U.S. Senate: A Momentous Political Realignment (2023)

In 1932 a political tidal wave slammed into the Senate. On November 8 of that year, Senate Democrats scored one of the greatest electoral victories in their party’s history.

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Going into the 1932 election, Republicans controlled the Senate by a one-vote margin. President Herbert Hoover had campaigned for reelection on the premise that the Great Depression’s death grip on the American economy was gradually loosening, but the improving economic numbers on which he based his optimism abruptly turned downward in the weeks before election day. Senate Republican Majority Leader James Watson, known as “Sunny Jim” for his normally upbeat demeanor, offered the president a dark assessment. When Hoover professed to be encouraged by the large crowds that turned out during his cross-country rail tour, Watson advised, “They are only here to see a president of the United States.” Fearful about what lay in store on election day owing to the souring economy and resentment over the failed experiment with Prohibition, Watson continued, “We are all going into the ash heap together.” As the majority leader predicted, both he and Hoover went down to defeat on November 8. They had lots of company. Like many other Americans, nine incumbent Republican senators lost their jobs that year.

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On November 8, 1932, Franklin Roosevelt became the first Democrat in 80 years to win the presidency by a majority vote, rather than a plurality. On Capitol Hill, House Democrats gained 97 seats for a nearly three-to-one margin over the Republicans. In the Senate, Democrats picked up 12 seats, making it the party’s largest two-year gain to that time. (In 1958, Senate Democrats set a new record by adding 15 members.) The Senate’s new 59-vote Democratic majority in 1933 was predominately liberal in political orientation, but it included three conservatives who ended up serving longer than any of their more progressive classmates. They were Nevada’s Patrick McCarran, Virginia’s Harry Byrd, Sr., and Georgia’s Richard Russell.

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The results of 1932 echoed through the next two Senate election cycles. In 1934, when the Republican senators who were swept into office with the 1928 election of President Hoover stood for reelection, Democrats picked up 10 more seats for a total of 69. In 1936 that number rose to 76, causing the remaining 16 Republicans to sit quietly as the Democrats’ increasingly polarized factions proved that there can be a majority that is too large.

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