The election of former Gov. Angus King to the U.S. Senate spurred my search for another time in history when an independent was elected without major party support or previous enrollment in a party. I came up short.
Elections of non-major party candidates to the U.S. Senate have certainly occurred in recent years, such as the 2006 elections of Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut and Bernie Sanders in Vermont. But King’s election on Nov. 6 stands out.
That’s because, previously, successful elections were of senators who had official backing from a major party or had originally been elected as a Democratic or Republican nominee and later changed parties. Lieberman, for example, served three terms as a Democrat before becoming an independent in 2006.
Sanders, though not a major party nominee, won with the explicit support of both the state Vermont Democratic Committee and the U.S. Senatorial Campaign Committee. Though Sanders declined to accept the nomination of the Democrat Party in that election, the Democrats did not nominate a candidate to oppose him. In effect, his election was a victory for the Democratic Party.
Some would say this was the case with King, but he still faced official Democratic opposition in the form of Cynthia Dill. It’s also important not to overlook the fact that King initially entered the political arena as a functional Republican, with his election in 1994 drawing more support from Republicans than Democrats. (Republican Susan Collins won 23 percent of the popular vote, and Democrat Joe Brennan ran only a percentage point behind King in the gubernatorial election that year).
The search thus continues for a precedent that is comparable to the King election, a candidate who defeated both the Republican and Democratic nominees in what amounts to a three-way race.
The 1970 election of Conservative Party candidate James Buckley in New York is a parallel, though in Buckley’s case he received the endorsement of some major Republican figures. Notable among them was Vice President Spiro Agnew, who dubbed the liberal Republican nominee GOP incumbent Charles Goodell the “Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party,” so-named for the first person to undergo a sex-change operation.
In 1936, a Farmer-Labor candidate was elected to an open seat in the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. But here, the prevailing candidate Ernest Lundeen did not face opposition from both of the major parties. Instead, the Democrats threw their support to Lundeen, and he defeated his sole opponent, Republican nominee Peter Christianson.
Likewise, the 1923 special election in Minnesota for a U.S. Senate seat had a similar setup. In that case, both the major parties did field candidates against the successful third-party nominee Farmer-Labor candidate Magnus Johnson, but the Democratic nominee received a mere 3.83 percent.
One has to reach back to a 1922 Minnesota U.S. Senate election to find a parallel that comes closest to King’s election this year. That was a race won by Farmer-Labor Senator Henrick Shipstead who won 47 percent of the vote over future U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg, who won 35 percent, and Democrat Anna D. Olsen, who won 17.9 percent.
Shipstead had the longest enduring career of any non-major-party affiliated U.S. senator since the popular election of U.S. senators in 1916 — and perhaps all of time. He served for 18 years as a Farmer-Labor senator and then was re-elected to his fourth term as a Republican, serving a total of 24 years. He failed to be re-nominated by the GOP in 1946.
One has to reach pretty far, then, for a time in the last hundred years when a non-major party candidate has won an initial election to a U.S. Senate seat without either one of the two major parties effectively defaulting to such a candidate. Though the Farmer-Labor candidates of Minnesota, unlike King, ran as the nominees of a political party, they still, like King, ran against the two major parties.
King’s election this year, of course, does not mark the first time he has been a trailblazer. Among the more than half dozen independents elected as chief executives of their states over the last 80 years, King was the only one to be re-elected.
Indeed, Maine is the only state to have elected independents not just twice, but three times, counting the 1974 election of independent James Longley, who voluntarily relinquished the job in 1978 without seeking reelection.
In this year’s Senate race, Maine once again stands out from the pack. Whether this is simply an isolated phenomenon, or whether it foreshadows a trend in other states, remains to be seen.
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine He can be reached by email at email@example.com.