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Richard Nixon at the Republican National Convention in Miami in 1972. Photo courtesy of the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library.

No real coattails for Nixon, Reagan in landslide re-election victories

Democrats gained U.S. Senate seats in 1972 and 1984

By David Wildstein, February 27 2020 12:01 am

Presidential re-election landslides don’t have the kind of coattails people think, although there hasn’t been one since 1972 and comparing seemingly ancient election results like these are admittedly apples and oranges.

Richard Nixon carried everywhere but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia that year, besting George McGovern by nearly 18 million votes, 61%-38%.

Democrats still picked up two U.S. Senate seats in the Nixon-McGovern year, and the GOP picked up 13 House seats – almost one-third of what Democrats picked gained in the 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson landslide.

The magnitude of McGovern’s loss didn’t drag down his party’s Senate candidates.  Instead, the bolstered the Democratic Senate majority.

Democrats ousted four incumbent Republican senators in 1972, all in states where Nixon won big:

* Colorado: Floyd Haskell unseated Gordon Allot, 49%-48.  Nixon won 63%-36%.
* Delaware: Joe Biden ousted J. Caleb Boggs, 50%-49%.  Nixon was 60%-39%.
* Iowa: Dick Clark beat Jack Miller, 55%-45%.  Nixon took the state, 58%-40%.
* Maine: Bill Hathaway unseated Margaret Chase Smith, 53%-47%.  Nixon: 61%-38%.

McGovern lost his home state of South Dakota, 54%-46%, but Democrat James Abourezk, a one-term congressman, captured the open U.S. Senate seat of retiring Republican Karl Mundt. Abourezk beat ex-state legislators Robert Hirsch by fourteen points, 57%-43%.

Democrats also picked up an open Republican Senate seat in Kentucky.  State Senate Majority Leader Walter “Dee” Huddleston defeated former GOP Gov. Louie Nunn by a 51%-48% margin in a state Nixon carried, 63%-35%.

Only one Democratic incumbent lost his seat.  In Virginia, Rep. William Scott defeated one-term U.S. Senator William Spong, 51%-46%.  Nixon won the state by a margin of more than 2-1, 58%-30%.

In Massachusetts, where McGovern won 54%-45%, Republican Edward Brooke won a second term in the U.S. Senate by a 64%-36% margin.

Republicans won open seats of retiring Democratic senators in three states where Nixon won humongous margins: New Mexico (61%-36%), North Carolina (69%-29%), and Oklahoma (74%-24%).

In gubernatorial races: Democrats ousted GOP incumbents in Delaware and Indiana and flipped an open seat in Vermont.  No Democratic governors lost in 1972, but Republicans took open seat in Missouri and Oklahoma.

The Reagan landslide

Walter Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia in 1984, but Ronald Reagan’s lopsided plurality of almost 17 million votes included a loss of two Republican U.S. Senate seats.  The GOP picked up sixteen House seats and just one governorship.

Despite the Reagan landslide, two incumbent Republican U.S. Senators were defeated in their bids for re-election.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles Percy lost to Rep. Paul Simon by a 50%-48% margin, despite Reagan carrying Illinois, 56%-43%.

In Iowa, Rep. Tom Harkin unseated Republican incumbent Roger Jepsen, 56%-44%.  Reagan won Iowa by a 53%-46% margin.

The only Democratic incumbent to lose in 1984 was Huddleston.  He lost to Jefferson County (Louisville) County Executive Mitch McConnell by a narrow 5,269-vote margin, 49.9%-49.5%.

Democrats picked up an open seat in Tennessee, where Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker retired.  The new senator was Rep. Al Gore.

Democratic senators in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island were re-elected.

Only Carl Levin of Michigan (52%) and James Exon of Nebraska (52%) had relatively close calls.

In North Carolina, Republican U.S. Senator Jesse Helms was re-elected by a 52%-48% margin over Gov. James Hunt.  Reagan won 62% in North Carolina.

Republican governors in North Dakota and Washington lost re-election.  Reagan won 65% in North Dakota and 56% in Washington.

The GOP flipped open governorships in North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah and West Virginia.  Democrats won a gubernatorial race in Vermont, where the GOP governor was retiring.

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