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The Election Case of John R. Neal v. A.T. (Tom) Stewart of Tennessee (1939)

Tom Stewart

Campaign financing; campaign irregularities.

Petition filed: Jan. 16, 1939
Referred to committee: Jan. 16, 1939
Committee report: Mar. 31, 1939
Senate vote: Mar. 31, 1939

Result: Stewart retained seat

In 1938, as Tennessee Democrats competed fiercely for that party's nomination in a special election to fill the unexpired term of the recently deceased Nathan L. Bachman, the United States Senate received complaints from one contestant about irregularities in the primary campaign. The Senate dutifully referred the petition to a select committee charged with investigating campaign expenditures in the 1938 senatorial elections. The committee investigated the charges of John R. Neal, who, after his defeat in the primary, ran as an independent in the general election. In that race, Neal succeeded in attracting only 9,100 votes, while his opponent, Tom Stewart, won a decisive plurality of almost 195,000. Stewart's victory was made even more secure by a report from the select committee on January 3, 1939, that dismissed Neal's allegations about the conduct of the primary and added that there should be no question of Stewart's right to his seat.

Statement of the Case
Tom Stewart appeared and was seated on January 16, 1939. On that same day, John Neal filed a second petition with the Senate in which he charged that Stewart procured his seat through fraudulent procedures that violated the laws of Tennessee and the United States. He therefore asked that Stewart be disqualified and that he himself be seated instead. Neal specifically alleged that Stewart spent more than $250,000 in the primary and general elections, seriously exceeding the state campaign expenditures limit of $20,000 for the two elections. He further charged that on election day foremen of the Works Progress Administration "herded" employees to the polls and forced them to vote for Stewart, after earlier coercing campaign contributions from many federal workers. The Senate referred these charges to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.

An amended petition submitted on February 17, 1939, largely reiterated Neal's original claims of excessive expenditures; illegal use of poll-tax receipts; irregular use of absentee ballots; registration of persons who were actually deceased, aliens, or minors; and unlawful campaign assessments of federal employees. Neal further stated that Stewart's coalition, under the guise of building farm-to-market roads, constructed hundreds of private thoroughfares and driveways to elicit voter support in the general election.

Response of the Senate
On March 31, 1939, the committee returned a report favorable to Tom Stewart. Although Neal's allegations echoed those of other election contests of the era, the committee noted that he was in a singularly weak position as a candidate. Stewart's margin of victory was so great that the investigation could not possibly throw out enough votes to make Neal the winner in the race. The committee therefore saw no need to carry the investigation further. It also reminded the Senate that the select committee had previously determined that Neal could in no way claim to have won the primary nomination. The committee therefore proposed a resolution to dismiss the contest against Tom Stewart. The Senate agreed by voice vote that same day and dismissed the contest.

Stewart, who had served as the district attorney general in Tennessee for sixteen years, remained in the Senate for ten years. In 1942 he faced another election challenge from John Neal, but the Senate also dismissed that contest. Stewart returned to the practice of law in 1949 and died in 1972.

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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