How Do Failed Presidential Hopefuls Fare As US Senate Candidates?

More than a dozen candidates who unsuccessfully ran for president since 1972 later ran for the U.S. Senate – just three were victorious

What’s old may be new again.

As filing deadlines loom in the next few months, some big names may be poised to make late entrances into their state’s respective U.S. Senate races.

In fact, three former Republican presidential candidates are now reportedly eyeing U.S. Senate bids in the 2018 cycle.

Talk of Mitt Romney (2008, 2012) running for Orrin Hatch’s seat was brewing in Utah several months before the seven-term U.S. Senator announced his retirement a few weeks ago.

Michele Bachmann (2012) recently floated her potential candidacy for Minnesota’s 2018 special election.

Meanwhile, Jim Gilmore (2008, 2016) is considering a second U.S. Senate bid from Virginia – with the former governor discussing his possible challenge to Tim Kaine with NRSC Chair Cory Gardner as recently as a month ago. Gilmore already has a track record of following up a failed run for the White House with a U.S. Senate campaign (doing so in 2008).

So what are the odds these well-known politicians can overcome their recent electoral failures and win a legislative seat this autumn?

A Smart Politics review finds that in the modern primary era (1972-present), there have been more than a dozen presidential candidates who were unfazed by their defeat on the national stage and later decided a run for the U.S. Senate would be a good idea. Just three of these candidacies were successful – all from the South with two from North Carolina.

[This tally naturally excludes those presidential candidates who were already members of Congress at the time of their White House bid, and subsequently ran for reelection – e.g. John Kerry, John McCain].

One of these success stories waited a decade in between White House and U.S. Senate campaigns.

Duke University president and former North Carolina Governor Democrat Terry Sanford ran for the Democratic presidential nomination twice in the 1970s.

In the crowded 1972 Democratic field, Sanford was one of the last of his party to jump into the race – on March 8th of that year – and did not withdraw until the July convention 128 days later. Sanford won 77.5 votes on the first ballot.

Sanford got an earlier start in the 1976 cycle, launching his candidacy on May 19, 1975, but exited the race before the primaries 252 days later on January 25, 1976.

A decade later, Sanford ran for the U.S. Senate and simultaneously defeated appointed Republican Senator Jim Broyhill in 1986’s special (by 1.8 points) and general (by 3.5 points) elections.

Sanford would lose his 1992 reelection bid to Lauch Faircloth.

In the 2002 cycle, two other failed presidential candidates found success in their campaigns for the nation’s upper legislative chamber.

Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander ran for the White House in both 1996 and 2000 – with his first attempt the more noteworthy of the two.

In 1996, Alexander did not win any primaries, but placed a respectable third in New Hampshire with 22 percent and eclipsed the 10 percent mark in more than a half-dozen other states. His campaign lasted 373 days from February 28, 1995 until the week before Super Tuesday on March 6, 1996.

In the 2000 cycle, Alexander’s campaign ended after just 161 days on August 16th – two days after a disappointing 6th place finish at the Iowa Straw Poll.

However, in 2002, Alexander defeated Democratic Congressman Bob Clement by 9.9 points to win Fred Thompson’s open seat. Alexander has subsequently been reelected to two more terms.

Back in North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole lasted slightly longer than Alexander in the 2000 presidential race – withdrawing on October 20, 1999, some 225 days after her March 10th campaign launch.

When conservative Senator Jesse Helms announced he would not seek a sixth term in 2002, Dole cruised to an easy GOP primary win and an 8.6-point victory over Erskine Bowles that November. Dole lost her reelection bid to State Senator Kay Hagan in 2008.

[In addition to Sanford, Alexander, and Dole one could technically add a fourth candidate to this list – Jesse Jackson. Jackson won one of the two seats on the ballot in the inaugural ‘shadow Senator’ popular vote election in the District of Columbia in 1990 – a few years after his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns].

Among the many politicians who came up short in their presidential bids since 1972 as well as their subsequent U.S. Senate campaigns are:

  • New York Democrat John Lindsay (1972): The former New York City mayor placed third in the 1980 Democratic primary behind Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman with 15.8 percent
  • California Democrat Sam Yorty (1972): The Los Angeles mayor ran for the Republican nomination in the 1980 cycle, losing by 11.8 points to Paul Gann. [Yorty had also run for the U.S. Senate in 1940, 1954, and 1956 as well as the presidency in 1964].
  • California Democrat Jerry Brown (1976, 1980): The outgoing two-term governor lost the 1982 general election to San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson by 6.8 points
  • Minnesota Democrat Eugene McCarthy (1972, 1976): McCarthy failed to win back his old seat by placing second in the 1982 DFL primary – 45 points behind Mark Dayton. [McCarthy also ran for president in 1968, 1988, and 1992].
  • Florida Democrat Reubin Askew (1984): The former two-term governor had a short-lived 1988 U.S. Senate campaign from which he withdrew after five months
  • Virginia Democrat Douglas Wilder (1992): The former governor briefly ran as an independent in Virginia’s 1994 U.S. Senate race eventually won by Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb
  • Minnesota Democrat Walter Mondale (1984): Mondale replaced the deceased Paul Wellstone on the 2002 ballot but came 2.2 points shy of winning back his old seat
  • Georgia Republican Herman Cain (2000): The businessman followed up his short-lived first run at the White House with a second place finish in the 2004 GOP senate primary – 27.1 points behind Congressman Johnny Isakson
  • Maryland Republican Alan Keyes (1996, 2000): Keyes replaced disgraced investment banker-turned-teacher Jack Ryan to become the party’s 2004 nominee in Illinois, losing by 42.9 points to Barack Obama. [Keyes previously ran for the U.S. Senate from Maryland in 1988 and 1992].
  • Virginia Republican Jim Gilmore (2008): Following his 80-day first campaign for president, the former Virginia governor was defeated in the 2008 general election for U.S. Senate by 31.3 points to former Governor Mark Warner
  • Wisconsin Republican Tommy Thompson (2008): The former four-term governor’s presidential candidacy lasted only 131 days and then came up 5.6 points short in the state’s 2012 open seat race won by Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin

The 2018 filing deadlines for major party U.S. Senate candidates are March 15th in Utah, March 29th  in Virginia, and June 5th in Minnesota.

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5 Comments on "How Do Failed Presidential Hopefuls Fare As US Senate Candidates?"

  1. 1. Does the District still elect” quote-unquote shadow senators? (Or, when did it stop choosing them by direct popular vote?)
    2. Just by running on the R line, should Sam Yorty not be classified as one (long predating the current top-two system), just as John Victor Lindsay of NY is as D for 1980, even with both a GOP and Liberal past?
    3. It is worthy of mention that Lawrence Douglas Wilder made his indie bid in the watershed year 1994, along with ex-Attorney General J M Coleman, who unlike Wilder remained to the bitter end. Had Wilder done same, the commonwealth presumably would have ended up with senator Oliver North (of the Iran arms-for-hostages Scam fame) – and there would likely have been no Tim Kaine on the D ticket in 2016 (from 1944 on, the party has, with an exception or two, unfailingly nominated an incumbent US senator as nominee for vice president).

  2. “Clean Gene” McCarthy also sought the presidency in 1976, though that bid is not as well chronicled as his ’68 run against LBJ.

    • Eric Ostermeier | January 16, 2018 at 7:57 am | Reply

      Yes – McCarthy’s 1976 run is mentioned parenthetically in the bullet point. He didn’t quite launch as many presidential campaigns as fellow Minnesotan Harold Stassen – but he certainly wasn’t shy about running.

  3. Bob Kerrey (D-NE) ran for president as a sitting U.S. Senator in 1992 (placing third in New Hampshire and winning South Dakota), and then ran unsuccessfully to re-claim his Senate seat in 2012 (easily winning the Democratic nomination but losing handily to current GOP Sen. Deb Fischer).

    • Dr. Eric Ostermeier | September 15, 2018 at 7:38 pm | Reply

      True – though I didn’t include Kerry as he was already a sitting Senator at the time of his presidential bid (and was reelected to his seat two years later).

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