Most House Members Lose Senate Races

Posted June 10, 2003 at 6:31pm

Even as the Senate campaign committees aggressively court House Members for pivotal races in 2004, a look back at contests in the past decade reveals that Congressmen may not be the prized recruits they appear to be at first blush.

From 1992 to 2002, sitting House Members lost 34 Senate races while winning only 20, according to a Roll Call review of results. Of those 20 victors, only six ousted an incumbent in either the primary or general election. The other 14 won open-seat contests.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who successfully made the leap from the House in 2002, compared it to “going from Triple-A to the majors.”

While the numbers are daunting, they must be taken with a grain of salt as they do not account for the partisan natures of states in which they take place or the political viability of the candidates, among myriad other factors.

Unaffected by the raw numbers, both national party committees continue to heavily recruit from the House.

In the eyes of the committees, House Members already have several ready-made pillars of a successful campaign foundation in place: a base of support, political know-how and, most importantly, an ability to fundraise.

“Every House Member is a Senator in waiting,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse.

For Republicans, Rep. Richard Burr (N.C.), the de facto nominee against Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), started a major donor group in 1995 with an eye toward making a statewide bid, according to Burr consultant Paul Schumaker. He has already banked $2 million for his Senate bid. Rep. Jim DeMint (S.C.) is the leading contender in a crowded GOP primary for the right to face Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.). Edwards and Hollings, however, are both retirement possibilities.

In Florida, where Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) may retire depending on the fate of his presidential campaign, Rep. Mark Foley and ex-Rep. Bill McCollum are facing off in a Republican primary. Democratic Reps. Alan Boyd, Peter Deutsch and Alcee Hastings are all seen as possible successors if Graham leaves the seat open.

In Georgia, GOP Reps. Johnny Isakson (Ga.) and Mac Collins (Ga.) are both running for the open seat currently held by retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D). California Reps. George Radanovich and Darrell Issa, meanwhile, are considering a challenge to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D).

In the House Democratic Caucus, there are fewer potential Senate nominees outside of Florida. But Reps. Joe Hoeffel (Pa.), Jim Marshall (Ga.), Bob Etheridge (N.C.) and Mark Udall (Colo.) are all contemplating runs.

For his part, Hoeffel said that the history of House Members running for Senate is “not relevant” to his decision.

Although he dismissed the link, Hoeffel needs only look at the last Senate race in the Keystone State to see the dangers of vacating a House seat to run for statewide office.

In that contest, then-Rep. Ron Klink (D) won a crowded primary for the right to challenge Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in the general election.

Klink’s pro-gun, anti-abortion-rights profile seemed to match well with the electorate, but he was unable to raise money nationally because of those stances and wound up being outspent by $7 million. Santorum captured 52 percent of the vote to Klink’s 46 percent.

Klink’s loss in the 2000 cycle was one of six by House Members — four Republicans and two Democrats were defeated. Then-Rep. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) was the only House Member to win a Senate race that year, knocking off Sen. Spence Abraham (R-Mich.), 49 percent to 48 percent.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee points to the 2002 cycle when asked about their strategy of recruiting sitting House Members in key races across the country.

In that election, Lindsey Graham as well as Reps. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and John Sununu (N.H.) won Senate seats, and former Rep. Jim Talent (Mo.) beat Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.). Then-Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) came up just 524 votes short of besting Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.).

“Each state is different,” said NRSC spokesman Dan Allen. “Lindsey Graham was a known quantity because of his strong conservative record. Jim Talent had a strong record of working in a bipartisan fashion.”

It is worth noting that both Talent and Thune had already run statewide prior to 2002. Talent had narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid in 2000 and Thune, as his state’s only House Member, had served statewide since first being elected in 1996. Sununu also benefited by being one of two House Members from the Granite State. Members running in huge states such as California and Florida do not have the luxury of such a statewide presence prior to a Senate run.

Allen emphasized that the committee did not specifically reach out to House Members in 2002 but rather “we had success recruiting good, strong candidates and some of those candidates were House Members.”

Republican Reps. Greg Ganske (Iowa) and John Cooksey (La.) both lost Senate races in 2002. Rep. Bob Clement (Tenn.), the only sitting Democratic Member to run for the Senate, lost.

In the two elections prior to 2002, there were only three House Members elected to the Senate while 11 House Members were defeated.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) defeated a sitting incumbent — he triumphed over then-Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R) 55 percent to 44 percent — in 1998. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) won an open-seat race against fellow Rep. Scotty Baesler (D-Ky.) that year as well.

Of the 11 Members who wound up on the losing end, seven lost to incumbent Senators by margins ranging from 19 percent (California GOP Rep. Tom Campbell) to 428 votes, the margin by which Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) defeated then-Rep. John Ensign (R-Nev.).

Ensign bounced back from his narrow 1998 defeat to win an open Senate seat in 2000 by 15 points.

In contrast, the 1996 cycle was the only one in the past decade in which House Members won (seven) more Senate races than they lost (five).

Much of this success can be attributed to the 15 open seats in that election. House Members in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey and Rhode Island won open seats.

Nevertheless, then-Reps. Glen Browder (D-Ala.) and Jimmy Hayes (D-La.) both fell in Senate primaries while then-Reps. Jim Ross Lightfoot (R-Iowa) and Dick Zimmer (R-N.J.) lost in general elections.

Despite the massive House turnover in 1994, those Members running for Senate were able to win only four races while losing six. In 1992, the statistics were even worse with eight losses to only three wins.

Sometimes a look at past history can serve as the strongest impetus to run, however.

When Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) retired after more than four decades in the Senate, Graham leapt at the opportunity.

“A [South Carolina] Senate seat came open for the first time in 46 years,” he explained. “If I had waited, I’d be crazy.”