Skip to content

Top 10 House Races: Only a Few Are Obvious

Let’s be honest. To determine the top 10 House races that have occurred since Roll Call has been in existence is an impossible task.

After all, since 1955 there have been 10,875 general elections (not counting special elections) and more than double that amount when it comes to party primaries and runoffs.

Obviously not even a majority of those races have been competitive, noteworthy or, in many cases, even contested.

In fact, the number of races that fall into one of those categories has dwindled even further in recent years thanks to the success of partisan gerrymandering and the precision of computer mapping software that allows Members to largely choose the voters they want.

Needless to say, we didn’t sift through those thousands that were significant in some way or another and whittle it down to this list of 10.

In truth, we could have come up with a half dozen top 10 House race lists based on a plethora of criteria: the most expensive, the closest margin of victory, the most monumental outcome, the biggest upsets, the nastiest, and so forth.

Instead, we have compiled a list that includes interesting races that fall into one, some or all of those categories. Still, it goes without saying that a fair number of the political junkies populating Capitol Hill are likely to have a favorite contest that we overlooked.

In contemplating our list, we consulted a number of political strategists, prognosticators and junkies.

Almost all of the races picked are from the post-Watergate era — a defining moment that many political strategists believe marks the beginning of modern campaign politics.

Others, however, say that House races as we now know them didn’t materialize until much later — the mid-to-late 1990s — when spending by campaign committees skyrocketed along with third-party spending.

It is not by mistake that the first three races on our chronological list are Democratic primaries. After all, in the first three decades Roll Call published Democrats dominated the House and therefore the Democratic primary in many districts was the only vehicle for representational change.

By contrast, it was difficult to choose just one race from 1994 — the landslide election that swept Republicans into power after 40 years.

In that anti-incumbent tidal wave, the defeat of then-Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) was clearly the hardest-fought contest with the most monumental outcome. But the ouster of Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Texas) was by far more surprising.

Here are our picks for the top-10 House races of the past 50 years:

Rep. Howard W. Smith (D) vs. George Rawlings (D)

Smith — once described by Life magazine as a “Virginia gentleman whose impeccable manners include little real respect for either free enterprise or democracy” — was in his 12th year as chairman of the powerful Rules Committee when he lost to Rawlings in a Democratic primary.

At the time, a local newspaper billed the arch-conservative’s defeat as “the upset of the century.”

Smith, then 82, had not lost an election in his 60-year political career. He had served 36 years in the House, the last decade of which he spent bottling up civil rights, labor and other New Frontier legislation from his Rules perch.

Billing himself as “the people’s Democrat,” Rawlings ran a grass-roots populist campaign against Smith, who was backed by all of the old-line Democratic establishment (principally, former Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd’s political machine).

Rawlings was no stranger to tussles with the Byrd machine. As a young attorney, he defeated an incumbent Byrd stalwart in a 1963 House of Delegates primary.

In 1966, Rawlings campaigned door-to-door and focused on registering black voters (who had only recently gained access to the polls). In the end, he beat Smith by 645 votes out of almost 54,000 cast.

Although Rawlings’ primary victory was a monumental stepping stone in the effort by progressive Democrats to wrest control from the Byrd machine, his liberal vision and populist rhetoric ultimately doomed him in the general election. Rawlings lost to attorney Bill Scott (R) by some 15,000 votes after the Democratic establishment openly campaigned against him.

Scott became the first Republican since 1900 to represent the district in Congress. More importantly, the race set the stage for the current Republican dominance of state politics, as conservative southern Democrats began to realize they were more in step with Republicans than the party they had sworn allegiance to for a century.

NEW YORK’s 19th:
Charlie Rangel (D) vs. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D)

Powell, who had represented Harlem in Congress since 1944, had become a national household name, as he helped shepherd key pieces of social reform legislation through the House Education and Labor Committee. But by the end of the 1960s he was embroiled in scandal and was quite literally, an absentee lawmaker.

Powell’s troubles began in 1966, when he was accused of pocketing committee salaries for his own use. In 1967, the House refused to seat Powell. But he returned home and won re-election to the seat he’d been denied. He returned to Congress in 1969, but was stripped of his seniority. It didn’t seem to matter much to Powell, who by that point was regularly missing roll call votes and living on a boat in Bimini. He attracted four challengers in the 1970 primary. Rangel, then a 39-year-old state assemblyman, beat Powell by 150 votes in the primary.

NEW YORK’s 16th:
Rep. Emanuel Celler (D) vs. Elizabeth Holtzman (D)

This is not a typo: Celler, then 84 and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was in his 50th year representing central Brooklyn in Congress. Holtzman, a 32-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer, had spent a couple of years working for former Mayor John Lindsay, but that was the extent of her political experience.

The race came to epitomize Vietnam-era politics for Democrats — a fight of “new left” politics versus tired old liberalism, a generational battle and a gender fight all rolled into one.

Among the issues Holtzman attacked Celler for was his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, which he had bottled up in his committee for 20 years.

Holtzman, despite being ignored by virtually everyone (including the media), simply out-hustled her way to a 611 vote margin of victory over Celler.

As a consequence, 64-year-old Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), instead of the elderly Celler, chaired the Nixon impeachment hearings in 1974. Holtzman was a junior member of the committee.

Rep. Dan Kuykendall (R) vs. Harold Ford (D)

Kuykendall, first elected in 1966, had endeared himself to his white constituents in Memphis by largely ignoring the needs of the urban district’s growing black population — which did not yet constitute a majority.

The 8th district was comprised entirely of Memphis, which at the time was one of the most segregated cities in America.

For many years, state legislators had redrawn Congressional lines to prevent the creation of a majority-black district. After the 1970 census and redrawing of lines, however, 47 percent of the 8th district’s population was black and 41 percent were registered to vote.

Ford, then a state Representative, was swept into office in the Watergate landslide by a slim 744-vote margin. Observers at the time said Ford probably would not have won had it not been for the Watergate scandal. Nonetheless, Kuykendall would have likely been defeated by a black Democrat before the next round of redistricting.

As it was, Ford became Tennessee’s first black House member and only the third elected from the South since Reconstruction (Reps. Andrew Young [D-Ga.] and Barbara Jordan [D-Texas] were both elected in 1972).

The victories of Ford, Jordan and Young were the first examples of black candidates winning in majority-white urban districts in the South.

Ford was succeeded by his son, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D), in 1996. The younger Ford is expected to run for Senate in 2006 and, if elected, he would be the first black Senator from Tennessee.

To this day, 1974 was the last time a Tennessee Congressman lost a re-election bid.

Rep. Abner Mikva (D) vs. ex-Rep. Samuel Young (R)

The 1976 race between Mikva and Young was actually the last of three epic battles between the two men in a swing suburban Chicago district.

In 1972, Mikva, who had served for two terms in the South Side’s 2nd district, ran for re-election in the new 10th district — a North Shore seat that was left incumbent-less after that cycle’s redistricting.

Mikva, unabashedly liberal, faced the very conservative Young, who ended up winning 52 percent of the vote.

But Mikva came back and defeated Young 51 percent to 49 percent in 1974, as the Watergate scandal produced a national Democratic tidal wave.

Upon his return to Congress, Mikva got a seat on the Ways and Means Committee — an assignment that helped provide the winning difference in his next showdown with Young.

The third contest between the two men ultimately proved the closest. In 1976, as the Republican’s statewide ticket was winning big margins in the fiscally conservative, socially moderate district, Mikva pulled out a 201-vote victory.

All told, the men spent in excess of $1 million on the three races combined — a record at the time.

In 1978, Mikva faced another stiff challenge, defeating Republican John Porter by 644 votes. Porter went on to win a 1980 special election to replace Mikva, who had been appointed to a federal judgeship.

Rep. Barney Frank (D) vs. Rep. Margaret Heckler (R)

This race — a Member versus Member Boston slugfest forced by reapportionment — garnered national headlines in the midst of President Ronald Reagan’s first mid-term election year.

The battle between the then-freshman Frank and Heckler, first elected in 1966, was billed as “an interesting clash of personalities and contrast of temperaments: the rapid-fire Frank versus the fluent Mrs. Heckler.”

Heckler, a brawling Irishwoman who was famous for her indecision on the Hill, was initially favored because she had already represented about 70 percent of the new district’s population.

Although Heckler boasted a moderate voting record and styled herself as a liberal Republican, Frank gained traction by attacking her for supporting Reagan’s 1981 budget and tax programs.

The final margin — 60 percent to 40 percent — wasn’t even close. Frank, who was then a closeted homosexual, won easily with the help of his solid liberal base.

Frank spent about $1.5 million to Heckler’s $1 million, making it the most expensive House race of the cycle.

Heckler did get a consolation prize: She was named ambassador to Ireland.

INDIANA’s 8th:
Rep. Frank McCloskey (D) vs. Richard McIntyre (R)

While this race in what has long been called the “bloody 8th” was no doubt a nasty campaign, it’s what happened after all of the votes were cast that makes this contest so noteworthy.

This very well may be the closest and most disputed House race of the last 50 years, maybe of all time.

McCloskey defeated an incumbent in 1982, and in his first re-election faced McIntyre, a 27-year-old state legislator.

After the first vote count, McCloskey posted a 72-vote lead. But after a swift recheck by state officials, the vote tally showed McIntyre leading by 34 votes out of 233,000 cast.

The Republican Secretary of State then certified McIntyre the winner, but the Democratic-controlled House refused to seat either man after another recanvass showed McCloskey ahead. Finally, in April 1985, a special task force concluded after a recount that McCloskey had won by four votes. On May 1, the House voted to seat him.

And you thought Florida in 2000 was messy.

Although the district elected four different Congressmen in as many election cycles in the 1970s, McCloskey held onto the seat for a decade before losing in the 1994 Republican landslide to Rep. John Hostettler (R).

GEORGIA’s 6th:
Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) vs. Herman Clark (R)

Gingrich had one of the most colorful electoral histories of all Members — all before he became Speaker in early 1995.

In fact, his first two Congressional bids were unsuccessful. He challenged veteran Rep. John Flynt (D-Ga.) in 1974 and 1976, losing both contests by slim margins.

When Flynt announced he wouldn’t run again in 1978, Gingrich stepped in and won the seat — becoming the first Republican elected from this suburban Atlanta district.

Gingrich held onto the seat easily throughout the 1980s, eventually ascending to the No. 2 position in Republican leadership in 1989.

The next year, Gingrich barely won re-election in a rematch with Democrat David Worley. Gingrich spent $1.5 million (compared to Worley’s $334,000) and won by just 974 votes.

Worley attacked Gingrich for having a car and driver and for supporting a Congressional pay raise.

Some observers say Worley might have won were it not for a deal cut in 1989 by then-Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) with the GOP leadership. Foley agreed not to fund any challenger who attacked an incumbent on the pay raise issue, so when Worley sought assistance from the national party he was turned away.

But Democrats had other ideas two years later.

In 1992, after the Democratic-controlled state legislature sought to complicate the Minority Whip’s re-election by carving up his district and moving much of his territory into a rural district, Gingrich decided to run in the redrawn 6th instead, setting up a primary contest with former state Rep. Herman Clark.

Clark ran a low-budget campaign but benefited from the flow of money and support from Democratic interests and other anti-Gingrich forces.

In the end Gingrich won by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin and went on to defeat attorney Tony Center (D) handily in the November election. The race, set the course for Gingrich’s ascension to power in 1994.

Rep. Tom Foley (D) vs. George Nethercutt (R)

If we were ranking races on this list, there is no dispute that this contest would come in at No. 1.

Nethercutt earned giant-killer status for life by becoming the first person to defeat a sitting Speaker since 1962.

No one paid much attention to the race until Nethercutt emerged as the Republican nominee in an all-party primary. Even then, the news wasn’t Nethercutt as much as it was that Foley had garnered only 35 percent — a troubling indication for a long-time incumbent’s re-election prospects.

Third-party organizations spent heavily on ads attacking Foley, whose fortunes weren’t enhanced by the House scandals of the early 1990s or the unpopularity of the Clinton budget and tax package of 1993.

In the end, Foley spent $2.1 million compared to Nethercutt’s $1.1 million. On election night Nethercutt got 51 percent of the vote, and Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

Ironically enough, Foley had ridden a similar anti-incumbent sentiment to victory over an 11-term Congressman some 30 years ago.

Nethercutt, who had made term limits a centerpiece of his campaign, chose to break his own three-term limit pledge in 2000. In 2004, Nethercutt lost a Senate bid against Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Adam Schiff (D) vs. Rep. Jim Rogan (R)

This was at the time the most-expensive House race ever, with the candidates raising more than $10 million between them and having even more spent on their behalf.

The two youthful candidates — Schiff at the time was 40 and Rogan was 43 — could not have been more different ideologically, and the primary issue in this suburban Los Angeles district was Rogan’s leading role in the 1999 impeachment trial of President Clinton. The race pitted Hollywood liberals against conservative Clinton-haters. The final result wasn’t even close. Schiff won 53 percent to Rogan’s 44 percent — a nice payback for Schiff’s two losses to Rogan in previous state Assembly races.

The year was good to California Democrats all around. Rogan was one of three incumbent Republicans to fall there in 2000.

Recent Stories

Eight questions for elections in five states on Tuesday

Paul Pelosi attacker sentenced to 30 years in prison

House Over-slight Committee — Congressional Hits and Misses

Biden kicks off outreach to Black voters as protest threat looms at Morehouse

Editor’s Note: Stock market no panacea for Biden, Democrats

Photos of the week ending May 17, 2024