If Democrats plan to win Tom Coburn’s seat in Oklahoma, they’ll be working against the partisanship of the state and over six decades of history.
The Republican senator announced that he would leave his seat at the end of this Congress , two years before the end of his term. But the special election to replace Coburn will be held this year , along with GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe’s regularly scheduled bid for re-election.
On one hand, this would appear to give Democrats a shot in a state where they hadn’t planned on playing in 2014. But on the other hand, it is very rare that a state’s two Senate seats go for different parties in the same election. Over the past 65 years, there have been 26 times when both of a state’s Senate seats were up for election. In 23 of those instances (88 percent of the time), one party won both seats.
The most recent example of this dynamic was in 2010 when New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer ran for re-election and appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ran for the remainder of her term.
This year, two states will hold two Senate elections. In South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, is seeking re-election and Sen. Tim Scott, also a Republican, is seeking election to serve out the remainder of former Sen. Jim DeMint’s term.
The situation in Oklahoma seems reminiscent of Mississippi in 2008. Veteran Sen. Thad Cochran was seeking re-election, while appointed Sen. Roger Wicker was seeking election in the seat vacated by former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
Democrats that cycle weren’t planning on challenging Cochran, but they recruited former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to take on the new senator in the other seat. As a former statewide official, it appeared that Democrats found a path to victory. In the end Wicker won, 55 percent to 45 percent.
It’s possible that Democrats recruit a candidate for the open seat in the Sooner State under the same scenario, but it would most likely have the same result. Analysis of the three instances where the two Senate races were won by candidates from different parties show an even tougher road for Democrats this cycle. In two of the three instances, the split results maintained the partisan status quo before the election.
In Idaho in 1962, Democratic Sen. Frank Church won re-election while appointed Republican Sen. Len Jordan’s victory retained the Republican seat. And in South Carolina in 1966, Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond won re-election, just as Democrat Fritz Hollings held the other seat after defeating appointed Sen. Donald Russell in the primary.
In the final case, in New Hampshire in 1962, Republican Sen. Norris Cotton won re-election, while his party lost the state’s other Senate seat. But the senator who had been appointed to fill that vacancy and who ran to fill the rest of the unexpired term, Republican Maurice Murphy Jr., lost in the primary, and Democrat Thomas McIntyre defeated GOP Rep. Perkins Bass in the general election.
So if Democrats are able to win Coburn’s seat or somehow defeat an incumbent in South Carolina, it will be the first time in at least six decades that a party took over a Senate seat and lost a Senate race in the same state in the same year.