The elephant graveyard
Harry Fox, Robert Vander Laan, Willis Gradison, and James Sparling. Ring any bells? It's been 34 years, but I still remember how these men were harbingers of Republican doom in 1974. Each ran in a special election to hold a congressional seat that had been vacated by a Republican in a GOP-oriented district. Each one lost. In the November general election, the Republicans took a shellacking that cost the party 43 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives—where they had already been the minority party anyway.
The Vander Laan loss in Michigan was especially embarrassing, because he was trying to hold on to the seat of Gerald Ford, who had resigned from Congress to accept the position of vice president (the felonious Spiro Agnew having pled nolo contendere and departed the scene).
Sparling's loss, also in Michigan, wasn't much better. He actually invited Richard Nixon to campaign by his side in the district, thumbing his nose at the controversy generated by the Watergate scandal as he campaigned with the president in the small towns of Michigan's “Thumb.” Democrat Bob Traxler welcomed the opportunity to turn the special election into a referendum on Richard Nixon and became the district's first Democratic congressman in decades.
Is history repeating itself in 2008? It's not an exact comparison, but the parallels are fascinating. The recent special election in the 14th district of Illinois resulted in a repudiation of the Republican Party when Democrat Bill Foster frustrated the efforts of Jim Oberweis to hold it for the GOP, although it had been the seat of former Republican speaker of the house Dennis Hastert. The analogous case from 1974 was Gerald Ford's congressional seat in Michigan. He had been minority leader in the House of Representatives. Even the seats of members at the top of the GOP leadership became vulnerable to the Democrats when the special elections rolled around.
While this is a presidential election year, 1974 was not. The president's popularity, however, played a major role in 1974 and it is clearly having a similar impact in 2008. George W. Bush, despite not being under threat of impeachment, rivals even Richard Nixon's record-low popularity poll results. Like Nixon, Bush is spending the last year of their presidency as an object of public contempt. (Of course, Nixon didn't know it was his last year; he had expected to serve till the beginning of 1977, not resign in the summer of 1974.) In reaction to the failures of the occupant of the White House and a growing eagerness to see him gone, the electorate seeks opportunities to rebuke him by proxy.
That's what occurred in 1974. That's what's happening now. Perhaps in several years someone will write an article about Jim Oberweis, Woody Jenkins, and Greg Davis, the Republican losers from Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi, discussing their role as harbingers of impending electoral disaster for the GOP. Of course, the first such article should appear on November 5, 2008.