Utah’s Frank Moss Was a Symbol of Nation’s Realignment

Posted February 5, 2003 at 3:54pm

On Jan. 29, former Utah Sen. Frank Moss (D) died at the age of 91. His passing may not mean much to people under 40, but Moss was at the center of a fundamental shift in American politics that created today’s landscape. [IMGCAP(1)]

Utah, one of the Mountain West’s most reliable bastions of Republicanism these days, sent the liberal Moss to the Senate for 18 years. The Democrat often received a perfect 100 percent rating from the AFL-CIO during his years on Capitol Hill, while his ratings from the Americans for Democratic Action in the late 1960s and early 1970s ranged from the upper 60s to the low 80s.

The Senator voted to use federal funds to force school districts to bus children to achieve racial balance, to limit presidential authority to conduct military operations in Cambodia and against Richard Nixon’s Supreme Court appointments. He was, in short, no Sen. James Eastland (D-Miss.).

Moss was elected in a three-way race in 1958, but he went on to win re-election comfortably in 1964 (with 57 percent) and 1970 (with 56 percent) even as the state was becoming Republican at the presidential level. Apparently Utah voters weren’t so ideological or partisan that they couldn’t re-elect a Democrat who was clearly much more left-of-center than they were.

But when Moss ran for a fourth term in 1976, he found that state voters had a new perspective on politics. His party had nominated South Dakota Sen. George McGovern for president four years earlier, and that nomination — and the ensuing change in the Democratic Party’s image nationally — alone could well have sealed Moss’ fate. [IMGCAP(2)]

The last Utah Democrat to hold one of the state’s Senate seats was clobbered in 1976 by a Pittsburgh-born attorney who had never held elective office, Republican Orrin Hatch. (Twelve years later, Hatch overwhelmed Moss’ son in a Senate race.)

Moss’ defeat would be little more than an interesting footnote if he had been the only casualty of his time. But just to his state’s northeast, in Wyoming, another Mountain State Democratic Senator, Gale McGee, also found himself forced into retirement.

McGee also served three terms. While he was an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War, McGee’s instincts on many issues were similar to his Utah colleague’s.

Like Moss, McGee won a squeaker in 1958, but was re-elected comfortably in 1964 and 1970. And like Moss, McGee lost his bid for a fourth term, in that case to New York-born, Yale-educated Episcopalian Malcolm Wallop (R). Wyoming voters apparently also had a new take on Democratic candidates for the Senate after the McGovern debacle, and they have not sent one to Washington since McGee.

But the post-McGovern realignment didn’t stop there. In 1974, Nevada voters made Paul Laxalt the first Republican elected to the Senate from the state since 1952, and two years later, New Mexico voters ousted Sen. Joseph Montoya (D) in favor of Harrison “Jack” Schmitt (R).

Further to the east, states like Missouri and Mississippi were showing new partisan inclinations as well.

In Missouri, 10 consecutive Democratic Senate victories were interrupted in 1976 by Republican John Danforth. The GOP’s control of the state’s two Senate seats has not been quite complete since then, but the Republicans have won seven of eight Senate races since 1982, with their only defeat being a fluke. Clearly Missouri has realigned toward them.

In Mississippi, Thad Cochran won a Senate seat in 1978, making him the first Republican to do so since Reconstruction. Since then, the Democrats have won only one Senate race in the state, in 1982, when Sen. John Stennis won his last race.

If the defeats of Moss and McGee were part of a move to the right in the Mountain states and the South, some states moved the other way during the same time period.

Republicans won seven of 10 Senate races in New Jersey between the end of World War II and Nixon’s defeat of McGovern. But they have not won a single Senate race since Clifford Case won a fourth term in 1972 — a loss of 10 in a row.

In Massachusetts, the Democrats are working on their own 10-0 Senate streak. The last Republican elected to the Senate from the Bay State was Ed Brooke in 1972.

Case and Brooke, of course, were liberal Republicans who both lost bids for re-election in 1978 — Case at the hands of conservative primary opponent Jeff Bell (R) and Brooke at the hands of Democrat Paul Tsongas. As Mountain and Southern states were firing the likes of Democrats Moss and McGee, voters in the Northeast were starting to find themselves increasingly uncomfortable with Republican Senate candidates.

All of which brings me back to Utah’s Moss.

Frank Moss was a political casualty of a partisan realignment that ultimately has produced a geographically and ideologically polarized nation. Instead of a map defined by shades of gray, it is colored in stark contrasts of red and blue. Frank Moss simply didn’t fit into that new color scheme.