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The Election Case of Dennis Chavez v. Bronson M. Cutting of New Mexico (1935)

Photo of Senator Dennis Chavez

Campaign irregularities.

Petition filed: Feb. 23, 1935
Referred to committee: Feb. 25, 1935
Committee report: June 5, 1935
Senate vote: June 5, 1935

Result: Cutting died; contest dismissed; Chavez appointed to seat.

The New Mexico senatorial election campaign of 1934 pitting Republican incumbent Bronson M. Cutting against Democratic House member Dennis Chavez proved to be one of the closest and most bitter in that state's turbulent political history. With 30 percent of the state's residents on relief as a consequence of the deepening Great Depression, both contestants ran on similar platforms, stressing aid to farmers and small businessmen. Yet their personalities and background could not have been more dissimilar.

Bronson Cutting, born to great wealth and educated at Groton and Harvard, moved to New Mexico in 1910 at the age of twenty-two to be cured of tuberculosis. A classmate and friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cutting established his political base as owner of the influential Santa Fe New Mexican. The dynamic politician emerged as a progressive reformer who developed a strong following among the state's large Hispanic voting bloc and the growing population of laborers in New Mexico's eastern oil fields. Appointed to the Senate in 1927 to fill a vacancy, Cutting won election to a full term in 1928.

In contrast to Cutting, Chavez spent his early years struggling against the political barriers of poverty and the prejudice of the state's political elite against his Hispanic origins. During the 1920s, he tirelessly worked his way into the confidence of New Mexico's Democratic hierarchy and in 1930 was rewarded for his services and party loyalty with the nomination to New Mexico's only seat in the House of Representatives. Chavez easily defeated his Republican opponent, and won reelection two years later by a wide margin. As a result, by 1934 Chavez had become his party's most potent political force in New Mexico.

Meanwhile, the progressive Bronson Cutting had endorsed Roosevelt in 1932 and supported the New Deal. In doing so, he severed his ties with the Republican party's old-guard conservative power structure and built a potent coalition that included Hispanic Americans and moderate Republicans. During the 1934 campaign, however, Chavez as the Democratic candidate gained both the endorsement of President Roosevelt and the support of the national Democratic party, which supplied money and prominent speakers. Cutting, for his part, portrayed Chavez as representing the conservative, monied power structure in the state.

Statement of the Case
Although Chavez ran a strong race, Cutting's personal popularity carried him to a narrow 1,261-vote victory. When the state canvassing board met in December 1934, Chavez filed a formal complaint charging voting irregularities in five of the state's thirty-one counties. In San Miguel County, according to Chavez, many votes had been cast by persons who were unregistered, underage, repeat voters, convicts, aliens, or insane. He requested that all the returns be thrown out in precincts where unregistered voters had participated. Cutting responded that the state canvassing board had no authority to throw out any votes. When the board agreed and prepared to declare Cutting the winner, Chavez petitioned the state supreme court to force the board to exclude the unregistered votes. The court, however, consisting of four Democrats and one Republican, voted 3 to 2 to support the board's action, and, finally, on December 31, 1934, Cutting received a certificate of election. On January 3, 1935, he presented his certificate to the Senate and took his oath for a second term.

Seven weeks later, on February 23, 1935, Dennis Chavez filed a petition with the Senate, disputing the validity of Cutting's election and requesting a recount. He apparently hoped that the overwhelming Democratic majority in the Senate would vote to unseat Cutting. The petition alleged "undue influence, deception, and intimidation of voters, and the unlawful use of money . . . and of fraudulent, wrongful, and unlawful conduct of various and sundry persons who were election judges, clerks, and counting judges, challengers, and party workers in and about said general election." Specifically, Chavez charged that illegal votes had been counted for Cutting, while many legal votes for the challenger were not counted. The Senate referred the matter to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.

On March 25, 1935, Cutting formally moved to dismiss the challenge, complaining that the charges were untrue, the petition was deceptive and ambiguous, the contest was a "fishing expedition," and Chavez had failed to exhaust his remedy in the state courts. Back in New Mexico, the legislature created a committee of Democrats to investigate the election, while Cutting's lawyers were busily seeking evidence on his behalf, as well as any indications of voting fraud by the Democrats. In February, the legislative investigating committee reported that it had found a number of irregularities in the election and recommended some changes in the state's election code to prevent such violations. The committee, however, took no position on the outcome of the Cutting-Chavez race.

Response of the Senate
On April 10, 1935, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections held a hearing on Cutting's dismissal motion and decided to drop Chavez's charges of illegal use of money and unlawful expenditures. The committee directed Cutting to prepare a formal response to the allegations of conspiring to have illegal votes counted for him and legal votes not counted for Chavez. Cutting therefore flew back to New Mexico to determine the accuracy of the disputed voting lists. On his return trip to Washington on May 6, 1935, the senator was killed when his plane crashed in a dense fog at Atlanta, Missouri. Less than a week later, New Mexico's Democratic governor appointed Dennis Chavez to fill the vacant seat.

The Committee on Privileges and Elections met again on June 4. Chavez notified the committee that he wished to dismiss the challenge, but Cutting's friends urged the committee to take formal action to rule on the allegations so that his name could be cleared. Cutting's counsel presented the late senator's formal response, specifically refuting the charges, based on the lawyers' detailed research. Among other points, the response explained that most of the individuals listed as unregistered were actually properly registered with some slight variation in the spelling or form of the name—such as a woman being registered under her given name and voting under her husband's name. As a result, the committee voted unanimously to dismiss the contest, with the declaration that "no evidence has been adduced, and there is nothing in the record which, in any way, reflects, either directly or indirectly, upon the honor or integrity" of Cutting. The Senate on June 5, 1935, agreed by voice vote to the committee's recommendation, and the matter was dropped.

In the months before Bronson Cutting's death, many people had considered him a possible contender for his party's 1936 presidential nomination. His death shattered the Republican party in New Mexico; not until 1972 did the state again elect a Republican to the U.S. Senate.

Dennis Chavez went on to win a special election in 1936 with 55 percent of the vote and was reelected to four subsequent terms, serving until his death on November 18, 1962. He, too, was subjected to an election contest when his defeated opponent in the 1952 race charged him with election fraud.

Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.

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