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November 5 Election in Doubt

October 25, 1918

Portrait of President Woodrow Wilson

Until October 25, 1918, few responsible political observers would have predicted the outcome of that year’s November 5 congressional elections. Although the Democrats controlled the Senate and House, a shift of just a few seats in each chamber could return both bodies to Republican control for the first time in eight years.

The 1918 campaign season found the nation preoccupied with a deadly influenza epidemic and World War I. Through the year and a half of American military involvement in the war, congressional leaders had deliberately downplayed partisan differences. Senate Republican Leader Henry Cabot Lodge privately warned his colleagues to suspend the “attacks on [President Woodrow] Wilson that we all want to make [to avoid] the charge that we are drawing the party line and the cry that we are not loyal to the war.”

Although President Wilson had earlier called for a political moratorium (“politics is adjourned”) during the war emergency, he was soon actively engaged in seeking the election of those who promised to support his programs and leadership.

October 25, 1918, may have been the single most decisive turning point in Wilson’s entire eight-year presidency. Before that date, he enjoyed bipartisan support as a war leader for the entire nation. Then, with just 10 days before the elections, he released a note calling for the return of a Democratic Congress as essential to the nation’s security.

Wilson’s questioning of the Republican Party’s patriotism turned what had been a listless campaign into a heated contest.

On November 5, Republicans swept the congressional elections, compiling a two-seat majority in the Senate and a 41-seat margin in the House. Local issues, the tendency of the president’s party to suffer losses in midterm elections, and dissatisfaction with Democratic legislative accomplishments accounted for some of the Republican gains. But the bitter and egotistical tone of Wilson’s plea also made a difference.

For Wilson, the worst consequence of the election was that it placed his Republican nemesis, Henry Cabot Lodge, in two vital Senate posts: majority leader and chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. His subsequent failure to work agreeably with Lodge to secure ratification of the Treaty of Versailles ultimately doomed his presidency and set in motion the ominous chain of events that tied the first world war to the second.