Less than a year ago, I wrote about the man Joe Biden had to beat to win his Senate seat, Cale Boggs. Today, I’m writing about the man the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, had to beat to win his Senate seat. This fellow is Walter Darlington “Dee” Huddleston (1926-2018).
By 1970s, Kentucky had gotten more Republican than it used to be, given Richard Nixon had won the state in 1960, 1968, and 1972. The Democrats, however, were still overall in a stronger position on a state level. Although the state had two Republican senators throughout the entirety of the 1960s, these were John Sherman Cooper and Thruston B. Morton, far from the most conservative among them, with Cooper siding more with progressives and Morton siding more with conservatives. In 1972, although Cooper was otherwise healthy and would have undoubtedly won another term should he have given it another go, his hearing had declined. The Republicans selected former Governor Louie B. Nunn, who identified with the conservative wing of the party, to run for the Senate. The Democrats picked Huddleston, who was a state senator from Elizabethtown. Although President Nixon had a blowout reelection, this didn’t translate down ticket in the Senate races, with Huddleston besting Nunn by around three points.
Huddleston’s first term record could best be described as moderately liberal, with the ACU giving him a 27% lifetime score and DW-Nominate holding him at a -0.314. On legislation that involved the creation of new government programs and economic regulation, he was supportive. Huddleston backed the creation of the Legal Services Corporation, supported more funds for food stamps, supported continuing price controls, and the proposed Consumer Protection Agency. He also usually supported organized labor such as in his opposition to denying food stamps to strikers but made an exception in his opposition to common-site picketing legislation. On social issues, he often took conservative stances, such as his opposition to busing as a means of desegregation, supporting restoring the federal death penalty in 1974, supporting restricting abortion funds, and opposing extending the deadline for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. Huddleston often avoided the spotlight but was regarded as effective behind-the-scenes, thus he fell into the workhorse rather than showhorse category of politician. This combination of stances worked for Kentucky voters of the time, and in 1978 the popular senator trounced Louie Guenther Jr., a member of the state House of Representatives, by 24 points.
Huddleston was often opposed to the economic agenda of the Reagan Administration, including the 1981 tax reduction and budget cuts, although was a bit more mixed on military policy. Reagan had a blowout reelection, but like with Nixon, this didn’t necessarily translate into coattails. The opponent Huddleston drew that year was the Jefferson County executive (the highest-ranking official in a Kentucky county), Mitch McConnell, who had also been a former legislative aide to Senator Marlow Cook. At first, he was the favorite to win, and McConnell was behind in polling by 17%. In August 1984 the race appeared lost, but one of Roger Ailes’ right-hand men, Larry McCarthy, got an idea for an ad after watching a dog food commercial. One of the major issues McConnell focused on was Huddleston missing major votes to deliver paid speeches, thus Ailes conceived, and McCarthy produced, an ad that became legendary, known as “Hound Dog”, which is from the perspective of bloodhounds looking for Huddleston. This ad is linked in the References section. Within 10 days of the ad, the polling gap was closed. The ad was criticized for accuracy as Huddleston’s attendance record was according to Jane Mayer (2012) of The New Yorker between 1981 and 1984 was 94%. However, Larry McCarthy, the credited originator of the ad, claimed his attendance was not the issue…it was the fact that he had missed major votes to make paid speeches. Additionally, Govtrack’s website on Huddleston shows that he missed 12.8% of votes from January 1973 to October 1984, while the lifetime median of missing votes was 6.9% among the records of senators serving in October 1984. It also shows that he missed 40% of votes from January to March 1984 and 22.2% from April to June, giving the McConnell campaign ammo. His campaign also ran another ad, this one with “Dee Huddleston” running from a man holding his record with a pack of bloodhounds that includes mentions of school prayer and the Panama Canal as reasons for Kentucky voters to vote him out. This ad is also in the References section. Although per ACU scorecard records, Huddleston had voted for a school prayer amendment to the Constitution on March 20, 1984, he had also voted for tabling Senator Jesse Helms’ (R-N.C.) amendment on April 9, 1979 that would have removed federal court jurisdiction over state laws and regulations regarding voluntary prayer and he had voted for the Panama Canal Treaty on April 18, 1978.
On Election Day, McConnell won by 0.4%, the only Republican to topple a Democratic incumbent in the Senate that year. This would be the toughest race he ever faced. Huddleston would in the late 1980s be part of the advisory board of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an organization dedicated to reducing legal immigration, border security, and stopping illegal immigration. He was a senator who worked for his time and place in Kentucky’s history, but the foremost thing he will be noted for historically, fair or not, is being defeated by Mitch McConnell; the New York Times’, the San Francisco Chronicle’s and Courier Journal’s obituary titles mention this fact.
Mayer, J. (2012, February 15). Who Let the Attack-Ad Dogs Out? The New Yorker.
McConnell – Bloodhounds. YouTube.
McConnell – Bloodhounds II. YouTube.
Roberts, S. (2018, October 17). Walter Huddleston, Senator Toppled by Mitch McConnell, Dies at 92. The New York Times.
Schreiner, B. (2018, October 16). Dee Huddleston, ex-Kentucky senator who lost to Mitch McConnell in 1984, dies at 92. The San Francisco Chronicle.
Sen. Walter ‘Dee’ Huddleston. Govtrack.
Sen. Walter Huddleston. American Conservative Union.
Stein, D. (2018, October 19). Sen. Walter Huddleston was a reminder that immigration used to be a bipartisan issue. The Hill.
Walter ‘Dee’ Huddleston, who lost his Senate seat to Mitch McConnell, dies. (2018, October 16). Courier Journal.