Reagan’s coattails refers to the influence of Ronald Reagan’s popularity in elections other than his own, after the American political expression to “ride in on another’s coattails.” Chiefly, it refers to the “Reagan Revolution” accompanying his 1980 election to the U.S. Presidency. This victory was accompanied by the change of twelve seats in the U.S. Senate from Democratic to Republican hands, producing a Republican majority in the Senate for the first time since 1954.
The most stunning defeat was that of U.S. Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.), a prominent Progressive Democrat who had been the party’s nominee for president in 1972. McGovern lost his bid for a fourth term in the Senate by a resounding 58% to 39% margin to U.S. Rep. James Abdnor (R-S.D.).
1980 Senate Democratic losses
The Democratic losses in the Senate in 1980 were:
- U.S. Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) (3 terms) lost to U.S. Rep. James Abdnor (R-S.D.)
- U.S. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.) (6 terms) lost to Republican T. Slade Gorton III.
- U.S. Sen. Gaylord A. Nelson (D-Wis.) (3 terms) lost to Republican Robert W. Kasten Jr..
- U.S. Sen. John A. Durkin (D-N.H.) (1 term) lost to Republican Warren B. Rudman. Durkin resigned his seat in December and Rudman was appointed to fill out the remaining few days of Durkin's term.
- U.S. Sen. John C. Culver (D-Iowa) (1 term) lost to Republican Charles E. Grassley.
- U.S. Sen. Birch E. Bayh II (D-Ind.) (3 terms) lost to J. Danforth Quayle.
- U.S. Sen. Frank F. Church (D-Idaho) (4 terms) lost to Republican Steven D. Symms.
- U.S. Sen. Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.) (4 terms) lost to Republican Mack F. Mattingly.
- U.S. Sen. Richard B. Stone (D-Fla.) (1 term) lost in the Democratic primary to William D. Gunter Jr.. Gunter lost the general election to Republican Paula Hawkins.
- U.S. Sen. Maurice R. "Mike" Gravel (D-Alaska) (2 terms), the senator who in 1971 had entered the full text of the Pentagon Papers into the official record of the Senate Subcommittee of Public Buildings and Grounds, was unexpectedly defeated in the Democratic primary by Clark Gruening. Gruening was the grandson of Ernest Gruening, the incumbent Democrat whom Gravel had unseated in the 1968 Democratic primary. The younger Gruening lost the general election to Republican Frank H. Murkowski.
- U.S. Sen. Donald W. Stewart (D-Ala.) (1 term) lost in the Democratic primary to James E. Folsom Jr.. Folsom lost the general election to Republican Jeremiah A. Denton Jr..
- U.S. Sen. Robert B. Morgan (D-N.C.) (1 term) lost to Republican John P. East.
1986 and beyond
Notably, the bulk of the 1980 class of Senate Republicans failed to hold their seats for the Republican party beyond one term. In the 1986 election, the Democrats managed to recapture the majority in the Senate, partly thanks to the defeat of several members of the Reagan class of 1980:
- In South Dakota, Abdnor was challenged in the Republican primary by William J. Janklow. He survived a tough primary fight, but lost in the general election to Democrat Thomas A. Daschle, who became a leader in the Democratic caucus and held on to the seat until 2004, when he was unseated in a historic race.
- In Washington, Gorton was unseated by Democrat Brockman “Brock” Adams. Gorton returned to the Senate two years later in the 1988 election, but in 2000 was again unseated, this time by Maria E. Cantwell.
- In Wisconsin, Kasten managed to win a bid for re-election in 1986, but in 1992, Russell D. Feingold foiled his bid for a third term. Feingold himself was defeated in 2010 by conservative businessman Ron Johnson.
- In Florida, Hawkins lost her bid for re-election to Democrat D. Robert "Bob" Graham, who held the seat until his retirement in 2004, when Republican Melquiades "Mel" R. Martinez was elected to replace him.
- In Alabama, Denton lost his re-election bid to Democrat Richard C. Shelby. In November 1994, however, after the Republicans retook the Senate, Shelby switched parties, returning the seat to Republican hands.
They won three more seats in 1986, but these have since shown instability, alternating between the parties (and in one case between senators):
- In Georgia, Mattingly’s seat went to Democrat W. Wyche Fowler Jr. in 1986, Republican Paul D. Coverdell in 1992 and 1998, Democrat Zell B. Miller in 2000 (following Coverdell's death), and Republican Johnny Isakson in 2004.
- In North Carolina, after East committed suicide in 1986, James T. Broyhill was appointed to fill out his term. Broyhill was succeeded by Democrat Terry Sanford in 1986, Republican D. McLaughlin “Lauch” Faircloth in 1992, Democrat Johnny R. “John” Edwards in 1998, and Republican Richard M. Burr in 2004.
- In Indiana, Quayle's seat remained in Republican hands through his re-election in 1986, and after his resignation to become Vice President, through the appointment of Daniel R. Coats to replace him. Coats made a successful bid for re-election in 1992. In 1998, declined to run for a third term and Democrat B. Evans "Evan" Bayh III (the son of the man that Quayle had unseated in 1980) was elected to fill the seat. However, in 2010 Bayh declined to run for a third term and Coats was elected to fill the seat.
This not only affected Senate races in 1980, which resulted in many Republicans replacing incumbent Democrats, were considered as a part of Reagan's coattails. Most prominently defeat of first term Governor of Arkansas and future President of the United States Bill Clinton by Frank D. White. Nevertheless Clinton regained Governorship in a 1982 rematch and held until his election to the Presidency.