The Most Successful Presidential Runs From House Members: Part II

Yesterday, I noted how rare it was for a political official who, like Beto O’Rourke, has topped out in the House of Representatives to then go on to have a strong run at the presidency. I then shared a few of those admirable runs, though none won a major party’s nomination. In fact, only five have done so, and, of those five, only two became president.

Below are those five and those two.

5. John W. Davis (1924): West Virginia’s John W. Davis secured the 1924 Democratic nomination after the 103rd ballot mercifully ended the party’s 16-day convention. Davis only emerged as the nominee after the two leading candidates, William Gibbs McAdoo and Al Smith, whose factions despised each other, refused to support their chief opponent and agreed to compromise with the uninspiring, inoffensive Congressman Davis.

That November, in a comfortable re-election for President Calvin Coolidge, Davis won only 29 percent of the national vote. Confusingly for us today, the electoral map was a sign that the Lincoln-era ideological and regional patterns were alive and well. The Democratic Davis, a conservative, won only southern states, whereas Calvin Coolidge and the Republicans dominated the north and west.

4. Horace Greeley (1872): He had already lived quite the life by the time he became the nominee of the Democratic and Liberal Republican parties in 1872. He was born a poor New Hampshirite, became a printer’s apprentice in Vermont, then became a writer in New York. He became a member of the Whig Party in the 1830s and, in 1841, he founded the politically-charged New-York Tribune, which eventually became New York’s and the country’s most circulated paper. In the late 1840s, he served in the House as a Representative from New York, and in 1854 he helped found (and perhaps name!) the Republican Party that six years later gave the country Abraham Lincoln as its first Republican president. Later, during Republican President Ulysses S. Grant‘s first term, which began in 1869, he became disillusioned with the party’s corruption and centrism, so he helped lead a splinter group called the Liberal Republicans.

Finally, looking every bit his 61 years, these Liberal Republicans nominated Greeley to stand up to President Grant in his 1872 re-election bid. The Democratic Party, rather than divide the anti-Grant vote, supported Greeley’s candidacy. It was the first time any presidential candidate had been nominated by two parties.

Greeley’s impressive career and inspiring story had a devastating end. In the last month before the election, his wife, Mary Cheney — perhaps my long lost relative, as she shares my last name, was a Connecticut teacher,  and may have been mentally unstable — took gravely ill, and he stopped campaigning so he could at her bedside. On October 30, five days before Election Day, she died, and he fell into a deep depression. The result of the election didn’t help; though he won nearly 44 percent of the vote, he netted only 6 states and 66 electoral votes to Grant’s 29 and 286. A few weeks after that, the despondent Greeley himself passed away as well, our only case of someone, whether a winner or a loser, earning electoral votes but not surviving to inauguration day. Most of the Electoral College had yet to cast their ballots, and the electors pledged to him instead cast votes for living Democrats. Greeley, the poor kid from New Hampshire who became the first American to be nominated by two parties for president, was left with just three official votes, the lowest number ever for a runner-up in a contested election. The Liberal Republican Party died with him.

I’m not crying. You’re crying.

3. William Jennings Bryan (1896, 1900, 1908): The only candidate to go 0 for 3 as a major party nominee, Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan deserves a better reputation than as a three-time loser. Unfortunately, in his losses to McKinley (twice) and Taft, the notorious WJB could never expand the Democratic base outside of the south and Midwest — a problem that the aforementioned John W. Davis would soon face. In all three elections he finished with under 47 percent of the popular vote and between 155 and 176 electors, while his opponents always won at least 51 percent of the country and close to 300 electors. Still, no member of the lowly House ever came closer to the presidency without winning it.

As for those who did win…

2. James Garfield (1880): Our 20th president’s reputation as a brigadier general in the Civil War, a nine-term Congressman from Ohio, and the Republican Party’s floor leader in the House made him an obvious choice for the party’s 1880 presidential nominee. But no one told the party.

Long before Republicans looked to Congressman Garfield as their 1880 nominee, two men were considered the top contenders for the nomination. One was former Civil War hero and two-term President Ulysses S. Grant. (This was well before the passage of 1951’s 22nd Amendment, which restricted presidents to two terms.) He had been out of office for four years, returned from a world tour with his wife, and was now ready for more action. The other contender was Maine Congressman James G. Blaine, who had been the favorite four years earlier after Grant had stepped aside, and in fact led the first six ballots of the 1876 convention before momentum gathered for Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, who outstripped him on the seventh ballot, earned a majority of the delegates, and went on to become a one-term president due to reasons from which I’ll spare you. It was now four years later and Blaine was primed to give it another shot.

Garfield attended the Republican National Convention not as a candidate, but as an Ohio delegate. He was there to support a third, more minor candidate, fellow Ohioan and U.S. Treasury Secretary James Sherman. As part of his support, he gave a speech urging party unity, despite the Grant/Blaine rivalry, that impressed many delegates but for the moment seemed to pass irrelevantly as a historical footnote.

On the first ballot, with 379 delegates needed for a majority, Grant earned 304, Blaine 284, Sherman 93, and three more candidates split 74 delegates. No nominee. These numbers barely budged on the second ballot, though notably one delegate cast a curious vote for Garfield. These numbers then remained rather consistent through the 33rd ballot, with Garfield usually winning one or two delegates and finishing in seventh. Then, on the 34th ballot, something weird happened: 16 of Wisconsin’s 20 delegates switched their votes to James Garfield of Ohio. (A confused Garfield called to the chair, doubting “the correctness of the announcement.”) He was up to fifth place.

On the 35th ballot, 27 Indiana delegates ditched Blaine for Garfield, as did six combined from Maryland, Mississippi, and North Carolina. He was up to 50 delegates and in fourth place, but Grant held steady in the low 300s. Blaine, however, was fading fast, and Sherman was still stuck around 100. Both men, as anti-Grant as Horace Greeley was four years earlier, threw their support behind the rising Ohio Congressman, as did all other candidates still getting delegates. On the 36th ballot, Garfield won 399 delegates and the Republican nomination. Grant’s remarkable career ended at the hands of a mere member of the House who wasn’t even running for the presidency.

Compared to that, you’d think the general election would be less stressful, but that was not the case. Garfield took on Democratic nominee Winfield Scott Hancock, who won on “only” the Democrats’ second ballot. With post-war, north-south, Republican-Democrat lines already drawn, the two men competed over just a few swing states, won by Garfield. Though he carried the Electoral College 214 to 155, his popular vote win of 48.3 to 48.2 percent is the narrowest in history. (Fewer than 2,000 votes separated them.)

To this day, Garfield remains the only sitting member of the House to be elected president. Unfortunately, he’s probably more known for having the second shortest administration in American history. An assassin shot him four months into his term, and he died two months later.

Garfield’s place as the only sitting member of the House to be elected president is safe, even if Beto O’Rourke wins next November. O’Rourke, who focused on his 2018 Senate bid instead of running for re-election in the House, left the chamber when his term expired in January.

If he does win the presidential election, he’d be in good company. We’ve had precisely one ex-House member who also lost a race for the U.S. Senate and yet became president. You might have heard of him…

1. Abraham Lincoln (1860): I’d say he’s the most successful member of this list, wouldn’t you? I don’t need to recap the career of America’s greatest president, but, like Davis and Garfield above, he also didn’t go into the convention as the favorite to win his party’s nomination.

The role of the convention can show O’Rourke the way. With so many candidates in the 2020 Democratic Primary, many wonder if (and some hope) we’re headed toward an open convention — where no candidate has yet to reach a majority of the delegates. In a majority of the five cases where someone who topped out in the House became the nominee, they did not go into the convention as the favorite. That includes Davis, Garfield, and America’s greatest president.

Heading into the 1860 Republican National Convention, Senator William H. Seward was expected to win, and on the first ballot he had a commanding 173 delegates while four other competitors, including Lincoln, were grouped between 48 and 102. However, 233 delegates were needed for a majority, so the convention pressed on.

The first ballot would be Seward’s best performance. Those who didn’t like the “radical” Seward really didn’t like him. Two other top contenders had also made their fair share of enemies in the party. An alternative was a more moderate Lincoln, a gifted orator who, importantly, was from Illinois, the gateway to the west. With an entrenched north-south divide on the eve of the Civil War, western states were considered the swing region of the 1860 general election. On the second ballot, though Seward picked up 11 delegates to reach 184, Lincoln shot up to 181 for himself, mostly from anti-Seward delegates hoping to block him from the nomination.

The writing was on the wall. As they tabulated the third ballot, Lincoln was so clearly on the verge of passing Seward while also falling short of a majority that many Seward voters agreed to switch their votes and send Lincoln through with the perception of a unified party. This tactic attempted to present a contrast to the fragmented Democratic Party that would end up sending three candidates to the general election. It worked, and Lincoln won. (Assembling a team of rivals, Lincoln appointed Seward to his cabinet as Secretary of State.)

For the winners of all three of these brokered conventions — Davis, Garfield, and Lincoln — it actually seemed helpful to be a relatively unknown House member that alienated few people in the party. In Lincoln’s case, like O’Rourke, it also helped to be seen as someone who could win over swing voters in a general election.

Thus, perhaps we can understand why O’Rourke will remain vague and moderate. History says that might just be the way for a member of the House to win a presidential nomination.

If you like lists like this one, here’s a list of lists:


8 thoughts on “The Most Successful Presidential Runs From House Members: Part II”

  1. This was an enjoyable read with a lot of surprises — including the bit about your long-lost relative, Mary Cheney. She was a spiritualist, also like you! Can I lobby for a future post about her and her adherence to Minister Graham’s Graham Diet of graham flour, graham bread, and graham crackers?


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