Alabama’s six special Senate elections: Where political careers get made and wrecked


Alabama’s primary on Tuesday will be the state’s sixth stand-alone special election for a U.S. Senate seat. That ties Idaho for the most ever.

The fact might seem to be a bit on the dry side, but it’s the kind of thing that interests political specialists. [GOP profiles | Democrat profiles]

“Off-year, non-November special elections are pretty special, and the conditions surrounding this race illustrate that,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

He is also an associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan weekly newsletter founded in 2002 by political analyst Larry Sabato. In the most recent edition, Skelley analyzed Alabama’s five previous special elections and how they played a role in shaping the way that Senate vacancies are handled.

The five previous Alabama Senate special elections came in 1914, 1920, 1938, 1946 and 1976.

Four of those races occurred because of the incumbent’s untimely death, while only one — in 1938 — occurred because the incumbent was appointed to higher office. In that case, Hugo Black was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Franklin Roosevelt in August 1937.

This year’s vacancy also comes via a presidential appointment: In February, Donald Trump named Jeff Sessions as his administration’s attorney general.

“There is no reflection on Alabama, or anything that makes us unique in having special elections,” said Steve Flowers, an author whose weekly column about Alabama politics appears in more than 60 newspapers. “If they die, you have to replace them. You have to fill the seat. There is no political rhyme or reason to it.”

William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, said that the 2017 contest is “nearly as exciting as some of the early 20th century contests.” But that could change, he suggested, if U.S. Sen. Luther Strange fails to survive to a runoff on Sept. 26.

Nationally, 1944 marked the last time that a U.S. Senate primary runoff occurred that didn’t involve an incumbent who’d sought re-election, according to Skelley’s analysis. That year, Democratic Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas finished a distant fourth place in Arkansas’ Democratic primary.

No other special election since then, anywhere in the U.S., has been contested in a runoff without the incumbent’s involvement.

Skelley said only eight states have used comparable primary runoff system as Alabama since World War II: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. 

“Plenty of Senate incumbents have lost renomination since then, but if there has been a runoff, the incumbent has at least made it to the second round,” Skelley wrote in a recent newsletter.

The following are tidbits of Alabama’s special election history as noted in Skelley’s research:

May 11, 1914

The death of Democratic Sen. Joseph Johnston created a vacancy that The Los Angeles Times described as the “first to test the authority of a governor to fill a vacancy” since the enactment of the 17th Amendment, which called for the popular election of U.S. senators.

Gov. Emmet O’Neal appointed Rep. Henry Clayton Jr. to the open seat on Aug. 11, 1913, but the U.S. Senate challenged the move saying that the governor had not conformed to the 17th Amendment.

Clayton resigned his seat in October upon President Woodrow Wilson’s urging.

O’Neal then attempted to fill the seat by appointing Frank Glass, editor of The Birmingham News, on Nov. 17, 1913. But the Senate continued to oppose the governor.

O’Neal eventually called for a special election for May 11, 1914. Frank White won the Democratic Party’s nomination in April and was unopposed in the general election.

Nov. 2, 1920

Thomas Helflin, aka “Cotton Tom”

Following the death of Sen. John Bankhead, a special election was scheduled. Two of the candidates were Emmet O’Neal (who’d lost his governorship largely due to his handling of the 1914 Senate special election, and Frank White, who’d won that year’s special election. But both were beaten by Rep. Thomas Heflin.

April 26, 1938

In August 1937, Sen. Hugo Black was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Franklin Roosevelt. Gov. Bibb Graves appointed his wife, Dixie Bibb Graves, to the seat to avoid favoring any potential replacement candidates in a special election, making her the first woman to represent Alabama in the upper chamber.

Thomas Heflin, in a bid to return to the Senate (he’d lost the seat in 1930), faced Rep. J. Lister Hill in the January Democratic primary. Hill had a better-financed campaign and a key endorsement from the governor and wound up winning.

Nov. 5, 1946

Sen. John Bankhead II, like his father in 1920, died in office. George Swift was appointed to fill the seat until the special election of 1946, but opted not to run for the remainder of the term.

The race pitted three popular Democrats of that day: Rep. Frank Boykin, Rep. John Sparkman and state Sen. Jim Simpson. Boykin and Simpson split some of the conservative vote, while Sparkman — the establishment favorite as the House Democratic Whip — was able to avoid a runoff by winning 50.1 percent of the vote.

Sparkman went on to win unopposed in November and enjoyed a 32-year run in office.

Nov. 7, 1978

Sen. Jim Allen died in office on June 1, 1978, creating a vacancy that Gov. George Wallace filled by appointing Allen’s wife, Maryon Pittman Allen.

Maryon Allen was viewed as a favorite to win a full term, but she caused controversy over comments made to The Washington Post that were critical of Wallace and his family.

State Sen. Donald Stewart defeated Allen and won the general election in 1978, but would end up losing two years later to Jim Folsom Jr. Folsom then foundered in the 1980 Republican wave, losing to Jeremiah Denton, who became the first Republican to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction.

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