician even wanted to hear, putting enormous strain on the Democrats and ending the Whigs entirely.

None of this was expected (although antislavery politicians certainly hoped for it) before Massachusetts broke its own mold in 1850. All of it was in play afterwards.

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift

The Most Important Mid-Term Elections in American History: #5 – New York’s Governor Election, 1958

October 9, 2014

As we approach the midterm elections this year, I’ve seen and heard many describe them as relatively unimportant. This happens every four years, especially after the election itself, as we all remind ourselves that the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue didn’t change. That said, midterms have impacts – in some cases, the impacts can last years or decades. Pursuant to that, I put together my (admittedly unscientific) list of what I consider the five most important midterm elections. As a rule, I’m only referring to elections for one office (state or district), not the overall year. As it happens (this wasn’t by rule) none of my top five elected a future president (although one was involved in two of them). So I begin with #5: the New York Gubernatorial election of 1958.

The Republican Party was at a crossroads in the 1950s. Prior to 1932, the GOP’s soft corporatism made them the party of bigger government (compared to the Democrats). FDR’s New Deal completely upset that apple cart, and while Dwight Eisenhower made the GOP competitive, he didn’t give the party much of a platform. So there was always going to be an argument within the party between backers of its big-government past and those who looked to take up the limited-government space the Democrats abandoned. However, it was New Yorkers in 1958 who determined who would speak for the “liberals” in the party, and that made all the difference.

In the midst of one of the worst Republican mid-term elections (the party lost 12 Senate seats and roughly four times that in the House), Nelson Rockefeller crushed a wealthy, popular, and connected incumbent Democrat (Averell Harriman). Given that New York was the most populous state in the Union (and would remain so for as long as Rocky was governor), he was immediately catapulted into the top rank of Republican officialdom. He ran for president in each of the next three elections, and was the standard bearer for the Republican left each time – to the point where they are still known in some circles as “Rockefeller Republicans.” He helped make the intra-party battles deeply personal and polarizing (to an extent that would stun any modern “Tea Party” or “Establishment” Republican). The animosity within the party was so strong that when Gerald Ford nominated him for Vice President in 1974, it became one of the chief complaints of those who supported Ronald Reagan against Ford for the GOP nomination in 1976.

Yet even that might not be the most important impact of his ascension. While Rocky was more than willing to argue with his fellow Republicans on domestic issues, he was one with the conservatives on foreign policy. In fact, Rockefeller’s anti-Communist was so resolute that Barry Goldwater nearly endorsed him rather than run for president in 1964. Four years later, the very few “doves” within the party on Vietnam found no solace in the New York Governor. Opponents of the Vietnam war outside the party were thus shoved to the Democrats – in particular Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, the latter of which completely reshaped his own party in 1972 (the same year Rocky, nearly alone among politicians, supported Nixon’s “Christmas bombing”).

Republicans were going to have a factional battle in the 1960s (parties always do), but Rockefeller symbolized that battle in a way George Romney or Bill Scranton never could. At the same time, Rockefeller’s role also ensured that foreign policy would not be part of the discussion, which ensured that debate would only occur (and thus me that much more energetic) within the Democrats. One could argue that New Yorkers locked Republican foreign policy in place until Rand Paul’s election in 2010 (which, by the way, is still to recent for a place in this list – stay tuned).

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift

Meanwhile, in Brazil…

October 6, 2014

This summer, most eyes were on Brazil for the World Cup. Far fewer noticed the uproar in the country over how badly the Brazilian government went through $11 billion to prepare for it. Once Brazil was embarrassingly bounced from the tournament by Germany, I felt that uproar would be a lot more important.

Well, yesterday, the Brazilian people had their say, and a leading opposition figure (Aecio Neves) scored a “surprise” surge to force a runoff in three weeks (CNN, BBC). Incumbent president Dilma Rousseff is considered the favorite, but Neves has already outperformed polling just to get to the runoff.

I humbly submit that the World Cup will prove to be Roussef’s undoing.

Cross-posted to Virginia Virtucon

Remember Tax Cuts? They’re Baaaaaaaack.

October 3, 2014

Everyone in politics knows about that guy (or gal), the one who keeps banging on about taxes: they should never be raised; they should be cut at the first opportunity; government spending cuts can always be found in the budget; tax cuts are political winners; tax increases drive away voters like the plague; tax increases never bring in the revenue their supposed to raise anyway; tax increases discourage spending cuts, etc.

Of course, I am that guy. So I couldn’t help but notice that while Republicans in Washington are increasingly skittish about proposing tax reductions (the state capitals are another story), center-right politicians in the rest of the Anglosphere are grabbing them with both hands – and reaping the rewards.

Just last month, in New Zealand, National Prime Minister John Key asked voters for a third term with “promised tax cuts” while his Labour opponents proposed a new capital gains tax (Bloomberg via Sun-Sentinel). The result: the highest popular vote level for the National Party in over 60 years, and (pending special ballots) the Holy Grail of politics – an absolute majority in a proportional-representation election (Economist).

Meanwhile, just this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron launched the (unusually long due to fixed election dates) 2015 campaign with a promise of two separate income tax cuts. Less than two days later, YouGov (one of many pollsters in the UK) reported that Cameron’s Tories took their first lead in its poll in over two and a half years (Telegraph).

Finally, even our neighbor to the north is getting in the act: Prime Minister Stephen Harper is moving up his planned tax reductions by about six months (National Post).

Granted, in each of these nations, the center-right is actually in power, and thus have been better able to keep spending in check (at least since 2010). Still, it is yet another reminder in this era of near-record mistrust of government effectiveness (and not just here in the US), letting the people spend their own money is a powerful way to rebuild trust and support.

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift


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