Over the last twenty years, five of eight vice presidential candidates had defeated incumbents in races for the United States Senate. Joseph Biden, who was picked as the Democratic VP candidate on Saturday, won a U.S. Senate seat in 1972 when he upset J. Caleb Boggs, a two-term incumbent and a former Governor of Delaware.
John Edwards defeated one-term U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth in North Carolina in 1998; in 1988, Joe Lieberman ousted three-term U.S. Sen. Lowell Weicker in Connecticut; Dan Quayle beat Birch Bayh, a three-term U.S. Senator from Indiana; and in the 1970 Democratic U.S. Senate primary in Texas, Lloyd Bentsen upset the incumbent, Ralph Yarborough.
But during the same time period, just one of the three successful candidates for Vice President – Quayle — had ever defeated an incumbent. Al Gore won open seats for the House (1976) and Senate (1984), and Richard Cheney won an open seat for the House in 1978. Another VP candidate, Jack Kemp in 1996, had never run against an incumbent. Corrected: Kemp won an open House seat in 1970.
Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain has defeated an incumbent in an electoral contest. Obama won Peter Fitzgerald’s open Senate seat in 2004 (indeed, Obama lost a House primary to incumbent Bobby Rush by a 2-1 margin in 2000). McCain won elections following the retirements of two nationally prominent Republicans: House Minority Leader John Rhodes in 1982 and U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater in 1986.
The race between Obama and McCain marks the first time neither of the two major party presidential candidates had previously defeated an incumbent (in a non–presidential election) since Franklin Roosevelt ran against Thomas Dewey in 1944.
Over the last fifty years, six of the nine successful presidential candidates had defeated incumbents in their political careers.
George W. Bush beat incumbent Anne Richards in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race; Bill Clinton, who lost re-election as Governor of Arkansas in 1980 to Frank White, defeated White in 1982 rematch; in 1966, Ronald Reagan unseated the Governor of California, Pat Brown; Gerald Ford won his first election in 1948 when he ousted incumbent U.S. Rep. Bartel Jonkman in the Republican primary; Richard Nixon launched his political career in 1946 when he defeated incumbent U.S. Rep. Jerry Voorhis in California; and in an epic U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts in 1952, John F. Kennedy upset incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge.
George H.W. Bush challenged Yarborough for the U.S. Senate in 1964, but was unsuccessful. Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson never defeated an incumbent.
Among other losing presidential candidates, John Kerry, Robert Dole, and Walter Mondale had not defeated incumbents. Michael Dukakis (in a rematch with Massachusetts Governor Edward King in the Democratic primary), George McGovern (in a 1958 House race and a 1962 U.S. Senate race), Hubert Humphrey (in race for U.S. Senate in 1948) and Goldwater (in the 1952 U.S. Senate race against the incumbent Senate Majority Leader) did.