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Key Pittman Barely Elected


January 28, 1913

Key Pittman

This Nevada Democrat barely made it to the Senate. On January 28, 1913, Key Pittman won a seat by a mere 89 votes. (In 1948, a Texas Democrat would become known as "Landslide Lyndon" for winning a Senate primary by 87 votes, and in a 1964 Nevada general election Howard Cannon defeated Paul Laxalt by 48 votes.) Setting another record in that 1913 election, Pittman gained his seat by attracting a total of only 7,942 votes—the smallest number by which a U.S. Senate candidate has ever gained office. Key Pittman's election is noteworthy for a third reason. He won by a popular vote at a time when the Constitution still required state legislatures to elect senators. How was that possible?

By the second half of the 19th century, the state legislative election system had proven increasingly susceptible to deadlock and corruption. In the 1890s, the House of Representatives repeatedly passed constitutional amendments for direct popular election, only to see them die in the Senate. Early in the new century, more than half the states devised election systems that included a popular referendum for senators and a pledge by state legislative candidates to vote according to the referendum's results. Nevada operated under such a system. In 1910, that state's voters had narrowly endorsed the Republican Senate incumbent. Although Democrats had regained control of the state legislature when it convened in 1911, they followed the will of the voters and awarded the seat to the Republican. He died soon thereafter, opening the way for Key Pittman to win the special election in 1912—the year the Senate finally agreed to a direct election amendment.

When the Nevada legislature met in January 1913, four months before the Seventeenth Amendment's ratification, it formalized Pittman's slim popular-vote victory. Pittman went on to a colorful and productive 27-year Senate career. As one biographer notes, he "won advantages for his constituency by clever use of difficult domestic and foreign situations …and by masterfully manipulating] amendments, riders, and especially conference committee compromises."