Will a Maine US Senator Lose for the First Time Since the 1970s?

Only nine states have had a longer stretch since the last time an incumbent lost a bid for another term

Democrats now have a candidate to rally behind against Maine U.S. Senator Susan Collins in 2020 – a key stepping stone in the party’s attempt to flip the chamber next year.

On Monday, State House Speaker Sara Gideon announced she would seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Collins in a state that has not seen an incumbent lose a U.S. Senate seat in more than 40 years.

In the direct election era, only one state – Hawaii – has not seen a sitting senator lose their seat, winning in all 19 attempts since statehood.

Ten additional states – including Maine – have not had an incumbent lose a primary or general election since at least the 1970s.

The last U.S. Senator from Maine to fail in their bid for another term was Democrat William Hathaway in 1978.

Hathaway was a former four-term U.S. Representative from the state’s 2nd Congressional District and was defeated in 1978 by his successor (to both seats) – three-term Rep. William Cohen.

Maine’s senators have rattled off 10 consecutive victories ever since by Democrat George Mitchell (1982, 1988), Cohen (1984, 1990), Republican Olympia Snowe (2000, 2006), Collins (2002, 2008, 2014), and independent Angus King (2018).

The remaining states that have not seen an incumbent tumble in more than four decades are:

  • Vermont (1931): Appointed Republican Frank Partridge lost the GOP primary by 10.2 points to Warren Austin
  • Mississippi (1942): Wall Doxey came up 9.3 points short in the Democratic primary to James Eastland
  • Arizona (1952): Two-term Democrat (and Majority Leader) Mac McFarland lost to Phoenix City Councilman Barry Goldwater
  • West Virginia (1958): Both Republican lawmakers were defeated that November – W. Chapman Revercomb to Robert Byrd and appointed Senator John Hoblitzell in a special election to Jennings Randolph
  • South Carolina (1966): ‘Self-appointed’ Democrat Donald Russell lost his party’s primary by 21.6 points to Fritz Hollings in a battle between two former governors
  • Oklahoma (1968): Three-term Democrat Mike Monroney was unseated by former Governor Henry Bellmon
  • Maryland (1976): First-term Republican John Beall, Jr. was defeated by U.S. Representative Paul Sarbanes
  • Wyoming (1976): Gale McGee, the last Democrat to serve in the chamber from the Cowboy State, lost to state Senator Malcolm Wallop
  • New Jersey (1978): Four-term Republican Clifford Case lost the GOP primary by 1.5 points to Jeffrey Bell

The majority of states – 28 – have had at least one sitting U.S. Senator lose their seat during the 21st Century – with the most recent losses by state occuring in:

  • 2000: Delaware (Republican Bill Roth), Michigan (Republican Spencer Abraham), and Washington (Republican Slade Gorton)
  • 2002: Georgia (Democrat Max Cleland)
  • 2004: South Dakota (Democrat Tom Daschle)
  • 2006: Montana (Republican Conrad Burns), Ohio (Republican Mike DeWine), Rhode Island (Republican Lincoln Chafee), and Virginia (Republican George Allen)
  • 2008: Minnesota (Republican Norm Coleman) and Oregon (Republican Gordon Smith)
  • 2010: Pennsylvania (Democrat Arlen Specter), Utah (Republican Bob Bennett), and Wisconsin (Democrat Russ Feingold)
  • 2012: Massachusetts (Republican Scott Brown)
  • 2014: Alaska (Democrat Mark Begich), Arkansas (Democrat Mark Pryor), Colorado (Democrat Mark Udall), Louisiana (Democrat Mary Landrieu), and North Carolina (Democrat Kay Hagan)
  • 2016: Illinois (Republican Mark Kirk) and New Hampshire (Republican Kelly Ayotte)
  • 2017: Alabama (Republican Luther Strange)
  • 2018: Florida (Democrat Bill Nelson), Indiana (Democrat Joe Donnelly), Missouri (Democrat Claire McCaskill), Nevada (Republican Dean Heller), and North Dakota (Democrat Heidi Heitkamp)

Gideon was not the first Democrat to announce a 2020 challenge against Collins (e.g. attorney Bre Kidman and progressive lobbyist and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet) but is by far the most established candidate seeking the party’s nomination.

Senator Collins has yet to formally announce her reelection bid and would first face nominal opposition from the right in the GOP primary.

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2 Comments on "Will a Maine US Senator Lose for the First Time Since the 1970s?"

  1. 1. UT: Had Robert Foster Bennett made it on to his party’s primary ballot, he may well have won it, and most assuredly a fourth term (he would pass away in March 2016, perhaps triggering a non-concurrent special Senate election later in the year, but that is another topic). That outcome would have made Frank Edward “Ted” Moss the most recent senator to “tumble” in the state, and made the Beehive State join the Free State, the Cowboy State, and seven others which have overseen every incumbent senator electorally survive since 1979. His unexpected – and perhaps unjust – fall, along with that of ascended Governor Olene Walker in 2004, indirectly contributed to the passage of the “Count My Vote” citizens’ initiative in 2014, which provided an alternative to the caucus-convention nominating path, namely the petition option that would bypass the aforementioned, activist-dominated system, and lead any qualified aspirant directly to the primary election, e.g. Congressmen John Ream Curtis in ’17 and “Mitt” Romney last year.

  2. 2. I meant to say 8 others under the scenario in which Bennett is not cast aside in 2010 (left out ME itself).
    3. Even without her still-divisive vote to confirm Kavanaugh as junior justice on SCOTUS, Collins would have to contend with the recent trend of party-line voting in Senate and presidential races nationwide, and her state’s long-ingrained habit of voting against the party occupying the White House in Senate elections – currently a sliver higher than 63.9% in the wake of the defeat of the R nominee last year.
    4. “…yet to formally announce her reelection bid…” If Collins believes her state’s electoral system should be invalidated on constitutional grounds, then she ought to litigate the matter BEFORE the votes are tabulated, not after, a la ex-Representative Bruce Poliquin (the report seems to presume she will in fact stand for a fifth term).

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