Thursday, November 8, 2018
November 8, 2018: Major Midterms: 1930 and Huey Long
[To say that this year’s midterm elections are significant is, I believe, to significantly understate the case. But crucial as they are, they won’t be the first such significant midterms, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy five other major midterms, leading up to a special weekend post on this year’s results. And oh yeah: vote!]
On the illustrative and iconoclastic sides to a newly elected Senator.
As you might expect, the 1930 midterm elections did not go well for the Republican Party. The Depression was just over a year old in November 1930, and even if President Herbert Hoover and his GOP colleagues had been a bang-up job with managing that economic and social catastrophe, it’s likely that the voters would have taken out their fears and frustrations on the party that controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress at the time. But by most measures and most historians’ reckonings Hoover et al didn’t respond well at all to the deepening crisis, and so the significant Democratic victories of 1930 were even more predictable. Democrats gained 52 seats from Republicans in the House of Representatives, gaining control of that chamber for the first time in more than three decades. They also gained 8 Senate seats, earning a split of power in that chamber (although Republican Vice President Charles Curtis served as a tie-breaking vote for the GOP). Over the next three election cycles Democrats would gain 118 additional seats in the House, making 1930 the start of a truly sizeable blue wave (to coin a phrase, although of course Democratic in 1930 didn’t necessarily mean what it does in 2018—someone tell Dinesh D’Souza!) that reshaped American politics throughout the Depression era.
One of the newly elected Senators in 1930 was none other than controversial Louisiana Governor (still in the midst of his gubernatorial term at the time! On which more in a moment) Huey Long. Long’s seat wasn’t one of those 8 Democratic pickups, as it had already been occupied by a Democrat. But Long did run against and defeat an entrenched incumbent, Senator Joseph E. Ransdell, handily besting Ransdell in a Democratic primary that was by default the full election as well (as the GOP didn’t run a candidate for the seat). Ransdell had been in the Senate since 1912, and had been in the House of Representatives for 14 years before that; those 32 years in Washington made him quite the symbolic embodiment of “politics as usual” and made Long’s ousting of him a striking reflection of the sea-changes underway across the nation in 1930. As usual, Long articulated such radical sentiments bluntly, defending his continuing as governor rather than immediately assuming the Senate seat (on which, again, more in a moment!) by arguing, “with Ransdell as Senator, the seat was vacant anyway.” Long’s plainspoken populism (while complex and fraught as such populisms tend to be) likewise reflected the broader trends that contributed to this 1930 rejection of Hoover and company and the subsequent moves toward new perspectives and the New Deal.
So in some important ways Long’s 1930 victory was a telling example of those larger national trends. But in other ways it, like Long itself, was entirely unique and kind of ridiculous. Again, while his Senate term began in March 1931, Long simply didn’t occupy the seat for nearly a year, finishing out most of his term as governor before moving to Washington in January 1932. Long being Long, he also took things significantly further than that; when Lieutenant Governor Paul Cyr, a former Long ally who had turned against the governor, correctly noted that Long really couldn’t serve in both roles and attempted to assume the governorship, Long fought back, kind of literally: he called Cyr’s actions a coup e’tat and ordered the state National Guard to surround the Capitol Building. He then went to the state Supreme Court to argue that Cyr had vacated the Lieutenant Governor position through his actions, won that lawsuit, and replaced Cyr with a crony, State Senate President Alvin Olin King; it was King who took over for the final few months of Long’s gubernatorial term when he finally moved to DC to assume the Senate seat. All of which is to say, as undoubtedly extreme as this year’s midterm elections feel, things could always get more unique and crazy.
Last midterm tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other elections or contexts you’d highlight?