The 1918 election to fill one of Michigan's U.S. Senate seats proved to be one of the most bitter and costly contests of that era. Its spending excesses prompted widespread calls for campaign finance reform.
To bolster his party's slim Senate majority, President Woodrow Wilson convinced automaker Henry Ford to run in the Michigan Democratic senatorial primary. Trying to improve his chances of victory, the super-rich Ford also entered that state's Republican primary. Although he lost the Republican contest to industrialist Truman Newberry, Ford captured the Democratic nomination and set out to crush Newberry in the general election. In Newberry, Ford had a tough opponent with similarly unlimited financial resources. Making effective use of campaign advertising, Newberry charged Ford with pacifism, anti-Semitism, and favoritism in his efforts to help his son, Edsel, avoid military service in the First World War.
Newberry narrowly defeated Ford, but charges that he had intimidated voters and violated campaign-spending laws limiting the amount of personal funds candidates could spend on their races clouded his claim to the seat.
The Senate provisionally seated him in May 1919, pending the outcome of an investigation. As that inquiry got underway, a federal grand jury indicted Newberry on several counts of campaign law violations. Despite the senator's assertions that he knew nothing of illegal contributions and disbursements, massive evidence, gathered with the help of agents financed by Henry Ford, indicated otherwise. Found guilty on those charges in March 1920, Newberry launched an appeal that resulted in a May 1921 Supreme Court reversal of his conviction.
The Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections investigated the matter and conducted a recount of the general election ballots. The committee determined that the large amounts spent on Newberry’s behalf were not his own funds but were contributed by relatives and friends without his solicitation or knowledge. Consequently, it recommended that the Michigan senator retain his seat.
On January 12, 1922, a narrowly divided Senate affirmed that Newberry had been duly elected, but it nonetheless "severely condemned" his excessive campaign expenditures as "harmful to the honor and dignity of the Senate." In the face of continuing controversy, Newberry resigned from the Senate later that year. The Newberry case led Congress in 1925 to enact a new Federal Corrupt Practices Act, but this statute proved ineffective in containing congressional campaign financial irregularities in the decades ahead.