It is hard to find in the recent history of the U.S. Senate a bigger upset than the game changer in Massachusetts yesterday. Republican Scott Brown came from behind to thump Democrat Martha Coakley and give the Bay State a GOP Senator for the first time since 1972. We’ll be sorting out the long-term implications, I suspect, for a long, long time.
I can think of only one race – a 1952 contest in Arizona – that might rival Brown’s victory in terms of an historic upset that carried broad national implications.
Democratic Senator Ernest McFarland (that’s him on the left above) was the Senate Majority Leader in 1952 and seeking a third term. Arizona in those days was a dependable Democratic state and McFarland, a popular figure with a record of accomplishment, including creating the G.I. Bill of Rights, should have won in a walk. He didn’t.
The national economy was soft, U.S. troops were bogged down in a stalemate in Korea, Joe McCarthy was hunting Communists and President Harry Truman’s approval ratings were in the ditch. Arizona Republicans seized the moment and put forth a handsome, articulate, well heeled haberdasher by the name of Barry Goldwater.
“I had no business beating Ernest McFarland, and I knew that from the day I started,” Goldwater said years later, “but old Mac just thought he had it in the bag and just didn’t come home [enough]. I could never have been elected if it hadn’t been for Democrats…I’d still be selling pants.”
Goldwater’s defeat of the sitting Senate Majority Leader was, in the view of McFarland’s biographer, “a harbinger of a new conservative and urban Republican agenda in the politically changing West.” But there was even more to the upset, including the fact that Arizona shed the one-party label.
McFarland’s loss also contributed to Republicans capturing the Senate majority in 1952. The great Robert Taft became Majority Leader and a still young first-termer from Texas by the name of Lyndon Johnson got his chance to lead Senate Democrats. Goldwater, of course, went on to a long Senate career and his own presidential run in 1964.
McFarland took the loss hard, but recovered to have his own second and third acts in Arizona political life. After losing the Senate seat, McFarland won the governorship twice, lost a Senate rematch with Goldwater, then served as Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.
Barry Goldwater’s win in 1952, like Scott Brown’s in 2010, sent huge ripples through American politics, ripples that can still be felt.
Now, the political speculation will focus on other shoes falling. I’m guessing Harry Reid, the current and beleaguered Senate Majority Leader, fighting for his own political survival in Nevada, knows all about Ernest McFarland and a remarkable political upset back in 1952.