The fourth Majority Leader to face the political sword reserved for Senate’s Old Bulls?
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Here’s but a small list of famous and powerful Old Bull United States Senators who suddenly realized that the political sword had just extinguished their senatorial careers.
• Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas in 1950 — An Illinois Democrat, a potential presidential candidate if President Harry Truman declined a third term in 1952, as 1950 dawned Lucas was presumed unbeatable. His opponent: a little-known Republican Congressman from downstate Pekin named Everett Dirksen. But something began going wrong for this Old Bull. By May, Lucas was struggling. The Truman White House was so alarmed they set up a three-day rally for national Democrats in Chicago, calling it the “National Democratic Conference and Jefferson Jubilee.” The objective: to tout the Truman “Fair Deal” program and map out a strategy for Democrats in Congress. President Truman himself would attend to make his case — and not so coincidentally, help focus the presidential spotlight on Illinois Senator Lucas, the Senate Majority Leader. The Old Bull was invited to a much-ballyhooed lunch in Truman’s hotel suite. He was on the podium to speak. When Truman took the podium, the President — a former Senate Old Bull himself — went out of his way to spend time in his speech praising the “fine work” of Lucas as a great Senate leader who was “responsible for guiding our program through the Senate.” A few days later, Lucas took to national radio to scorch Truman’s critics as a thank-you to the President. By October, Lucas was changing his tune, defecting from Truman’s call for — wait for it — national health insurance. It was too little, too late. Dirksen pulled an upset — and the once invincible Scott Lucas was out for good, the political sword swiftly ending his Senate career and onetime presidential hopes.
• Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland in 1952 — Senator McFarland of Arizona replaced Scott Lucas as the Democrats’ Senate Majority Leader in a classic case of the new Old Bull is the same as the last Old Bull. He was popular in Arizona for using his considerable Old Bull power to get a $700 million Central Arizona Irrigation and Power Project through the Senate (if not the House). Like his predecessor, as the Senate leader he too was thought of as an invincible powerhouse, an Old Bull with lots of clout. McFarland’s opponent was an unknown Phoenix city councilman dismissed in a sentence by the New York Times as “Barry Goldwater, a wealthy Phoenix department store owner and civic leader.” The press assumed McFarland a winner. Why not? Forgetting Lucas’s fate, they believed Old Bulls who are also Senate Majority Leader can’t lose. They were wrong, making the Arizonan the second Senate Majority Leader in two years (Harry Reid, take note) to lose his re-election bid.
• Senate President Pro Tem Kenneth McKellar in 1952 — A Tennessee Democrat first elected to the House in 1910, followed by election to his first Senate term in 1916, McKellar was by 1952 the ultimate Washington Old Bull. Not only was he a fixture on the political landscape, as Senate President Pro Tem he was officially third in line for the White House after the vice president and Speaker of the House. Yet his challenger in a Democratic primary (in 1952, there was no effective statewide GOP in Tennessee) persisted. In a huge upset the challenger won. His name: Congressman Albert Gore — father of today’s Al Gore.
• Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee J. William Fulbright in 1974 — Fulbright, a 30-year Arkansas Senate veteran in 1974 (who had as an intern a young Bill Clinton), was internationally famous as the folksy yet caustic Old Bull critic of first Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon’s Vietnam policy. A signer with other Old Bulls of the so-called “Southern Manifesto” that sought to preserve segregation, a former president of the University of Arkansas and a Congressman, Fulbright (and wife Betty) epitomized the Old Bull Senator as liberal institution. Seeing an opening no one else saw, Governor Dale Bumpers, in office barely four years and a little-known lawyer until his surprise defeat of ex-Governor Orval Faubus in 1970, stunned liberals by challenging Fulbright — and beating him in a primary. Fulbright and his supporters both in Arkansas and Washington, not to mention the media, never saw it coming, with Fulbright confessing election night that he was “shocked.”
The list of Senate Old Bulls speared unexpectedly goes on…and on. Florida Democrat Senator Claude Pepper of Florida, famous as a champion of Social Security and ally of FDR, the “Red Pepper” as his enemies nicknamed him, was upended in a 1950 primary by George Smathers, who won the seat. (Truman, who couldn’t stand Pepper, inserted himself on this one and successfully backed Smathers. Pepper lived to fight again, returning in the 1960s as a Congressman and becoming — yes — an Old Bull of the House.) Then there was Senate Labor Committee Chairman Elbert Thomas of Utah, a Democrat Old Bull who lost his seat to Republican Wallace Bennett, father of today’s Senator Robert Bennett, in a 1950 upset that stunned both Thomas and his Old Bull allies in Washington — organized labor.
Perhaps the most famous upset of 1952 was of a Republican Old Bull, the still youthful Henry Cabot Lodge. Like his famous namesake Old Bull grandfather who had similarly served as Senator from Massachusetts and defeated Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, the younger Lodge was a considerable Senate powerhouse. A prime mover in the drive to nominate and elect Dwight Eisenhower over fellow GOP Old Bull Senator Robert Taft, Lodge was blindsided by a young Democrat who was the grandson of the elder Lodge’s defeated 1916 opponent. The congressman grandson of Boston Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald came from nowhere to put the sword to Lodge’s Senate career, introducing John F. Kennedy to the U.S. Senate — in the seat now held by Scott Brown.
The relevance of this? History is always relevant. And in this case, it teaches that there is no one out there in the United States Senate who is “unbeatable.” In fact, Old Bulls — the Senate powerhouses thought to be politically invulnerable in their home state political bullrings — are all too frequently the most vulnerable of all. In 1980 one longtime Senate Old Bull after another fell by the wayside in the Reagan landslide. Washington pillars Birch Bayh of Indiana gave way to challenger Dan Quayle, Idaho’s Frank Church (chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee) was upset by young GOP Congressman Steve Symms, Georgia’s real Old Bull Herman Talmadge lost to an unknown Mack Mattingly. Liberal icon and 1972 presidential nominee Senator George McGovern was upset by Congressman Jim Abdnor. Washington State’s Warren Magnuson, the powerful Old Bull chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, went under in an upset by state attorney general Slade Gorton.
In one election year after another, whether its 1942 or 1950 or 1952 or 1966, Old Bulls kept getting the sword. In 1966 the legendary liberal Paul Douglas of Illinois was upset by a young Republican Charles Percy…who was in turn upset by underdog Democrat Congressman Paul Simon 18 years later in 1984 while — yes — serving as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (J. William Fulbright’s and Frank Church’s old job). Pick an election year — almost any election year — whether 1980 or the year Democrats seem to be fixated on — 1994 — and it will be seen that upsets of Senate Old Bulls are as regular as stampedes in Pamplona.
In 2010, the polls are already telegraphing this old story afresh.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Scott Lucas and Ernest McFarland (and yet another defeated Democratic Senate Majority Leader, South Dakotan Tom Daschle) of 2010, is trailing all of his prospective GOP opponents in Nevada. Just as Lucas tried to recover by frantically pushing the Truman agenda, so too is Reid out front for President Obama. While Lucas backed off his support of Truman’s health care reform at the end of his campaign — too little too late — Harry Reid seems determined to cling to ObamaCare even as the Nevada political sword glistens in the hands of opponents.
So too out there this year are the Old Bulls of today, the Norrises, McKellars, Fulbrights, Lodges, Douglases and Magnusons, in 2010 bearing names like Specter, Boxer, Lincoln, and Patty Murray. And yes — the name of New York’s Chuck Schumer.
The latest Franklin and Marshall poll in Pennsylvania has Specter trailing Republican Pat Toomey (the man South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham once assured Fox viewers was a loser) by 14 points. Arkansas’s Blanche Lincoln is trailing GOP Congressman John Boozman by 23 points. In California, Barbara Boxer is unexpectedly losing ground to Carly Fiorina, holding a statistically insignificant lead of a mere three points (46%-43%) according to the latest California Rasmussen poll, while slipping against the two other potential GOP contenders as well. In Washington State, a new poll has longtime Democratic incumbent Patty Murray trailing GOPer Dino Rossi 45% -43%. In tantalizing news to New York Republicans, Old Bull Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer finds himself slipping in the polls as he enters the New York bullring.
And so on.
Can powerful Senate Old Bulls like Harry Reid be beaten? A Specter, a Boxer, even a Schumer? Yes. House Old Bulls too. Can enough Democrats fall by the wayside to turn the Senate over to the GOP? Yes. In fact, what seems to be happening to the Old Bulls of 2010 happens all the time.
It’s something that Old Bull Harry Reid may be pondering the next time he walks through the Capitol Hill landmark named for Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas’s unknown but ultimately successful 1950 opponent.
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