Of all the midterm elections of the last century, the elections of 1910 have to rank among the highest in terms of significance.
Republicans had won the previous four presidential elections beginning with William McKinley’s first victory over William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Indeed, among Democratic presidential candidates, only Grover Cleveland had won the White House in the 50 years since Abraham Lincoln was first elected. The GOP seemed solidly in control of Congress, and the Republican Speaker of the House, “Uncle Joe” Cannon, ran the House of Representatives with an iron fist.
Yet all was not well in the Republican camp. President William Howard Taft, elected with Theodore Roosevelt’s blessing in 1908, had alienated his predecessor and seemed ill-suited to navigate the political complexities of the times. In Congress, the split between “old guard” Republicans and “progressive” Republicans intensified. As the year wore on, an alliance of Democrats and “progressive” Republicans in the House revolted, stripping Cannon (and the office of the Speaker for decades to come) of most of his out-sized powers. Taft responded to the assertiveness of the progressives by attempting to read them out of the party. His attempts to have them defeated in the party primaries of 1910 were mostly unsuccessful; instead, a slew of old guard incumbents went down to defeat. For their part, Democrats were unusually united.
The general election produced several notable results:
- Democrats gained 57 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate, enough to give them outright partisan control of the House and working control of the Senate in combination with progressive Republicans.
- Democrats also made significant gains at the state level, where they won the governorships of New York and New Jersey for the first time since 1892, as well as gubernatorial races in Republican strongholds like Connecticut, Rhode Island, Ohio, and Massachusetts. These elections thrust forward a new cohort of Democratic leaders, including most notably Woodrow Wilson as the new governor of New Jersey.
- Psychologically, there was no question that the results dramatically boosted the confidence of Democrats, who had not had good news of this sort for almost two decades. In the words of the New York Times, “What a wonderful and quick regeneration has been wrought in the Democratic Party in this year.”
- The internal composition of the President’s party shifted dramatically against him. Only a handful of congressional Republicans from progressive strongholds lost, while heavy losses were suffered by the GOP contingent from states where the old guard had been particularly strong. The consequence was a much-emboldened progressive wing within the Republican Party, which formed the National Progressive Republican League in January, 1911. This agitation contributed to the entry of Robert La Follette and Theodore Roosevelt into the Republican nomination race against Taft in 1912. Of course, Roosevelt would go on to bolt the GOP and run against Taft as the candidate of the Progressive (or “Bull Moose”) party.
The new Democratic-progressive Congress elected in 1910 stymied Taft on numerous issues, as “deadlock” often reigned. Democrats also used their new power to advance their own agenda, establish a positive record for 1912, and force the President into unpopular vetoes, such as one for a bill lowering tariffs.
As scholar David Mayhew has pointed out, the 62nd Congress was responsible for the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators), an eight hour federal work-day, creation of a federal Children’s Bureau, creation of the Department of Labor, and campaign finance restrictions. The Money Trust Investigation run by the House in 1912 pioneered the use of congressional hearings as a publicity tool for new policy.
When Wilson was nominated by Democrats as their presidential candidate in 1912, he ran on a platform that highlighted the progressive accomplishments of the 62nd Congress and excoriated Taft for blocking measures like the downward tariff revision. When Wilson won, he found that the Congress elected in 1910 had already paved the way for his New Freedom program.
Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.