1980 Saw Unlimited Big-Name Democrats Fall
1980 was a year that many remember for Ronald Reagan coming in like a tractor-trailer, denying Jimmy Carter a second term. But that was only part of the story. Reagan’s landslide victory also had ramifications nationwide. For not only did Republicans regain control of the Senate for the first time since 1954, but voters turned out big name after big name Democrat, some of whom were top vote getters in their state with decades upon decades of experience.
The Democratic loss that started the evening, and the one with the most historical ramifications was Birch Bayh, who of course lost to future Vice-President Dan Quayle. Bayh had led by as much as 20 points over the summer but was targeted by the New Right.
George McGovern’s loss was no surprise. He had struggled in 1974, a strong Democratic year, holding just 53-47%. But the size of his margin was. Jim Abdnor had represented half of South Dakota in the House, but he himself had problems in his last House race, solidly Republican territory no less. So his 58-39% defeat of the 1980 standard bearer was a surprise.
Frank Church, the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, who hailed from a state that gave Ronald Reagan 66% should have been automatic toast, but in fact, the day before the election, Howard Baker, when running down a list of states the GOP would pick up, left Idaho off. Steve Symms wasn’t universally liked even among Republicans, and Church lost just 50-49%. Remarking on his fellow casualties he quipped that it’s “nice to go out in good company.”
Gaylord Nelson, whom I covered extensively as the founder of Earth Day, was considered safe as can be. But he lost 50-48% to Bob Kasten, a former Congressman who had lost his party’s nomination for Governor in 1978.
Warren Magnuson’s defeat was the most stunning. By Election Day, it wasn’t a surprise at all but the fact that Magnuson was not only Appropriations Chair but President Pro-Tem made it improbable. Age and poor health very much hampered Magnuson’s ability to stave off longtime Attorney General Slade Gorton, who contrasted Magnuson’s age. Magnuson responded with his clout. “So I can walk as fast as I used too,” he said in one ad. “The meeting can’t start until I get there.”
John Culver of Iowa was only a freshman from what was in 1980 a Republican leaning state, but his campaign style was indefatigable. Despite efforts to portray Chuck Grassley as too far to the right, his attitude. But he was among the main targets of NPAC and lost 53-46%.
As a four term Senator and former Governor, Herman Talmadge was considered so secure at home that he was actually projected the winner on Election Night, when he led by 100,000 votes with a good ¾ counted. Talmadge’s position as Senate Agriculture Chair, coupled with the fact that he had served as Governor of his state before going to the Senate in ’56, made a defeat far more improbable.The fact that Jimmy Carter was dominating his home state with 59%. But Mack Mattingly reeled in the suburban Atlanta newcomers, and edged him 51-49%..
Other first term Senators who lost: John Durkin of New Hampshire unseated by Warren Rudman, and Bob Morgan of North Carolina, in an upset literally out of no where. Jim East was the beneficiary. The latter’s race was on few radar screens, as his ideology seemed to perfectly align with the state. but his vote against the Panama Canal Treaty and East’s assistance from Jesse Helms’ political action committee did him in. The margin was a mere 10,000 votes, 50-49%.
Democrats also lost a series of open seats where incumbents had fallen in primaries (Alabama, Alaska, and Florida), and failed to take New York, where Jacob Javitz had been unseated by Al D’Amato in a primary. The result was that this class would boast of 16 freshman Republican Senators, and just two for the democrats (Alan Dixon of Illinois and Chris Dodd of Connecticut). Both won the open seats of Adlai Stevenson III and Abe Ribicoff respectively.
There were a few unlikely survivors. Pat Leahy, who in 1974 had become the first Democrat to represent Vermont in the Senate ever, proved that his win was no fluke. narrowly fended off a challenge from Richard Ledbetter. Gary Hart beat Mary Estill Buchanan by the same margin, despite the fact that Reagan was sweeping Colorado and Hart’s early campaign was laisseth faireth.
And while Bayh, Church, Culver, and McGovern all fell victim to the conservative PACs, Tom Eagleton survived, albeit 52-48%, and Alan Cranston won a clear victory (57%).
Ironically, while liberal after liberal was going down, the one who may have emulated the anti-government that was carrying the day, it’s original champion, Barry Goldwater, was very nearly among the casualties. He was slow to recognize that he was in trouble and his campaign team was not prepared for a tight as a tick race. He trailed during the entire election night count, only keeping his seat 50-49% when all of the absentees were tabulated.
Three Democratic Governors lost. Missouri’s Jim Teasdale and North Dakota’s Art Link’s surprised few. But a young southerner named Bill Clinton was considered a shoein even as late as Election Night when a number of networks declared him the winner, and called him as results tightened to tell him they were sticking with the projection. His opponent, Frank White, when asked if voters were trying to send him a message, replied, “I think they’re sending him a message that they want me to be Governor.”
House Democrats lost 35 seats, more than enough to keep Tip O’Neill as Speaker, but now just 25 seats above a majority. And the many “Boll Weevils” in the caucus would essentially mean a working majority for Reagan. But it’s not just the numbers that were notable. Like the Senate, a caliber of big-name talent and vote-getters, junior and senior, were lost. Eight members with service of 18 years or more were shown the door, including a number I profiled in previous pieces. Another, John Brademas of Indiana, was the House Majority Whip, the number three position in the House leadership. The Chairs of Ways and means, Public Works, and House Administration were unseated, although the latter, Frank Thompson, was among the many members caught up in Abscam.
And like their Senate counterparts, a few of the casualties were on zero radar screens. Richardson Preyer was one of them. The North Carolinian was no longer a major power, having lost his coveted Health sub-committee Chairmanship to Henry Waxman after the ’78 elections. But, having garnered 68% two years before, his loss still came out of nowhere. Ditto for Missouri’s Bill Burlison, though there was some discontent among Missouri farmers. And folks who had proven survival skills in very politically perilous districts (Washington’s Mike McCormack and Utah’s Gunn MacKay, were second fiddles).
And the GOP was finally successful in knocking off several junior members, such as California’s Jim Lloyd, New Jersey’s Andy McGuire, and Virginians Joe Fischer, and Herb Harris, who had all won their seats in the 1974 GOP Watergate tsunami. The first three lost to David Dreier and Marge Roukema and Frank Wolf, all of whom had fallen short of the trio in ’78. Harris fell at the hands of Stan Parris, whom he had unseated in ’74.
Even the survivors had close calls. Tom Foley, a future House Speaker who at the time chaired the House Agriculture Committee, held off just 52-48%. Paul Simon, who would later become a beloved Senator from Illinois , came within 2,000 seats of being blindsided by a novice. So did Jim Howard, who would, with Johnson’s defeat, take over the chairmanship of Public Works.
Yes, 1980 was a year of reckoning for Democrats all across the country, one that, until 1994, forced many to contend with a whole new world of minority status for the first time in their careers.