Romney For Senate? Not The First Presidential Nominee To Seek Political Office After Losing A Presidential Election

There is precedent for former presidential nominees seeking office again, though not in a different state from the one they cut their political teeth in.
11/05/2017 09:33 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2017

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is reportedly contemplating running for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in his adopted home state of Utah should 83-year-old incumbent Orrin Hatch retire. There is precedent for former presidential nominees seeking office again, though not in a different state from the one they cut their political teeth in.

In 1968, Democrat Hubert Humphrey lost a razor-thin presidential election to Republican Richard M. Nixon. Humphrey had held political office since 1945 and showed no signs of riding off into the political sunset. Instead, the former vice president returned to his home state of Minnesota and won an open U.S. Senate seat the very next election cycle.

By 1972, Senator Humphrey was again seeking the Democratic Presidential nomination. Though Humphrey had become a critic of the U.S. role in Vietnam, many in the party could not forgive his support for the war when he was vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson. In addition, Humphrey could not eliminate the proverbial scarlet “E” for establishment affixed to his chest. Though Humphrey put up a valiant effort and actually won the popular vote among Democratic voters, the insurrectionist candidate George McGovern, advertising his early opposition to the war with the campaign slogan “Right From The Start,” won more delegates and the nomination.

Though Humphrey showed no overt signs of seeking the presidential nomination again, in 1976 a Gallop poll put him as the leader of the pack. Many in the political world, including Republican president Gerald R. Ford, assumed Humphrey would eventually get in the race. Even at the Democratic National Convention, when former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter appeared to have secured the nomination, there was an effort by some party regulars to beseech Humphrey to declare his presidential candidacy, but he never did.

Similar to Humphrey, 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater did not leave the political arena after losing the presidential election. Despite winning just six states, Goldwater neared demigod status among the Republican party’s conservative bloodline. He helped another losing GOP presidential nominee, Richard M. Nixon, by endorsing him early for the 1968 presidential nomination.

In 1968, Goldwater sought and won an open Senate seat in Arizona. He was subsequently re-elected to the Senate three additional terms. Goldwater continued to be a national figure. He made headlines by going to the White House to plead with President Richard M. Nixon to resign from office for his role in the Watergate Affair. He defied many conservatives by supporting the moderate President Gerald R. Ford over the conservative Ronald Reagan for the 1976 presidential nomination. As chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he worked to change the military command structure.

Furthermore, Goldwater made headlines for his aversion to the proliferating social conservative presence within his party. When the socially conservative Reverend Jerry Falwell called on “all good Christians to oppose the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Goldwater quipped: “All good Christians should kick Jerry Falwell’s ass.”

After the death of incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) in a 2002 airplane crash, former vice president and 1984 failed Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale agreed to have his name placed on the ballot, supplanting Wellstone in his quest for re-election. Mondale narrowly lost the general election to Republican nominee Norman Coleman.

One former presidential nominee used his status to become a consummate critic of a president of his own party. Al Smith, the losing Democratic presidential nominee in 1928, was more conservative than Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Smith was a conservative Democrat who believed the federal government should be a limited purpose entity, which only acts under narrowly defined situations. He came to see Roosevelt’s “New Deal” as too pervasive. Smith lambasted Roosevelt for pitting “class against class.” Smith even actively campaigned for Roosevelt’s Republican opponents in 1936, and again in 1940, Alf Landon and Wendell Willkie, respectively.

Smith became persona non grata in many Democratic circles, and some Democratic loyalists branded his actions “treason.” When Smith announced he would support Landon over Roosevelt in 1936, the president employed Smith’s 1928 vice presidential running mate, U.S. Senator Joseph Robinson (D-AR), to brand Smith derisively as “the unhappy warrior.” Roosevelt had given Smith the moniker “happy warrior” when the two Democrats ware allies. It was meant as a term of endearment.

The saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again” is not lost on some former Presidential nominees. The 1944 Republican nominee Thomas E. Dewey again secured his party’s Presidential nomination in 1948. He appeared to have a better chance running against the unpopular Democratic President Harry S. Truman than he did in 1944, when he challenged the more popular Franklin D. Roosevelt. Unlike 1944, where Dewey was the underdog, Dewey, leading for most of the campaign, mistakenly ran an overly safe campaign, spouting platitudes and vague policy positions. Truman successfully used Dewey’s rhetoric against him. In a speech in Phoenix, Dewey asserted: “America’s future, like yours in Arizona, is still ahead of us.” Truman chided Dewey for making this meaningless remark. During a campaign address in New York City, Truman exclaimed sarcastically: “Well, I hope the future will last a long time for all of you, and I hope it will be a very happy future – and I hope it won’t be a future under Republicans, either.” Truman shocked the political world by defeating Dewey.

There have been two major party nominees who actually lost three residential elections. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan became the first progressive to win the party’s nomination. He rebuked the policies of the prevailing orthodoxy of the Democratic party, proclaiming his support for dramatic action by the federal government to stimulate the nation’s economy. Unlike most establishment Democrats, Bryan favored the U.S. leaving the Gold Standard and instituting a graduated federal income tax.

After losing that election, Bryan garnered the Democratic nomination again in 1900 and in 1908, losing in the general election both times. The campaign of Bryan’s Republican opponent, William Howard Taft, amusingly developed the slogan: “Vote for Taft now ― you can vote for Bryan anytime.”

After his third loss, Bryan joked: “I’m beginning to think those fellows don’t want me in there.”

While Bryan lost three elections, he left a legacy of a dominant progressive faction in a once nearly monolithically conservative party.

In 1839, U.S. Senator Henry Clay (Whig-KY) tried to stick to the middle of the road on the contentious issue of slavery. His position did not propitiate northerners who thought Clay was sympathetic to the institution of slavery, nor southerners who thought Clay was an opponent of slavery. Yet Clay intransigently held to his centrist position. Clay maintained: “I would rather be right than president.” Clay had been the presidential nominee of the Democratic-Republican Party in 1824 and the nominee of the National Republican Party in 1832. He still harbored presidential ambitions and was nominated again by the Whig Party in 1844. Although Clay might have believed he was right, he never became president.

For Romney, winning the Senate Republican nomination in Utah is far from a sure thing. Romney has excoriated President Donald Trump, branding him “a phony a fraud.” Conservative firebrand Steve Bannon, a former Trump advisor, will likely work feverishly on behalf of a more conservative Republican primary challenger to Romney. Should Romney muster the nomination, he will likely face a formidable Democratic nominee in Salt Lake County Council member Jenny Wilson, currently the Democratic frontrunner. A recent poll shows she would defeat Hatch, but lose to Romney if the election were held today.

In addition, Romney might have to prove his allegiance to Utah. Interestingly, in 2002, Romney had to convince Massachusetts voters that despite spending three years in Utah running the Winter Olympics, he was a Massachusetts resident. Romney told reporters: “We find it essential that people do understand that Belmont (MA) is my permanent home, the place I had intended to come back to, the place where I maintain my relationships.”

Mitt Romney could become one in a litany of failed presidential nominees to seek political office again. The interesting difference, however, is that Romney may run for office in a different state then the one he began his political career in.

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