How Utah Lost One of Its U. S. Senate Seats in 1899

Jeffrey D. Nichols
History Blazer, March 1995

The crowded room was expectant but not hopeful. As the night wore on the long list of names was read aloud nine times, but the results barely changed. Finally, just after midnight, the last count ended. Some in the crowd seemed relieved and excited, while others were disappointed. On the 60th and last day of the 1899 legislative session, after 164 roll-call ballots, the Utah State Legislature had failed to choose a U.S. senator. For the next two years the state of Utah would have only one voice in the United States Senate.

This unusual state of affairs resulted from several factors. Until the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1913, U.S. senators were elected by their respective state legislatures rather than by popular vote. The founding fathers, somewhat suspicious of popular rule, expected the state legislatures to choose U.S. senators from among the “better men” of each state. Accordingly, the two houses of the Utah Legislature met separately on the second Tuesday of their 1899 session, which began in January, to vote for a senator. When both houses failed to give any candidate a majority, they met the next day in joint session. At least one ballot a day was conducted for the remainder of the constitutionally limited 60-day session, with no candidate gaining a majority.

Records of the Legislature’s votes indicate that several candidates had a core group of supporters that stuck with them throughout the lengthy balloting. The incumbent senator, Frank J. Cannon, was a Silver Republican. Since both houses of the State Legislature had gone Democratic in 1898, Cannon could not expect to be reelected and in fact had lost most of his Republican supporters to George Sutherland and A. L. Thomas. Democrat A. W. McCune had slowly gained support throughout the session and appeared poised to win the necessary 32 votes on the 121st ballot. Before the voting, however, Republican Albert A. Law took the floor for a dramatic announcement. Law claimed that McCune’s supporters had offered him a $1,500 bribe for his vote. McCune’s partisans angrily denied the charge and countered that Law had offered his support to McCune for $5,000 and had fabricated the bribery charge when his offer was spurned. The Legislature’s Bribery Committee launched a three-week investigation that resulted in a 5-2 vote clearing McCune, but that report was issued with only three days left in the legislative session—not enough time to undo the damage to McCune’s candidacy. In the meantime, legislators awaiting the committee’s report had clung to their original candidates.

The pace of voting quickened, and thirty ballots were cast in the final three days of the session. The last ballot began at 11:57 P.M. on the 60th day and ended at 12:05 A.M. McCune led with 21 votes out of 63, well short of a majority. Senate President Aquila Nebeker (who had received one vote on each ballot) declared the session over and the U.S. Senate seat vacant.

A number of explanations have been offered for the Legislature’s failure. Since Utah had been a state for only three years, legislators may have been inexperienced in the process of choosing a candidate. Two years previously the Legislature had needed 53 ballots to elect Joseph L. Rawlins to the other Senate seat. Although traditional Mormon/Gentile political conflict had officially ended around 1893, when the People’s party (Mormon) and Liberal party (Gentile) were disbanded in favor of the national parties, old divisions and antagonisms apparently still remained. Mormons and Gentiles nevertheless appeared on both Democratic and Republican lists of candidates. Historian Stewart L. Grow blamed the lack of Democratic party discipline for failing to unite the party behind a single candidate. Whatever the reason, the Republicans took the lesson to heart. When they gained control of both houses of the Legislature in 1900 they needed only one ballot to elect mining millionaire Thomas Kearns, a Catholic, to the U.S. Senate.

See Stewart L. Grow, “Utah’s Senatorial Election of 1899: The Election That Failed,” Utah Historical Quarterly 39 (winter 1971): 30–39.