Clashes of the Titans
When it comes to Congressional leadership races, they just don’t make ’em like they used to.
While there has been plenty of drama on Capitol Hill over the last few years, there have been few knock-down, drag-out contests for House or Senate leadership posts.
True, the current Republican leaders of the House and Senate both rose to power under dramatic circumstances. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) won his post after Trent Lott (R-Miss.) stepped down under fire for comments he’d made about the segregationist past of then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). And in the House, Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) ascended to the Speakership following two dramatic resignations, first Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.).
Despite the drama, Frist and Hastert won their posts with the broad acclamation of their parties. And on the Democratic side, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) won the post of Senate Minority Leader without significant challenge, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was elected party leader easily after having previously won a somewhat closer contest for Minority Whip against Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
But if the past few years have generally featured snoozers for leadership contests, the last 50 as a whole certainly did not. Since Roll Call sprung to life in 1955, there have been enough coups, multi-ballot marathons and one-vote nailbiters to fill plenty of newsprint.
Here, then, are the 10 best leadership races of the last 50 years in chronological order.
1959: Senate Minority Leader
When Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) was elected Minority Whip in 1957, his close relationship with President Dwight Eisenhower made him the de facto leader of his party in the chamber, ahead of Minority Leader William Knowland (R-Calif.).
In 1958, Knowland left the Senate, leaving Dirksen with a chance to win the top job. According to an introduction written by Frank Mackaman in Dirksen’s own memoir, Dirksen faced “considerable opposition from the moderate Republicans” in his Minority Leader campaign against Sen. John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky.).
But Dirksen was able to use his close relationship with Eisenhower to his advantage, and he also mollified various Republican constituencies by handing out committee posts and lower-level leadership titles.
In the end, Dirksen prevailed over Cooper by a 20-to-14 vote. He ended up holding the Minority Leader title for 10 years, making a name for himself as one of the Senate’s most effective leaders. He is now immortalized in the name of one of the Senate’s three office buildings.
1959: House Minority Leader
By 1954, Rep. Charles Halleck (R-Ind.) had already served two brief stints as Majority Leader under Speaker Joseph Martin (R-Mass.) when his party lost power in the House.
Halleck then spent five years as the deputy to Martin, all the while plotting a challenge against his longtime senior partner. In 1959 he pulled the trigger, launching a campaign against Martin for Minority Leader.
Halleck, more energetic and 16 years younger than Martin, was able to convince his colleagues that he could do a better job leading the GOP again in the wake of Democratic gains in the 1958 election.
Halleck ended up beating Martin, 74 to 70. Martin later blamed his loss on plotting by Halleck and Vice President Richard Nixon.
1965: House Minority Leader
After six years in power, Halleck got a taste of his own medicine in the form of a challenge from Rep. Gerald Ford (R-Mich.).
In 1963, Ford had won a somewhat unexpected victory for Conference Chairman against an older candidate, then plotted a similar victory in 1965 against Halleck after another disappointing election for Republicans.
Drawing from the old Halleck playbook, Ford presented himself as more youthful and energetic than his opponent, and he was able to gather the support of enough impatient fellow Republicans — including a young Illinois Congressman named Donald Rumsfeld — to topple Halleck.
Halleck retired three years later. Ford went on to become vice president and then president.
1971: Senate Majority Leader
This contest between two Senate titans, Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), was partially decided by the deathbed vote of a third legend of the chamber.
In 1969, Kennedy had scored something of an upset by ousting Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) from the post of Whip. Two years later, with his eye on a possible presidential bid, Kennedy was himself blindsided by Byrd.
The West Virginian, whom Roll Call speculated at the time “must be one heck of a poker player,” went into the contest thinking it might be decided by the proxy vote of Sen. Richard Russell (D), who was in the hospital suffering from lung disease.
When the dust settled, Byrd emerged victorious, 31 to 24. Russell’s proxy vote for Byrd may have been his last political act, as he died soon after on the opening day of the 92nd Congress.
1976: House Majority Leader
On Dec. 9, 1976, Roll Call ran a story across its front page with the headline: “Survey Shows Burton Ahead in House Majority Leader Race.”
The story asserted that Rep. Phil Burton (D-Calif.) had a “commanding lead” in the Majority Leader race over Reps. Jim Wright (D-Texas), Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) and John McFall (D-Calif.).
Roll Call was right. Sort of.
On the first ballot, Burton garnered 106 votes, Bolling 81, Wright 77 and McFall 31. McFall dropped out and threw his backers to Wright, allowing the Texan to edge Bolling for second place on the next ballot by two votes.
With the momentum swinging his way and a coalition of moderates and conservatives behind him, Wright edged out the liberal Burton on the third ballot, 148 to 147.
The victory paved the way for Wright to eventually succeed Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.). In 1989, the Texan was brought down by allegations of impropriety pushed by a cadre of aggressive young conservatives led by Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), himself a future Speaker later toppled in part due to ethics concerns.
1984: Senate Majority Leader
Before Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) could make a name for himself as a Senate leader and, eventually, the 1996 GOP presidential nominee, he first had to navigate a hard-fought, five-way race for the chamber’s top job.
With Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) retiring, the race to replace him included GOP Sens. Pete Domenici (N.M.), Dick Lugar (Ind.), James McClure (Idaho), Ted Stevens (Alaska) and Dole.
McClure, a stalwart conservative, was eliminated on the first ballot. Next to go was Domenici, followed by Lugar. On the final vote, Dole was able to outmaneuver Stevens, 28 to 25.
In addition to installing Dole as leader, the race also set off a chain reaction in the committees. The Kansan was succeeded as Finance Committee chairman by Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), while Lugar took over the gavel of Foreign Relations, postponing the ascension to that post of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
Stevens, who had been Majority Whip before losing to Dole, never ran for leadership again and instead devoted his full attention to committee assignments, including an eventual stint as Appropriations chairman.
1989: House Minority Whip
This race essentially marked the end of one promising leadership career and the launch of another. The victory of Gingrich over Rep. Ed Madigan (R-Ill.) exposed fissures among House Republicans, driving old-school moderates apart from a new breed of conservative lawmakers.
The Whip position opened up when Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) was chosen to be Defense secretary by the first Bush administration after the White House’s original choice, John Tower, went down in flames.
Cheney’s departure prompted an unexpected March leadership race between Madigan, who had the support of Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), and Gingrich, who had bolstered his standing among conservatives by consistently attacking Wright. As Roll Call put it in a March 16, 1989, headline, “‘Schizophrenic’ GOP Forced to Choose Between Polar Opposites for New Whip.”
Ultimately, in a rebuke to Michel’s moderate approach, Gingrich beat Madigan by two votes, 87 to 85. Madigan lost despite the fact that his campaign was run by two budding expert vote-counters, future Speaker Hastert and future Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
In a notable understatement, after Gingrich’s win, Michel predicted, “It’ll be a more aggressive style on our side, I’m sure.”
1992: House Republican Conference Chairman
While the Conference chairman post was at the time only the third-ranking GOP leadership post, this hard-fought contest between Reps. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) was another omen of things to come.
Armey beat Lewis 88 to 84 with the ample assistance of a largely united Texas Republican delegation. In a statement after his loss, Lewis said the result made clear that “Texans stick together and Californians do not. Texas’ solid backing and a divided California delegation were the difference in this race.”
Armey’s victory marked yet another blow for conservatives against the moderate wing of the party represented by Michel. On the same day Armey won, the conservative DeLay was also elected Conference Secretary over centrist Rep. Nancy Johnson (Conn.).
Like Stevens following his loss to Byrd, Lewis decided never to run for leadership again. Instead, he, like Stevens, concentrated on moving up the Appropriations Committee ladder, ultimately becoming chairman earlier this year.
1994: Senate Majority Whip
Just as the House Republican leadership got younger and more conservative in the early 1990s, so too did the Senate GOP in the bellwether Whip contest between Sens. Trent Lott (Miss.) and Alan Simpson (Wyo.).
Simpson was the incumbent Whip and a 26-year Senate veteran, facing a challenger who was just completing his first term in the chamber after having held the Republican Whip post in the House.
Lott prevailed on a 27-to-26 vote, despite the fact that Dole and many senior Senate Republicans backed Simpson. The victory paved the way for Lott to become Majority Leader when Dole left the chamber to run for president in 1996.
1994: Senate Minority Leader
On the same day that Lott edged Simpson, Democrats held their own tough leadership fight between Sens. Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.).
Daschle began campaigning for the job in early 1994, expecting to face Sen. Jim Sasser (Tenn.). But Sasser lost his re-election bid in November to a young Republican surgeon from Tennessee named Bill Frist, and Democrats lost the majority. So instead of running for Majority Leader against Sasser, Daschle ran for Minority Leader against Dodd.
Both Sen. Wendell Ford (Ky.), the Democratic Whip, and Byrd had backed Sasser and then shifted their allegiance to Dodd. But it wasn’t enough to beat Daschle, who eked out a 24-to-23 victory.
Daschle went on to lead his party in the Senate for 10 years before losing his own re-election battle to former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) in 2004. Dodd soothed his wounds by becoming chairman of the Democratic National Committee.