Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > More Senators Who Impacted Politics Outside the Two-Party System

Aug 15, 2021

More Senators Who Impacted Politics Outside the Two-Party System

tags: Senate,political history,third parties

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

Since World War II, seven US Senators have served all or part of their Senate careers as independents or third party members. Two had a connection with the Republican party, but chose to break away from it; one was always linked to conservatism and often seen as a Republican; two others were Democrats who separated from the party as part of their service, and the last two have been Independents in the Senate from the beginning, although caucusing with Democrats.

Wayne Morse of Oregon served in the Senate from 1945 to 1969, starting off as a liberal Republican, but becoming an independent from 1952-1955, and then completing his tenure as a Democrat from 1955-1969. He was always, at all stages, a true curmudgeon who drew plenty of attention as a rebel who could not be counted on to follow any party line.  While an independent in the first two years of the Eisenhower presidency, Morse conducted the third-longest one man filibuster in the history of the Senate.  He opposed the antilabor actions of the Republicans, which led to the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, and criticized isolationists such as Senator Robert Taft, supporting the Cold War foreign policy of President Harry Truman in the late 1940s.  He also was a leading critic of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who was promoting a Red Scare in the early 1950s.  He supported Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience,” which criticized the tactics of McCarthyism.

When Morse broke with the Republican Party in 1952, it affected the upcoming 83rd Congress, which was evenly divided, and saw nine Senators die between 1953 and 1955. Morse caused a loss of Republican control several times in that tumultuous Congress, only the second instance of an evenly divided Senate.  When he allied with the Democrats in 1955, it created difficulties for Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, and then for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s, as he opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, which gave Johnson the power to bomb North Vietnam.  Morse made a limited campaign for the Presidency in 1960, but accomplished no success. He became the most outspoken critic of the escalation of the war in Vietnam for his remaining years in the Senate from his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, until he was defeated in 1968 by Republican Bob Packwood.  Morse made many enemies in the Senate, and was always outspoken as an extremely controversial maverick. 

Harry F. Byrd, Jr. of Virginia served in the Senate from 1965-1983, succeeding by election to the seat of his father, who had served 32 years from 1933-1965.  Byrd had been a newspaper publisher and a Virginia state senator from 1948 to 1965. A Democrat like his father, but a segregationist and a promoter of massive resistance to racial integration of public schools, he left the Democratic Party in 1970, opposed to what he saw as a “leftward tilt.” Byrd proceeded to become the first independent to win a majority of the popular vote in the Senate election in Virginia in 1970, and remained an independent for the rest of his time in the Senate, though he was allowed to keep his Senate seniority and to caucus with the Democrats.  He served as a leading member of the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee.  Byrd had a very conservative voting record, and won reelection as an Independent in 1976, again by a majority vote of Virginians.  He advocated federal fiscal discipline, and contributed regular editorial content to his newspaper chain.  He and his father together were a major part of Virginia politics from 1916-1983, and the party organization dominated during that two thirds of a century.  In retirement, he lived on another 30 years until his death at age 98 in 2013, one of the longest surviving Senators in American history.

James L. Buckley of New York served in the US Senate from 1971-1977, elected in a three way race as the Conservative Party candidate, overcoming the incumbent appointed Republican Senator, Charles Goodell and the Democratic nominee Richard Ottinger, winning only 39 percent of the vote.  The brother of conservative intellectual and writer William F. Buckley, Jr., the leading conservative voice outside of Congress, James Buckley had run unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1968 against incumbent Senator Jacob Javits, just as his more famous brother had run unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 1965.  Both brothers were proponents of the failed candidacy of Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, and both were challengers to the mainstream of the Republican Party in New York.  James Buckley lost reelection to future Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1976, moved to Connecticut and tried unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in that state in 1980, and then was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to a Circuit Court Judgeship on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia from 1985-1996.

In the Senate, Buckley stood out for proposing a “Human Life” Amendment to protect unborn children, but it went nowhere.  He also was the author of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that governs use of student records. Parents have ultimate rights over their children’s educational records, until a student reaches the age of 18, and gains the right to control who has access to their records.  Student medical treatment records also remain under the protection of FERPA.  Most notably, Buckley was the first conservative political leader to call for the resignation of President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal, doing so in the spring of 1974 before any well known figure, such as Senator Barry Goldwater, had yet moved to call for Nixon to leave the presidency. He remains alive at this writing at age 98.

Jim Jeffords of Vermont served in the US Senate from 1989-2007, after having served as Vermont’s Congressman at Large from 1975-1989, and earlier in the Vermont Senate and as Attorney General of the state.  He made national news when he resigned from the Republican Party and became an Independent months into the 107th Congress in 2001.  His decision to caucus with the Democrats put them into control in June 2001.  As a Congressman, Jeffords was openly progressive, supporting abortion rights, gay rights, environmental reforms, and the National Endowment for the Arts.  As a senator, he supported President Bill Clinton’s failed health care plan, and was one of five Republican senators to vote to acquit Clinton on impeachment charges in 1999.  He worked regularly on legislation regarding education, job training, and individuals with disabilities. 

Jeffords was motivated to switch party affiliation over his opposition to the George W. Bush tax cuts, and the refusal of Senate Republicans to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  As part of the deal to switch party affiliation, Jeffords became the Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, losing his Republican Chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which he had headed since 1997. He became only the second Senator from Vermont in history to caucus with the Democratic Party.  He stood out as a Republican for voting against the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991, and for voting in favor of the Brady Bill and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. His voting pattern was unpredictable, but definitely veered to the left of all Republicans, which helped to lead to his party switch, which allowed Democratic control of the Senate for 19 months until 2003. Among his controversial actions after his party switch were to vote against the Iraq War and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002.

Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut served in the US Senate from 1989-2013, running as an Independent Democrat for his fourth and last term, as he was defeated in the Democratic Senatorial primary in 2006.  He served in the Connecticut Senate and as state attorney general before being elected to the Senate over Republican incumbent Lowell Weicker in 1988.  Lieberman had the support of many conservatives and Republicans in that race, as Weicker was criticized for his liberal record in the Senate.  Conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. and his brother, former Conservative Senator James Buckley of New York, both endorsed Lieberman, and called him their “favorite Democrat”. He was also the Democratic nominee for Vice President, chosen by Presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, and was the first Jewish candidate on a major party Presidential ticket.   

Lieberman’s record in the Senate was very complex, as he clearly was seen as a moderate to conservative Democrat.  But he supported many liberal positions, including on abortion, gay rights, environmental protection, and the need for health care legislation, although he exercised influence to have the public option in the Affordable Care Act of 2010 removed from the legislation, pledging a vote to overcome the filibuster only if that provision were eliminated.  Lieberman was very hardline on national security, particularly after September 11, 2001, and promoted the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Many observers saw him as in unison with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on the Iraq War and Afghanistan War, and among the most hawkish Democrats in all areas of foreign policy. This helped to cause his defeat in the Democratic primary, and his decision to run as an Independent in 2006, but he was allowed to retain his involvement in the Democratic caucus with the approval of new President Barack Obama after the 2008 election, and continued to head the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs until his retirement in 2013.  This occurred despite his endorsement of John McCain over Obama in 2008, and the indication that McCain had considered him as a running mate in that election.  Lieberman had shown earlier signs of independence when he criticized Bill Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky Affair in 1999, and he consulted with Donald Trump on the possibility of becoming FBI head in 2017, although he ultimately was not offered the position.  Lieberman refused to endorse Obama or Mitt Romney in 2012, but supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 as a former Senator.  Lieberman has continued to be seen as a very controversial, independent legislator, even in the years since retirement.

The final two independents are still in the US Senate in 2021---Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine. Both allied with the Democrats, but retained their independence nevertheless.

Sanders has served in the US Senate since 2007, after serving eight terms and sixteen years in the House of Representatives from 1991-2007, after being the mayor of Burlington, Vermont from 1981-1989.  Sanders has the all-time record for service as an Independent in Congress, now in his 31st year. Sanders has identified as a Democratic Socialist, but pursued the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 2016 and 2020. The second Jewish candidate for national office, he is perceived as in line with the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, updated, including labor rights, universal and single payer healthcare, tuition free postsecondary education, and a “Green New Deal” to address climate change.  He is seen as promoting the Nordic Social Democracy common in Scandinavian nations. In foreign policy, he supports reduced defense spending, and more diplomacy and international cooperation.  He was Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee from 2013-2015, and now is Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. 

Sanders was a major challenger to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but endorsed her when she won the nomination, and did the same with Joe Biden in 2020. In both election cycles, he generated significant grassroots enthusiasm and funding from small dollar donors, and continues to have a major impact on Democratic party politics.  He won 23 primaries and caucuses and 46 percent of all delegates, to Hillary Clinton’s 54 percent in 2016.  In 2020, Sanders seemed to have an edge in the early Presidential campaign, but by April, he had withdrawn and endorsed Joe Biden.  His controversial stands, including criticism of Israeli settlement policies and support of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict; opposition to the Patriot Act and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; advocating a crackdown on police brutality and abolition of for profit, private prisons; denouncing of institutional racism and promotion of criminal justice reform; and crackdown on corporations and banks who abuse what he calls the public trust, wins him great support but also great criticism from those who think he is far too radical. His impact on the Biden Presidency is of great significance, as Sanders is attempting to move the President further to the left.

Angus King of Maine has served in the US Senate since 2013, after two four year terms as Maine Governor from 1995-2003, all as an Independent. Before 1993 he was a registered Democrat, and has allied with the Democratic Caucus in the Senate, like to Bernie Sanders. King makes it clear that he is not allied with any political ideology, and is best described as a moderate independent.  He speaks his mind, as when he has made clear his belief that the Senate filibuster, as early as his first year in the Senate, should be modified to make it possible for the Senate to take action.  Liberal groups see King as more of a friend than do conservative groups, and he is seen as near the Senate’s ideological center.  The nonpartisan National Journal has rated King as 59 percent liberal and 41 percent conservative. He supported Donald Trump about 38 percent of the time in his four years in the White House, but has been a very strong critic of Trump’s poor COVID-19 response, which caused Trump to claim King was worse than any Democrat.  King has been one of the strongest proponents of holding Trump responsible for the US Capitol Insurrection of January 6, 2021.

King has served on the Armed Services Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and earlier on the Budget Committee.  He has been particularly outspoken on many foreign policy and national security issues, including his being convinced of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election; his desire to normalize relations with Cuba; his desire for the US government to be more severe in its policies toward China and Saudi Arabia; his support of the Iran Nuclear Agreement; and strong criticism of policy toward Syria and Turkey in the Middle East.  He has expressed alarm over the Climate Change crisis, calling it one of the most serious threats to the United States, and supportive of return to the Paris Climate Accords now occurring under President Joe Biden, after Donald Trump repudiated the agreement.  King has strongly criticized the immigration policy of Trump, including separation of children from their parents at the Mexican border, and has supported reasonable gun regulation legislation to deal with the massive gun violence issue nationally.  He has consistently supported the Affordable Care Act passed under Barack Obama, and remains a backer of Planned Parenthood and abortion rights.  He has been a supporter of gay rights and same sex marriage, but voted against a mandated $15 an hour minimum wage proposed in 2021 by his colleague Bernie Sanders.  So it is evident that King is complex, and not always easy to label politically, as he has said he is neither a liberal nor a conservative, but rather “an American”.

A final conclusion is clear about this second group of seven Independents in the Senate since World War II   The last four of the seven all come from the New England states (Connecticut, Vermont, Maine), just as six of the seven in the earlier group were from the Midwest (Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin), with Charles Sumner from Massachusetts.   So it is primarily the Midwest and New England that have been the main areas of outspoken independence of thought and action.  Only Harry Byrd Jr. and James Buckley have been rebels from the right side of the political spectrum, while the other 12 have all been, in varying levels, more to the left side of American politics, in their time in the Senate. And Wayne Morse is the only Independent from the Pacific Coast (Oregon), although he grew up in the Midwest state of Wisconsin and was influenced by “Mr. Progressive,” Senator Robert LaFollette, Sr. and “The Wisconsin Idea.”

comments powered by Disqus