In 1934, conservative Republican Senator Henry Hatfield, normally a popular figure, faced an exceptionally young Democratic opponent in Rush Dew Holt Sr. (1905-1955), a member of the House of Delegates who stood out as a populist and a foe of public utility companies. He ran as a staunch proponent of the New Deal and given its popularity and the shift of West Virginia to the Democrats he was able to oust Hatfield. This was despite not being the Constitutionally required age by the start of the term to which he was elected. Holt would have to wait six months before being sworn in, and to this day he is the youngest person ever elected to the Senate. He initially was thought of as to FDR’s left and his early record reflected this perception, but he soon changed. Despite having been raised by a socialist, Holt dramatically departed from the New Deal line starting in 1936. He had also parted ways with his original political benefactor, Senator Matthew Neely, both ideologically and over patronage; Neely had been getting an overwhelming share of the latter to the consternation of Holt. The parting became so bitter that Neely denounced Holt as a “sewer rat” for his turn (Hill).
By DW-Nominate’s measurements, Holt was the fifth most conservative Democrat to serve in either House of Congress between 1857 and 2021 with a score of 0.283. However, the MC-Index places him at a 60%. This can be attributed to his dramatic swing against the New Deal but even more so his uncompromising non-interventionism, the latter of which DW-Nominate seems to have a heavier weight on in the Senate. This was in step with old progressives, who opposed American military adventures in the early 20th century, including President Calvin Coolidge’s now little-known intervention in Nicaragua in the 1920s. Holt not only voted against any effort weakening the Neutrality Acts and against the peacetime draft, but also voted against both the nominations of Henry Stimson as Secretary of War and Frank Knox as Secretary of the Navy in 1940, both men interventionist Republicans who managed to get significant Republican support. He also supported higher tariffs, especially on glass, as this was a specialty of West Virginia. Holt seemed to relish his role as a great dissenter, and he earned the spoils of dissenting against one of history’s great men. FDR was still quite popular in West Virginia, and so out of step was he with his party that he came in third in his bid for renomination. Out of the Senate, Holt spoke at America First rallies and got some bad press for trying to publish his book, The British Propaganda Network, through Flanders Hall, a publishing firm that was run from behind the scenes by Nazi propagandist George Sylvester Viereck. Even after Pearl Harbor, he remained resolute in his non-interventionism, declaring in 1942, “Our fight is not over. We must stand guard to see that the internationalists…are not allowed to determine the future of our great country. They would commit us to everlasting wars everywhere” (Coffey, 1-14).
Holt won back his seat in the House of Delegates in 1942 as a Democrat, serving from 1943 to 1949. However, his efforts at higher office were in vain, losing a gubernatorial nomination in 1944 and as late as 1948 he trying to win the party’s nomination for the Senate. By 1949, however, he had figured out that he no longer belonged in the Democratic Party and switched. In 1950, he made an unsuccessful bid for Congress as a Republican, came close to winning a gubernatorial election in 1952 (running ahead of Eisenhower), and was again elected to the House of Delegates in 1954. However, Holt had little time to savor this final victory, as he tragically lost his battle with cancer on February 8, 1955, only 49 years old. His widow, Helen, would serve in his place and would serve as the state’s secretary of state from 1957 to 1959, the first woman to hold statewide office in West Virginia. Unlike her short-lived husband, Holt lived to the advanced age of 101, dying 60 years after her husband. His son, Rush Jr., served in Congress as a Democrat from New Jersey from 1999 to 2015.
Holt was a man who possessed a powerful mind (he started attending university at 15) but he compromised a promising political career on principle and perhaps a sense of pleasure in being an iconoclast within the Democratic Party. He peaked and died early, possibly short of his full political potential.
Coffey, W.E. (1992). Isolationism and Pacifism: Senator Rush D. Holt and American Foreign Policy. West Virginia History, 51.
Hill, R. (2013, April 14). The Boy Wonder: Senator Rush Holt of West Virginia. The Knoxville Focus.
Holt, Rush Dew. Voteview.
Young, R. (2020, June 17). Rush Holt, Sr. “A champion of the common man”. The Weston Democrat.