Opinion: Daily Journal

Few Senators served in House

The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. File
The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. File

Thanks to state Sen. Jeff Jackson bowing out of North Carolina’s Democratic primary, the 2022 field for U.S. Senate is coming into focus. We now have a likely nominee (Cheri Beasley) facing one of three prominent Republican candidates: Pat McCrory, Ted Budd, or Mark Walker.

Each seeks to replace three-term U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, who’s retiring this year. Before winning the seat, Burr served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Budd is a sitting House member, Walker a former member.

You might think the House represents a common path to a Senate seat in North Carolina. I did, too, until I examined the electoral history. It turns out since the 1913 passage of the 17th Amendment, which made senators elected by voters rather than state legislatures, only one person whose highest previous office was U.S. House has ever won a Senate seat. That was Richard Burr himself, in 2004.

Three other North Carolinians winning elections for Senate had previously been congressmen, too: Furnifold Simmons (a senator from 1901 to 1931), Clyde Hoey (1945-1954), and Sam Ervin (1954-1974). But each served in statewide office before their Senate victories: Simmons in the U.S. Senate by legislative election, Hoey as North Carolina’s governor, and Ervin as a justice on the state supreme court. There were also two former congressman, William Umstead (1946-1948) and Jim Broyhill (1986), who got appointed to the nation’s upper chamber but never won a Senate election.

Speaking of Ervin, he represents the path that Beasley, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, is now attempting to tread. As for former Gov. Pat McCrory, if he wins he’ll join four other governors in accomplishing such a feat: Hoey, Melville Broughton (1948-1949), Kerr Scott (1954-1958), and Terry Sanford (1986-1993).

Out of the 20 folks who’ve been popularly elected to the Senate from North Carolina, then, most took a political path other than those represented by this year’s major candidates. Like Simmons, Lee Overman (1903-1930) had previously served in the U.S. Senate via legislative election. For Willis Smith (1950-1953), Kay Hagan (2009-2015), and Thom Tillis (2014-present), their highest prior office was state legislator.

Robert Morgan (1975-1981) was the state’s attorney general. Jesse Helms (1973-2003) was a former Raleigh city councilman. Robert Reynolds (1932-1945) had been a district attorney. And six North Carolina members — Josiah Bailey (1931-1946), Everett Jordan (1958-1973), John East (1981-1986), Lauch Faircloth (1993-1999), John Edwards (1999-2005), and Elizabeth Dole (2003-2009) — held no elective office before winning Senate races.

Other than preparing you to win a trivia contest, why do I offer this historical account of our Senate elections? Because it serves to illustrate just how wild and unpredictable North Carolina’s political contests can be.

Why is Burr the only person to leap successfully from U.S. House to U.S. Senate? I don’t see a clear answer to that question. With constant media appearances and elections every two years, House members can build name recognition and strong networks of supporters — but largely within just one part of the state. Politicians elected statewide would seem to have an obvious advantage over them. Still, Hagan and Tillis came straight out of the legislature, and quite a few senators had never run successfully for any office before winning their Senate races.

I suspect our sample size is just too small, and our political conditions too changeable, to come up with any hard-and-fast rules. The broadcast media-driven Senate campaigns of the late 20th and early 21st centuries were vastly different affairs than, say, the Willis Smith-Frank Porter Graham race of 1950. And the truth is that there really haven’t been that many representatives willing to give up usually-safe House seats to run in North Carolina’s usually-competitive Senate contests.

That having been said, I wonder if perhaps the dysfunction now plaguing Congress will make it harder going forward for House members to win statewide. Across the partisan spectrum, voters appear deeply disenchanted with Washington. They may prefer to send a fumigator, not a legislator.

John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.