Mitt Romney (Patiently) Eyes History-Making US Senate Run

A Hatch retirement could give Romney the longest stretch between losing and winning U.S. Senate campaigns among major party nominees in the chamber’s history

Will he or won’t he?

The continuing saga of whether long-serving Utah U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch will retire from his seat in 2018 took another turn last week when Mia Love, the state’s 4th CD U.S. Representative, stated that the seven-term Republican was not going to “stick around” – paving the way for a Mitt Romney bid.

Romney is reportedly going to run for Hatch’s seat if he retires which could set off a potential interesting intraparty battle for the GOP nomination. [Which would likely be the de facto general election in this deep red state].

It would also be a novel bid for the former presidential nominee.

Smart Politics previously reported how Romney could become only the second statehood governor in U.S. history to subsequently serve in the U.S. Senate from another state. [A feat only accomplished by Tennessean-turned-Texan Sam Houston in the mid-19th Century].

But a Romney win at the ballot box next year would put his name in the record books all by himself by a second measure.

Smart Politics analyzed the nearly 1,900 U.S. Senate contests conducted during the direct election era and found that in 2018 Mitt Romney could set the record for the longest gap between a loss and a subsequent victory by a major party nominee – 24 years.

Over the decades, many members of the U.S. Senate failed to win a seat in the chamber the first time they appeared on a general election ballot, only to find a path to victory down the road.

Current U.S. Senators like Republican John Thune of South Dakota (losing in 2002, winning in 2004), Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia (1996, 2008), and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire (2002, 2008) all were defeated as first-time nominees.

Other members who exited the chamber over the last decade who lost their first election to the U.S. Senate include Republicans George Voinovich (losing in 1988, winning in 1998) and Mike DeWine (1992, 1994) of Ohio, Gordon Smith of Oregon (1996 special, 1996), and John Ensign of Nevada (1998, 2000) and Democrats Harry Reid of Nevada (1974, 1986), Barbara Mikulski of Maryland (1974, 1986), Mark Dayton of Minnesota (1982, 2000), and Ben Nelson of Nebraska (1996, 2000).

Romney launched his first U.S. Senate bid from Massachusetts in 1994. The businessman easily won the GOP primary that cycle with 82 percent of the vote en route to facing six-term Democrat Ted Kennedy.

Kennedy defeated Romney by a decisive 17.1 points, although it was the closest race the lawmaker would ever face among the seven reelection victories he would record from 1964 through 2006 (with Romney besting millionaire Raymond Shamie’s 22.6-point loss in 1982).

A victory by Romney in 2018 – two-dozen years after that defeat – would break a 56-year old record set by Republican Milward Simpson of Wyoming in 1962.

Simpson holds the chamber’s all-time mark in the direct election era seeing 22 years pass between his losing campaign as the GOP nominee for the office in 1940 and his special election victory in 1962.

A former state legislator, Simpson claimed the Republican nomination in 1940 to take on Democratic incumbent Joseph O’Mahoney, but lost by 17.5 points.

Simpson would go on to serve four years as governor of the Equality State in the 1950s and, after the death of Senator-elect Keith Thomson, was the Republican nominee in 1962 in a special election against appointed Democratic Senator John Hickey.

Simpson defeated Hickey by 15.7 points and would serve just four-plus years for the remainder of the term, though his son, Alan, would win three elections to his seat during the 1970s and 1980s.

Simpson is one of just a dozen U.S. Senators who had a gap of at least 10 years between a loss as a major party nominee and a subsequent electoral victory for the office.

Minnesota DFLer Mark Dayton had the second longest wait at 18 years between his first U.S. Senate bid in 1982 and his win in 2000.

In 1982, a 35-year old Dayton lost by 6.0 points in his quest to unseat one-term Republican David Durenberger. After a four-year stretch in the early 1990s as Minnesota Auditor (and a failed gubernatorial bid), Dayton ran for the U.S. Senate once again in 2000, this time defeating first-term GOPer Rod Grams by 5.5 points with a plurality of 48.8 percent.

The third longest gap is held by Delaware Democrat James Tunnell who lost an open seat race by 18.7 points to Republican T. Coleman Du Pont in 1924 at the age of 45 and would wait 16 years for his next opportunity.

In 1940, Tunnell again won the Democratic nomination and this time defeated two-term Republican John Townsend by 3.3 points. Tunnell served only one term, losing his seat during the GOP wave of 1946 to John Williams.

Other losing nominees who would wait at least a decade to win election to the chamber include:

  • Iowa Democrat Clyde Herring: 14 years (losing in 1922, winning in 1936)
  • Minnesota Republican Arthur Nelson: 14 years (1928, 1942)
  • Illinois Democrat (and former Senator) James Lewis: 12 years (1918, 1930)
  • Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski: 12 years (1974, 1986)
  • Nevada Democrat Harry Reid: 12 years (1974, 1986)
  • Virginia Democrat Mark Warner: 12 years (1996, 2008)
  • Connecticut Democrat Abraham Ribicoff: 10 years (1952, 1962)
  • Nevada Republican Paul Laxalt: 10 years (1964, 1974)
  • Ohio Republican George Voinovich: 10 years (1988, 1998)

Despite these success stories, the vast majority of losing nominees who were subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate did so within the span of a single term.

In the direct election era, a total of 63 losing nominees went on to win U.S. Senate elections with 46 of these doing so within six years after their loss, or 73 percent.

Twenty-nine of these nominees were victorious within two years, one within three years, eight within four years, and eight within six years.

In the extremely unlikely event that Romney receives his party’s nomination but loses the general election, he would not set the record for the longest period between defeats by major party nominees – he would tie for second.

The longest stretch between losses by a major party U.S. Senate nominee is held by Republican Jeff Bell of New Jersey at 36 years.

Bell was the GOP nominee at the age of 35 in 1978 after narrowly ousting four-term incumbent Clifford Case in the Republican primary by less than 4,000 votes.

Bell then lost the general election by 10.2 points to former NBA star Bill Bradley.

Bell would get a second chance as the Republican nominee some 36 years later in 2014 but lost to incumbent Cory Booker by 13.5 points. [Note: Bell also lost the Republican U.S. Senate primary in 1982].

Other major party U.S. Senate nominees with long stretches between losses include:

  • Nebraska Democrat Terry Carpenter: 24 years (1948, 1972; Carpenter also lost in 1936)
  • West Virginia Republican John Raese: 22 years (1984, 2006; Raese also lost in 2010 and 2012)
  • Kentucky Democrat John Brown: 20 years (1946, 1966)
  • Texas Republican Carlos Watson: 18 years (1936, 1954)
  • Wyoming Democrat Raymond Whitaker: 18 years (1960, 1978)
  • Utah Democrat Wayne Owens: 18 years (1974, 1992)

Overall, more than 125 different major party U.S. Senate nominees have lost multiple general elections including a handful in the 2016 cycle: Hawaii Republican John Carroll (2000, 2016), New York Republican Wendy Long (2012, 2016), and former Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold (2010, 2016). Alaska Republican-turned-Libertarian Joe Miller has also now lost two general elections (2010, 2016).

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