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A 1985 Recount Is Suddenly Relevant Again

(Source: theatlantic.com)

The tight race was not a total surprise, since, like Florida today, the Bloody Eighth of Indiana, as it was known, was a notoriously competitive swing district.

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Democrats responded with intransigence. They said Simcox had certified the election prematurely, and that “irregularities” put the apparent result in doubt, including allegations that Republicans had unfairly disqualified a sizable number of African-American voters in the urban parts of the district. When McIntyre arrived on Capitol Hill on January 3, 1985, Democrats refused to seat him; the House voted 238 to 177, along strict party lines, to keep the seat vacant pending a congressional investigation and a new recount.

Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, Majority Leader Jim Wright, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Tony Coelho charged one of their own, Representative Leon Panetta, to lead the recount. Under Panetta were two Democrats and just one Republican. Republicans cried foul that the majority was trying to steal the election. Even Minnesota’s Bill Frenzel, a gregarious Republican who was known as a moderate in his disposition and politics, characterized the process as a “rape” of the voters.

Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich, a young renegade elected in 1978, saw an opening to score partisan points. Gingrich was the leader of the Conservative Opportunity Society, a caucus of right-wing Republicans that he created in 1983. One of its goals was to encourage a more aggressive approach to challenging Democrats, who had been in the majority since 1954, than the 62-year old House Minority Leader Robert Michel had been willing to try. COS wanted to break with conventional norms and stretch procedure as far as possible to advance Republican objectives.

The Indiana recount fit nicely into Gingrich’s plans. Gingrich worked to convince reporters that this was a scandal of Watergate-like proportions. Indeed, he told one of his acolytes, Joe Barton of Texas, that the public needed to understand that, “this is a constitutional issue! We have to make the press understand that.”

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Guy Vander Jagt, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was initially reluctant to take Gingrich’s advice. He feared that doing so would blow up any chance of future bipartisan civility. But he quickly caved. Vander Jagt sent out to every Republican in Congress a draft of an op-ed titled “Stealing a Seat.”

Partisan tensions reached a boiling point when Panetta’s task force determined in late April that the seat should go to McCloskey. By a party-line vote of two to one, the committee decided that McCloskey had won by four votes, 116,645 to 116,641. Republicans went ballistic. “I think we ought to go to war,” Wyoming Republican Dick Cheney declared.

More Info: theatlantic.com

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