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5 The Politics of Candidate Emergence The stock market crash in October 1929 precipitated the worst economic downturn in the history of the United States. Herbert Hoover, the incumbent Republican president, bore the brunt of the voters’ dissatisfaction with the Great Depression in the 1932 presidential election. The Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, soundly defeated Hoover in the 1932 presidential election, carrying 42 of the 48 states and amassing more than 88 percent of the electoral votes at stake. At the same time, control of both congressional chambers shifted from the Republican to the Democratic Party, with the Democrats gaining nearly 100 seats previously controlled by the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Democrats began the 73rd Congress holding more than 70 percent of seats in the House and 60 of the 96 seats in the Senate. Two years later, President Roosevelt and the Democrats bucked historical trends when the Democratic Party managed to pick up nine additional seats in the House during the 1934 midterm elections. This was the first time the party of the president had picked up House seats in a midterm since immediately following the Civil War. Conditions continued to worsen for the Republican Party in 1936 during Roosevelt’s landslide reelection over Republican challenger Alfred Landon. The Democrats managed to shore up legislative control by picking up 12 additional seats in the House. After the electoral dust had settled following the 1936 election, Republicans held a mere 88 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, by far their lowest number in decades and barely 20 percent of the seats in the chamber!1 Although the Democrats looked all but invincible following Roo82 The Politics of Candidate Emergence 83 sevelt’s second consecutive landslide win in 1936, the 1938 midterm election represented a significant turning point for both the Roosevelt administration and Republican fortunes. In all, the Democrats lost a total of 72 House seats in 1938 to the Republicans, making it one of the worst Democratic party losses at the midterm in history (Martis 1989). Moreover, of the 85 Republican incumbents seeking reelection to the 76th Congress, not a single member was defeated by an opposing candidate. With a 262 to 169 seat margin at the beginning of the 76th Congress, the Democrats comfortably retained majority control of the lower chamber, but with a significantly smaller proportion of seats than was the case in the previous three Congresses. Not surprisingly, some scholars speculated that poor economic conditions such as the recession of 1937 and declining agricultural prices may have cost the Democrats seats in the elections of 1938 (Mayer and Chatterji 1985). Still others attributed the midterm losses to failed policies on the part of President Roosevelt including the ill-fated court-packing plan of 1937 or his unprecedented—and ultimately unsuccessful—efforts to purge the Democratic Party of conservative southern Democrats during the re-nomination stage of their primary campaigns (Caldeira 1987; Milkis 1993). While the aforementioned factors may have played an indirect role in the sheer number of Democratic losses in 1938, it could also be the case that the Democrats had simply won all the “winnable” seats and had nowhere to go but down with respect to their total number of seats. Such an account is consistent with the work of Oppenheimer, Waterman, and Stimson (1986), who maintain that as the number of seats won by a given party increases over successive electoral cycles, that party becomes “overexposed” and is at greater risk of losing a proportion of those seats in an upcoming midterm election. Implicit in this theoretical framework is the notion that no matter how favorable the national tides are for one party in a given election, there are certain House districts that are essentially not winnable for that party due to the underlying partisanship of the district or the relative safeness of the incumbent. What all of these explanations lack, however, is an account that explains why particular Democrats were defeated while most others were safely reelected. To better understand this distinction as to why certain Democrats lost, we can systematically analyze district-level data from this midterm election. When we do, we see that Democrats endured heavy losses in 1938 as a result of a large number of quality 84 Ambition, Competition, and Electoral Reform Republican candidates running against them. More than 85 percent of Democratic incumbents facing an inexperienced challenger won, while only 39 percent of those facing a quality challenger retained their seats. We...


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