Wisconsin’s Unusually Long 7th CD Vacancy

The seven-plus month vacancy caused by Sean Duffy’s resignation is the fourth longest in the history of the state due to resignation or death

The election of Republican state legislator Tom Tiffany over Wausau School Board president Tricia Zunker on Tuesday puts an end to the long drought without representation in the U.S. House for residents of Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District.

Five-term Republican Sean Duffy (pictured) resigned on September 23rd of last year resulting in a vacancy that lasted 7 months and 20 days until this week’s special election.

Tiffany is expected to take his seat next week in what has been one of the longest vacancies for a Wisconsin U.S. House seat in state history.

Over the last 170+ years since statehood, Wisconsinites have endured two dozen vacancies in the nation’s lower legislative chamber due to death (17) or resignations (seven).

The Duffy vacancy will end at approximately 240 days next week depending on when congressman-elect Tiffany is sworn in next week.

Each of the three other longer vacancies in Wisconsin resulted from the deaths of U.S. Representatives – with no special election called to fill the seat. As such, the vacancy continued throughout the remainder of the respective Congress.

The longest such vacancy occurred after the passing of 3rd CD GOP freshman Harry Griswold on July 4, 1939.

Griswold’s seat remained vacant for the following 18 months (550 days) until  Republican William Stevenson was sworn in on January 3, 1941 at the start of the 77th Congress.

Likewise, no special election was called after the death of nine-term Republican Lawrence Smith on January 22, 1958. Democrat Gerald Flynn filled the seat 11 months, 13 days (347 days) later when the 86th Congress convened in January 1959.

Presumably Tiffany will take his seat next week. If the congressman-elect does not take the oath of office for two weeks, the Duffy vacancy will approach the 250-day vacancy (8 months, 6 days) that occurred following the death of seven-term Republican Reid Murray on April 29, 1952.

That vacancy also continued through the remainder of the Congress, with Republican Melvin Laird sworn in for the 83rd Congress in January 1953.

Two other vacancies have lasted more than 200 days in the Badger State.

There was a 7 month, 13 day gap between the death of 18-term Republican Henry Cooper on March 1, 1931 and Republican Thomas Amlie’s special election win on October 13, 1931.

A total of 203 days passed (6 months, 20 days) after GOPer Irvine Lenroot resigned to become U.S. Senator on April 17, 1918 and Republican Adolphus Nelson won a special election on November 5th of that year.

The quickest a special election has been held to fill a U.S. House vacancy in Wisconsin is 44 days – happening twice in the 19th Century following the deaths of Democrat Joseph Rankin (January 24, 1886) and Republican William Price (December 6, 1886).

Technically, the shortest vacancy the state has endured is four days following the resignations of Republicans Vernon Thompson and Glenn Davis on December 31, 1974. Thompson had lost the general election and Davis had lost his party’s nomination earlier that year. Their successors who were victorious in the November 1974 general election took their seats a few days later.

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3 Comments on "Wisconsin’s Unusually Long 7th CD Vacancy"

  1. John Chessant | May 17, 2020 at 12:27 am | Reply

    One of the shorter vacancies out of the two dozen was the one caused by Laird’s resignation to be U.S. secretary of defense on January 21, 1969. Dave Obey flipped the seat for the Democrats ten weeks later (on April 1, 1969), and remained in office until 2011, when he was succeeded by Sean Duffy.

    Wis.-7th’s current vacancy might only have lasted a ‘mere’ 18 weeks, as Gov. Tony Evers originally scheduled the special election for January 27; however, he was informed by the DOJ that this created too short a timeframe for overseas ballots to be sent out, so he re-scheduled the election for May 12.

    Also, do you know if the length of the Griswold vacancy (1939-1941) is a record nationally? I was not aware of this example before.

    A recent unusually-long vacancy that comes to mind is Mich.-13th’s vacancy from 2017 to 2018, which lasted just under a year. John Conyers resigned on December 5, 2017, and by Gov. Rick Snyder’s order, the ensuing special election was held concurrently with the 2018 general elections (much to the chagrin of the heavily-Democratic district). Brenda Jones won the special election on November 6, 2018, but was not seated until November 29, partly over complications resulting from her intention to continue serving as president of the Detroit city council even while in Congress. Jones served until January 3 (successfully retaining her city council post), and Rashida Tlaib was sworn in for the new term.

    Recent reports from North Carolina say that its Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, is weighing a decision regarding the 11th district’s special election following the March 30 resignation of Mark Meadows to become White House chief of staff. Scheduling the special election ahead of the November election may doom his party’s chances of scoring an upset in the district, but scheduling the special election on November 3 may incur him a district-wide wrath he would like to avoid for the sake of his own re-election. However, even a vacancy lasting from March 30 to November 3 would be almost a month shy of Wis.-7th’s current vacancy.

    • That is an interesting tidbit about the Griswold vacancy!

      One note on that, however: In addition to the two-dozen vacancies due to death and resignation in Wisconsin, there is the curious case of Socialist Rep. Victor Berger following the 1918 election. He is listed as a member of the chamber of the 66th Congress in the Congressional Biography Directory. However, more than eight months after the start of the 66th Congress (November 10, 1919) the chamber adopted a resolution that he was not entitled to take the oath of office of be seated (due to controversial writings opposing the nation’s participation in the Great War). Various contests ensued but no Wisconsinite was subsequently seated to the Milwaukee-area 5th CD during this period. So, perhaps this vacancy – the entirety of the 66th – could be considered longer than the one caused by Griswold’s death?

  2. Goahngmyung Zhou | May 17, 2020 at 10:29 pm | Reply

    Since Berger was never seated, even provisionally, during the 66th, what is the rationale, if any, for him to be LISTED as a Member of the chamber by the Congressional Biography Directory ? (Innocuous error? Or whitewashing/revision of the arguably shameful conduct of the chamber?)

    Aside from the vacancy – perhaps the longest House vacancy ever, at least within WI – this area has hosted two (!) pairs of “back-and’forth” electoral slugfests. The first involved Republican William Henry Stafford and Berger. Stafford was first elected in 1902 and again in ’04 (defeating Berger, marking their first ballot-box confrontation), ’06, and ’08. After his loss of the party nod, the seat switched to Socialist Berger in 1910, the first occasion of a Socialist win anywhere. But Stafford won again in 1912, ’14, and ’16. After his vote opposing declaration of war against Kaiser’s Germany, he lost his seat to Berger in 1918. Almost immediately after the House declared the seat vacant in 11 of 1919, Berger promptly won in the ensuing special election in 12 of ’19. But the House again refused to seat him and the seat was left vacant (with evidently NO OTHER special elections held) until the 1920 election, with Stafford defeating Berger again. However, after the SCOTUS invalidated his conviction pertaining to the Espionage Act in ’21, Berger again defeated Stafford in 1922, and was re-elected (as the incumbent) in ’24 and ’26 before losing to Stafford for the fourth and last time in 1928. Stafford went on the win once more in ’30 before losing the nomination for the second and final time in 1932.

    The less extended second occasion occurred more than a decade on. In 1944 D Andrew John Biemiller won the seat vacated by a fellow Democrat. But R Charles Joseph Kersten defeated Biemiller in 1946 as part of the post-FDR resurgence of the out-party. But Biemiller came back to win again in ’48. However, Kersten avenged his loss in 1950 and won again in ’52 before losing for good in 1954 (and lost the primary election for the seat two years later). As of now, Kersten is the most recent member of his party to represent central-city Milwaukee in the House, though the outgoing Frank James Sensenbrenner represents the bulk of the surrounding suburban terrain, ironically with the same numerical designation as the one lost, won, DENIED, won, and lost by Victor Berger.

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