My Turn: Reflecting on the closest race in U.S. Senate history

  • Democrat John Durkin, left, talks with Dover Mayor John Maglaras as he started his renewed campaign for U.S. Senate on July 31, 1975. Durkin eventually won the back-and-forth Senate race over Louis Wyman. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 10/20/2020 7:47:37 AM

Think your vote doesn’t count? Convinced that the polls are reasonably predictive of the result, and you don’t have to take the risk and the time necessary to exercise your right (your responsibility, some may say) to vote?

Take a history lesson from 1974.

In this non-presidential November election, New Hampshire voters were choosing who would be their next member of the U.S. Senate. The incumbent, Republican Norris Cotton, decided to retire. The winners of the party primaries were 5-term Republican Congressman Louis Wyman and 39-year-old Democrat John Durkin, a populist former state insurance commissioner. The outspoken conservative Wyman was favored in most quarters, but Durkin campaign ads skewered Wyman for hosting Washington cocktail parties to raise campaign money. Wyman was on the defensive, but some potential voters were turned off by Durkin’s aggressive, in your face style. A wild card thrown into the race was the resignation of the presidency, under the cloud of the Watergate, by Richard Nixon only three months before the election.

So came Nov. 9, 1974. New Hampshire voters trouped to the polls, voting in most towns and cities on paper ballots. There was something in the air about this particular election. This observer remembers it well, since we were co-anchoring WKXL Radio’s election night coverage. The numbers came trickling in from our network of town clerks in Merrimack County and clattering in on the Associated Press teletype machine. News Election Service was the central clearinghouse of results for the entire state, and NES State Director Steve Taylor (farmer and newspaper editor who later served as N.H. Commissioner of Agriculture) was stationed in New York to make sure everything ran smoothly for the Granite State. It did run smoothly but the vote was increasingly close. At somewhere around 2:30 a.m., we were still unable to call a winner and we knew the vote result from Keene and Cheshire County was still outstanding. Steve could not explain the Keene mystery and at about 3 a.m., having nothing new to add and realizing our audience was probably in the single digits, we gave up and signed off. The next day, we learned from the Secretary of State’s office that Wyman had “won” by 355 votes.

Of course, a recount was ordered. The laborious hand count took until Nov. 27, Thanksgiving Eve, and reversed the result. Durkin was the winner by 10 votes, a net reversal of 365 votes. Durkin was awarded a provisional certificate of election. The next appeal was by Wyman, to the N.H. Ballot Law Commission. Durkin parried with an action in federal court but was denied. The Commission’s five members scrutinized the dispute ballots and said on Christmas Eve that Wyman had won, this time by just 2 votes. Sen. Cotton resigned his seat early and Wyman was appointed by Republican Gov. Meldrim Thomson to fill the unexpired term.

The Senate, final arbiter of who shall be seated in its ranks, convened in early January but was unable to quickly resolve the dispute. A new Congress convened in mid-January. The Rules Committee of the Senate took up 3,500 disputed ballots but only scratched the surface in deciding the points in contention, and the full Senate did no better. The question of who had won the seat continued into summer, and finally threw responsibility for the decision back to the candidates themselves. Lo and behold, they agreed on a special re-run election for Sept. 15, 1975. Retired Sen. Cotton was seated in the interim so that New Hampshire did not lose its representation in the Senate.

The 10-month marathon was firmly decided by New Hampshire voters in the Sept. 15 re-run. John Durkin beat Louis Wyman by more than 27,000 votes. A right-wing candidate of the American Independent Party, Carmen C. Chimento, also was on the re-run election ballot, and he garnered 8,787 votes or 3.35% of the total cast, not enough to be a decisive factor in Wyman’s defeat.

So now, perhaps, you understand why your vote counts. You never know how close an election may be or the extraordinary way such a result finally play out. The 1974-75 contest between John Durkin and Louis Wyman became known as “The Closest Race in U.S. Senate History.”

(Richard W. Osborne lives in Contoocook.)




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