Great Scott! For Legendary PA Pol, Not At Winning Votes
Historic Fact: In 1865, there was a Michigan Congressman who voted for 13th Amendment named Charles Upson, who represented Kalamazoo. One of his successors has an eerily similarly sounding name Fred Upton. He holds a descendant of the Upson seat that also encompasses Kalamazoo. Of course, Michigan had just six House seats in the 1860’s. But my guess is Fred Upton’s bigger boast is that Sports Illustrated super-model Kate Upton is his niece. Too good to pass up.
By Scott Crass
My passion is elections. History, results, etc. So when I discovered a few things about Hugh Scott, it was stunning.
You think members of Congress today are constrained by re-election? The constant fundraising, worrying how votes will play back home. Campaigning is a never ending cycle which, in the end, guarantees nothing. Indeed, in Hugh Scott’s time, the non-stop game did not apply. Legislators legislated, then went home just before Election Day to campaign for new terms. Most were fine to let the chips fall where they may, and there was little second guessing after the fact.
Hugh Scott was giant on the stage both in Pennsylvania, and nationally. A Republican, he was the first Pennsylvanian to become a three-term Senator (only Arlen Specter would ultimately exceed that), and would rise to Minority Leader. He would serve as more than a footnote in the passage of Civil Rights legislation, and the Nixon resignation, personally telling the President that impeachment was inevitable. Folks called him, “Great Scott.” But when it came to getting votes, Scott was far from a giant.
While many members walk on eggshells when it comes to winning new terms, Hugh Scott walked on glass. His difficulties were such that, even staying in office was hard, and, sometimes, he didn’t.
Current members of Congress, take note. Scott won a House seat in 1940, lost it in ’44 then reclaimed it in ’46, a pattern not unlike some members of today’s Congress who lost and came back. But that’s when things got real hard
Get this! Scott retained his seat by 403 votes in 1950, 52-48% in ’52, by 1,751 votes in ’54 and 51.5-48.5% in ’56.
Things didn’t get much easier for Scott in his Senate races. Twice, he ran in some of the most Democratic friendly years in history, and twice, barely won. He beat ex-Governor George Leader 51-49% in 1958, and survived the ’64 LBJ landslide 50.6-49.1%. 1970 was a more Republican friendly year, but Scott again struggled, ultimately winning what would be his last term 51.4-45.4%. He retired in 1976 when John Heinz, a fellow Republican from the other end of the state, won by a bigger vote margin than Scott ever had.
Now Scott has not been the only member of Congress to find himself seriously pressed each election cycle. Arnold Olson and John Hiler, a Democrat and Republican from Montana and Indiana respectively,each served a decade in Congress staring defeat in the eye each time. Olsen never won more than 55% in his re-elections, while Hiler escaped defeat in 1986 by just 47 votes after a protracted recount. Both ultimately lost their bids for 6th terms by equally narrow margins.
Closer to home and our current era, Jim Gerlach, who like Scott also represents Pennsylvania-6 (albeit Gerlach has Berks and Chester counties, Scott was all Philly) may be a better model, as his early election battles were almost an exact mirror of Scott’s. Gerlach won three successive elections 51-49% and a fourth 52-48%.
Yet Scott may have be the most high profile and durable figure to be hunkered down for so long. In fact, his entire career. I point that out because Hugh Scott was in a perilous situation electorally for literally his whole, long, career. Yet, that didn’t stop him from carrying out his duties in the most effective manner.
If constant re-election worries proved a strain for Scott, the affable pipe-smoking Philadelphian who was born on a property George Washington owned and whose mother was a descendant of Zachary Taylor, never let it show, In fact, it probably made him thrive.
How did Scott go about this? Well, for starters, doing his job and not trying to please all of the people all of the time.” The New York Times said in his 1994 obituary that Scott was at varying times “known as the Senate’s most liberal conservative, its most conservative liberal, and its most extreme moderate.”
Now Scott may not have been everyone’s cup of tea but that’s just my point. William F. Hildenbrand, Scott’s longtime assistant, called him “a consummate politician.” Mike Mansfield, who was the Senate’s Democratic leader and set the agenda called him “one of the unsung heroes of our time. We worked together very closely and we were able to establish a bipartisan Senate insofar as that was possible.”
Hugh Scott’s ability to hold on in ’64 against Genevieve Blatt was particularly noteworthy, as for some time, it didn’t seem likely. Johnson would end up carrying Pennsylvania by 1.5 million votes. Scott’s margin was just 70,000. But it also denied a rare opportunity for the “Keystone State” to put a third female in Senate (Blatt would’ve joined Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and Maureen Neubauer of Oregon). Voters have yet to change that, as Lynn Yeakel lost a race almost as close to Specter in another Democratic Presidential landslide year, 1992.
Blatt, a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge, adroitly employed a tactic so effective by other candidates on tickets where landslides are pending, most recently Elizabeth Warren. Tying the opponent to the ticket’s leader regardless of how distant he was from it philosophically. Blatt said as much by saying she was “comfortable with my ticket. Mr. Scott is not.”.
Indeed, Scott had been an ardent supporter of his home-state Governor, Bill Scranton for the nomination, and refused to endorse Goldwater for more than a month after he had won. He had called for a GOP platform condemning groups with extremist reputations, such as the John Birch Society. Ultimately, the necessity of attracting conservative votes persuaded him to hop on the Goldwater bandwagon.
Scott’s voting record made it easy to see why backing Goldwater would give him such agita. He backed cloture on the Fortas nomination, one of only 10 Rs to do so, voted against amendments by GOP colleagues that would’ve weakened Medicare and federal Housing programs, and voted for the Gun Control Act (though not Ted Kennedy’s bill banning mail-order sales). He enjoyed substantial backing from the AFL-CIO, backing that had to have proven crucial in such tight re-elections.
Oddly, it was Scott’s position as Minority Leader, a post he assumed when Everett Dirksen died in 1969, that forced him to do more politicking than his campaigns. He often had to carry water for Nixon, a task he performed with grace until he could do so no more. Years after leaving office, Scott said he told Nixon as early as December of 1973 that turning over the tapes was the only hope of saving his Presidency. More than half a year later, it was Scott who broke the news of impending impeachment, surrounded by his GOP colleagues. He informed him thus: ‘Mr. President, we are all very saddened, but we have to tell you the facts.” Years later, Scott admitted that he waited too long before abandoning Nixon.
The ironic thing about not having the demands of fundraising, legislating for favors, etc. Scott’s last year in office was plagued by his acceptance of $45,000 from the Gulf Oil Corporation. He said the contributions were legal and not for personal use. The Senate Ethics Committee concurred, voting not to take action. He retired in 1977 at 76, having served his state in Congress for 34 of the previous 36 years.
Scott’s ability to conduct his business even with a political bounty on his head was noteworthy. So for current members of Congress, the lesson of the day is doing the people’s business and campaigning for votes should not be mutually exclusive. You can do both. Indeed, it is the number one requirement for the job.