September 8, 1958
"As Maine goes, so goes the nation." This old slogan, based on Maine's practice of holding its elections in September, two months before the rest of the nation, applied for the last time in 1958. That state's 1958 midterm congressional election proved to be a dramatically foreshadowing event.
Senate Democrats had reason to be optimistic as that September 8 contest approached. The Senate's party alignment stood at 49 Democrats and 47 Republicans. Among the 34 seats subject to renewal, Democrats had to defend only 13. The increasingly unpopular lame-duck president Dwight Eisenhower had much to answer for after six years in office. His problems included influence-pedaling charges against his White House chief of staff, national frustration over Soviet gains in space and missile technology, and a bitter economic recession
The Senate race in Maine, where registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats by three-to-one, pitted Republican Senate incumbent Frederick Payne against two-term Democratic governor Edmund Muskie. As an early sign of voter discontent, Democratic voter registration and requests for absentee ballots soared. A New York Times reporter wrote that it had become "socially acceptable" in Maine to be registered as a Democrat.
In those days before jet aircraft and with the Senate still in session, Senator Payne spent most of the campaign trapped in Washington. He was reduced to sending his message largely through press releases and home-movie film.
Muskie, relatively young at 44 and with an attractive family that played well against the thrice-married Payne, had won his gubernatorial races by large margins. On September 8, 1958, Muskie won 60 percent of the vote, making him the first popularly elected Democrat to represent Maine in the Senate. His victory gave Democrats nationally a huge psychological boost.
On November 4, Senate Democrats beat all predictions, gaining 13 seats—the largest transfer from one party to another in Senate history. With the admission of Alaska in January 1959, the party balance stood at 64 Democrats to 34 Republicans.
This election had the further impact of destroying the nearly even balance that had existed between Senate Democrats from the South and those from the rest of the nation. In 1959, northern and western Democrats would outnumber their southern colleagues by almost two to one.
The 1958 midterm election marked a major turning point in the modern history of the Senate. The reconstituted upper house would go on to serve as a laboratory for the major mid-1960s domestic legislative advances collectively known as the Great Society.