Reagan's coattails

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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.

Possibly best known was the defeat 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[edit]

The Democratic losses in the Senate in 1980 were:

  1. U.S. Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) (3 terms) lost to U.S. Rep. James Abdnor (R-S.D.)
  2. U.S. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.) (6 terms) lost to Republican T. Slade Gorton III.
  3. U.S. Sen. Gaylord A. Nelson (D-Wis.) (3 terms) lost to Republican Robert W. Kasten Jr..
  4. 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.
  5. U.S. Sen. John C. Culver (D-Iowa) (1 term) lost to Republican Charles E. Grassley.
  6. U.S. Sen. Birch E. Bayh II (D-Ind.) (3 terms) lost to J. Danforth Quayle.
  7. U.S. Sen. Frank F. Church (D-Idaho) (4 terms) lost to Republican Steven D. Symms.
  8. U.S. Sen. Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.) (4 terms) lost to Republican Mack F. Mattingly.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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..
  12. U.S. Sen. Robert B. Morgan (D-N.C.) (1 term) lost to Republican John P. East.

1986 and beyond[edit]

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 by John Thune.
  • 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):

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan referred to the Republican majority in 2016's Senate and House elections as being "saved" by then-President-elect Donald Trump's "coattails."[1]

Other races[edit]

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.[2] Nevertheless, Clinton regained Governorship in a 1982 rematch and held until his election to the Presidency in 1992. In a speech delivered at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Clinton referenced the effect of Reagan as the reason for his defeat in 1980.


  1. ^ "Speaker Ryan says Trump 'coattails' saved GOP majority". Washington Examiner. 2016-11-09. Retrieved 2018-05-01.
  2. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-10-07. Retrieved 2009-02-14.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)