Remembering New Hampshire’s most historic election

As a result of travels for our 40th wedding anniversary, my wife and I had to vote absentee a couple of weeks before the 2014 election. The last time we did that in an important election was when we were on our honeymoon in England. That was 1974 and, opening the International Herald Tribune on the day after the U.S. election, there was one curious omission in the election results: the New Hampshire U.S. Senate race.

That was the year Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, and the New Hampshire U.S. Senate race was a virtual tie. The Republican candidate, 1st District Congressman Louis C. Wyman, was running against Democrat and former Insurance Commissioner John Durkin.

Republicans believed they had the advantage to gain the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Norris Cotton. Wyman took that inherent GOP advantage to heart and reportedly played golf when he should have been campaigning, assuming his victory was inevitable.

Durkin, on the other hand, a scrapping campaigner, worked hard and rode the Democratic wave after Watergate.

At the end of election night, it looked like Wyman had won by a few votes.

Taking the tiny victory personally, Wyman criticized voters in parts of the state, notably Portsmouth, as ungrateful for all of the work he had done for them and promised to remember that when he got to the Senate.

Durkin demanded a recount, a process that took a long time. Attorney General Warren Rudman took an active part in the process.

The U.S. Senate took over the process and had all of the ballots brought to Washington, but eventually the Senate tired of the process and sent the election dispute back to New Hampshire, notwithstanding the fact that the governor and executive council, in the hands of Republicans, had declared Wyman the winner and had him sworn in, an action that the Senate did not recognize.

Once the election was back in New Hampshire for a second vote, voters remembered Wyman’s election night comments, and Durkin scored a significant victory in the second round, going to Washington as the 100th senator in seniority, due to his late election.

Durkin served one term, and during that term, blocked the nomination of then-former Attorney General Rudman to the chairmanship of the Interstate Commerce Commission, a post to which he had been nominated by President Gerald Ford. Durkin thought that the Democrats might win the presidency in 1976, and therefore be able to fill such positions with Democrats. Rudman went into private law practice instead.

In 1980, when Durkin’s seat was up for re-election, Rudman and 10 other candidates filed for the office in the GOP primary. Rudman won the nomination, and on election night in November, along with many Republican candidates benefiting from the Reagan landslide, defeated Durkin.

This writer, then a young campaign worker and law partner of Rudman’s, was seated in Rudman headquarters at the Holiday Inn in Concord on election night. The candidate and his entourage had gone downstairs to address supporters midway through the evening, telling them that the vote still was close, but things were looking good.

Suddenly, the telephone rang in the suite.

The voice on the other end said, “Who is this?” when I answered. The voice said, “This is John Durkin, tell Warren he has won and I have lost and I am going to resign my seat early so that he can gain seniority and not have to experience what I did in 1975.”

Expressing my astonishment, I asked for the phone number and wrote it down. When Rudman and his group returned to the suite, I reported the conversation and, in the face of some incredulity, Rudman called Durkin back.

Durkin resigned early. Rudman took the oath of office in December, but did not gain seniority, as the incoming Republican majority determined that all candidates elected on the same day would have the same seniority, probably a smart decision.

Rudman went on to serve two terms with distinction, and he and John Durkin, now both departed, became good friends and spent many hours recounting their past experiences, notwithstanding the tension between them and resentments over prior events.

One interesting footnote is that Durkin might not have run against Wyman if Gov. Meldrim Thomson had not had him physically removed from the Insurance Department when his term was up as commissioner, and Rudman might not have run if Durkin had not blocked his nomination by President Ford.

Maybe they would, maybe they would not, but it is interesting how events have unexpected results.

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

Categories: Cook on Concord