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Debbie Dingell Eyes Historic Win in 2014

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Dingell could become the first non-widowed woman to immediately take over a spouse's seat in Congress

debbiedingell10.jpgReports continued to flow out of Washington Tuesday that Debbie Dingell will indeed run for the seat of her retiring husband, 30-term Democratic U.S. Representative John Dingell - perhaps officially announcing as early as this week.

In recent years, the wife of the longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history has served as the president of D2 Strategies, vice chair of General Motors Foundation, chair of the Manufacturing Initiative of the American Automotive Policy Council, co-chair of the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan, a superdelegate of the Democratic Party, and member of the Board of Governors of Wayne State University.

If Dingell does run and capture her party's nomination, she is a virtual shoo-in to win the general election this November in Michigan's Democratic-heavy 12th Congressional District.

While such a win would not make Debbie Dingell the first woman to win a seat in Congress previously held by her spouse, it would be the first of its kind.

A Smart Politics analysis finds that if Debbie Dingell wins John Dingell's U.S. House seat in November 2014, it will mark the first time in history that a non-widowed female candidate has directly succeeded her husband in either chamber.

Over the last 90+ years, nearly 50 women have won elections or been appointed to seats in the upper or lower legislative chambers that were once held by their husbands.

The only women to immediately follow their husbands into office and take over their seats were widows - either by winning election to the U.S. House or receiving an appointment to the U.S. Senate after vacancies were created by the death of their spouses.

This tally includes 37 U.S. Representatives, one delegate, and seven U.S. Senators.

The first widow to directly replace her husband in Congress was California Republican Mae Nolan in 1923.

Nolan's husband, John, was a five-term incumbent from the 5th Congressional District of the Golden State who had been reelected to a sixth term unopposed in 1922, but died shortly after Election Day in November of that year.

Mae Nolan won two special elections with a plurality of the vote two months later in 1923 to claim both the remainder of her husband's term in the 67th Congress and to the full term for the 68th.

Over the next 10 years, other widows followed suit by winning House seats previously held by their late husbands: Republican Florence Kahn of California (in 1925), Republican Edith Rogers of Massachusetts (1925), Arkansas Democrats Pearl Oldfield (1929) and Effiegene Wingo (1930), Democrat Willa Eslick of Tennessee (1932), and New York Republican Marian Clarke (1933).

While many widows in these early years simply served out the remainder of their deceased husband's term and then retired, others logged several years in Congress - some more than their husbands.

For example:

· Florence Kahn (R-CA) served six terms from 1925 to 1937. Her husband Julius served 12 terms.

· Edith Rogers (R-MA) served 18 terms (1925-1960) until she too died in office. Her husband John served only seven terms.

· Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) served five terms in the U.S. House (1940-1949) and then four more in the U.S. Senate (1949-1973). Her husband Clyde served just two terms.

· Frances Bolton (R-OH) served 15 terms (1940-1969). Her husband Chester served just five.

In recent decades, women who have won the seats vacated by the death of their spouses have tended to stay in Congress for several terms, such as Lindy Boggs (D-LA, 1973-1991), Cardiss Collins (D-IL, 1973-1997), Beverly Byron (D-MD, 1979-1993), Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO, 1997-2013), Mary Bono Mack (R-CA, 1998-2013), Lois Capps (D-CA, 1998-present), and Doris Matsui (D-CA, 2005-present).

In the U.S. Senate, seven women have served in their husband's seat - and all seven were widowed. Six directly succeeded their spouses: Arkansas Democrat Hattie Caraway (in 1931), Louisiana Democrat Rose Long (1936), South Dakota Republican Vera Bushfield (1948), Alabama Democrat Maryann Pittman Allen (1978), Minnesota Democrat Muriel Humphrey (1978), and North Dakota Democrat Jocelyn Burdick (1992).

Oregon Democrat Maurine Neuberger won a special election to her late husband Richard's seat in November 1960, as well as election to the subsequent full term, but fellow Democrat Hall Lusk was appointed in the interim after the senator's death in March.

(In 2000, Missouri Democrat Jean Carnahan was also appointed to a Senate seat won by her deceased husband after the general election, but he never served in the chamber - dying shortly before Election Day).

Although only widows have immediately taken over for their husband's seat in Congress, one non-widowed woman later a won seat previously held by her husband a bit down the road: Kentucky Republican Katherine Langley.

Langley's husband, John, was a 10-term member of the U.S. House who was convicted in federal court of violating the Prohibition Act by trying to sell more than a thousand bottles of whiskey.

Congressman Langley actually won reelection to his 10th term in 1924 after his conviction was handed down, but resigned in January 1926 when he was sentenced to two years in federal prison.

A special election conducted in February of that year was won by attorney Andrew Kirk, who held the seat until March 1927.

Katherine Langley defeated both Kirk in the 1926 GOP primary and her Democratic foe in the general election by double digits with the backing of her quasi-folk hero husband from prison.

Congresswoman Langley took her husband's seat 417 days after his resignation and would go on to serve two terms in the chamber.

Three other women took their husband's seats after at least one other officeholder held the position, though all were widowed.

One was Illinois Republican Ruth McCormick - who was actually married to two members of Congress.

McCormick's first husband, Joseph McCormick, served one term as an at-large U.S. Representative from 1917 to 1919 before getting elected to the U.S. Senate where he served until his death in 1925.

Three years later, Ruth McCormick won one of the state's at-large seats and would serve one term before losing by 33 points as the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1930.

In 1932, Congresswoman McCormick married another lawmaker - New Mexico Republican Albert Simms - with whom she served during the 71st Congress.

A few decades later, in 1951, Leonor Sullivan's husband, John, died in office during his fourth interrupted term as a Democratic Congressman from Missouri's 11th CD.

Show Me State Democrats chose Harry Schendel over Sullivan's widow as their nominee to run in the subsequent special election, which the Republican Party picked up in March 1951 with their nominee Claude Blakewell.

After reapportionment and redistricting in 1952, Leonor Sullivan emerged as the Democratic nominee (narrowly defeating ex-U.S. Rep. Raymond Karst by four points in the primary) and trounced Blakewell in the general election by 29 points.

Sullivan would serve 12 terms from 1953 to 1977.

Finally, in 2007, Massachusetts Democrat Niki Tsongas was elected in a special election to the state's fifth congressional district - represented by her late husband Paul for two terms more than a quarter century prior from 1975 to 1979.

Congresswoman Tsongas was reelected to two more terms and then to one term after redistricting in 2012 to the 3rd CD.

Widows Who Directly Succeeded Their Spouses in Congress

State
US Representative
Party
Served in House
California
Mae Nolan
Republican
1923-1925
California
Florence Kahn
Republican
1925-1937
Massachusetts
Edith Rogers
Republican
1925-1960
Arkansas
Pearl Oldfield
Democrat
1929-1931
Arkansas
Effiegene Wingo
Democrat
1930-1933
Tennessee
Willa Eslick
Democrat
1932-1933
New York
Marian Clarke
Republican
1933-1935
South Carolina
Elizabeth Gasque
Democrat
1938-1939
South Carolina
Clara McMillan
Democrat
1939-1941
Georgia
Florence Gibbs
Democrat
1940-1941
Maine
Margaret Chase Smith
Republican
1940-1949
Ohio
Frances Bolton
Republican
1940-1969
Maryland
Kathrine Byron
Democrat
1941-1943
Pennsylvania
Veronica Boland
Democrat
1942-1943
South Carolina
Willa Fulmer
Democrat
1944-1945
Pennsylvania
Vera Buchanan
Democrat
1951-1955
Illinois
Marguerite Church
Republican
1951-1963
West Virginia
Maude Kee
Democrat
1951-1965
Hawaii
Mary Farrington*
Republican
1954-1957
Pennsylvania
Kathryn Granahan
Democrat
1956-1963
Illinois
Edna Simpson
Republican
1959-1961
Arkansas
Catherine Norrell
Democrat
1961-1963
Tennessee
Louise Reece
Republican
1961-1963
South Carolina
Corrine Riley
Democrat
1962-1963
Tennessee
Irene Baker
Republican
1964-1965
Texas
Lera Thomas
Democrat
1966-1967
Alabama
Elizabeth Andrews
Democrat
1972-1973
Louisiana
Lindy Boggs
Democrat
1973-1991
Illinois
Cardiss Collins
Democrat
1973-1997
California
Shirley Pettis
Republican
1975-1979
Maryland
Beverly Byron
Democrat
1979-1993
Ohio
Jean Ashbrook
Republican
1982-1983
California
Sala Burton
Democrat
1983-1987
Louisiana
Catherine Small Long
Democrat
1985-1987
Missouri
Jo Ann Emerson
Republican
1997-2013
California
Mary Bono
Republican
1998-2013
California
Lois Capps
Democrat
1998-present
California
Doris Matsui
Democrat
2005-present
* Denotes U.S. Delegate. Table compiled by Smart Politics with information culled from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

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2 Comments


  • A minor correction with regard to Senator Neuberger. First, it's Maurine, not Maureen. Second, she did not directly succeed her husband, Senator Richard Neuberger.

    He died in office on March 9, 1960. On March 16, Governor Mark Hatfield appointed Oregon Supreme Court Justice Hall Lusk to the seat.

    On November 8, 1960, Maurine won the simultaneous special and general election for the seat. She then took office on November 9, served out the last few weeks of Richard's term, and then served one full term from 1961 to 1967.

    She declined to run for re-election.

  • Thanks for catching this -- I will update the text to reflect Lusk's intervening service.

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