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Closest Election in Senate History

September 16, 1975

Photo of Senator John Durkin of New Hampshire

The closest election in Senate history was decided on September 16, 1975. The 1974 New Hampshire race for an open seat that pitted Republican Louis Wyman against Democrat John Durkin led to a contest that lasted eight months and came down to a margin of victory of just two votes.

Although Wyman enjoyed a lead during the campaign, the Watergate scandals and the August 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon made it a tough year to run as a Republican. On election day, Wyman barely won with a margin of just 355 votes.

Durkin immediately demanded a recount. That recount shifted the victory to Durkin—but by only 10 votes. Reluctantly, the Republican governor awarded Durkin a provisional certificate of election.

Now, it was Wyman’s turn to demand a recount. The state ballot commission tabulated the ballots in dispute and ruled that Republican Wyman had won—but by just two votes. The governor cancelled Durkin’s certificate and awarded a new credential to Wyman.

As a last option, Durkin petitioned the Senate—with its 60-vote Democratic majority—to review the case. On January 13, 1975, the day before the new Congress convened, the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration tried unsuccessfully to resolve the matter. Composed of five Democrats and three Republicans, the Rules Committee deadlocked four-to-four on a proposal to seat Wyman pending further review. Alabama Democrat James Allen voted with the Republicans on grounds that Wyman had presented proper credentials.

The full Senate took up the case on January 14, with Wyman and Durkin seated at separate tables at the rear of the Chamber. Soon, the matter returned to the Rules Committee, which created a special staff panel to examine 3,500 questionable ballots that had been shipped to Washington.

Following this review, the Rules Committee sent 35 disputed points to the full Senate, which spent the next six weeks debating the issue and took an unprecedented six cloture votes, but resolved only one of the 35 points in dispute. Facing this deadlock, Durkin agreed to Wyman’s proposal for a new election. The Senate declared the seat vacant and the governor appointed former Senator Norris Cotton to hold the seat for six weeks until the September 16 balloting.

A record-breaking turnout gave the election to Durkin by a 27,000-vote margin. The real winners, however, may have been the Senate’s Republicans—for years a dispirited and hopeless minority. This contest unified their ranks and, as some believed, gave them invaluable tactical experience in dealing with an overwhelming Democratic majority.