New Hampshire has owned the record for the longest and closest U.S. Senate election in history since 1974 when John Durkin and Louis Wyman locked horns in the granddaddy of all political tugs-of-war.
But now the Granite State's record could topple like the Old Man of the Mountain. On Nov. 19, Minnesota started a statewide recount to decide the 2008 U.S. Senate race between stand-up comedian Al Franken and his Republican opponent, incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman.
According to the latest numbers, Coleman officially holds the lead by 292 votes, but the recount is not over. About 4,740 ballots are being challenged. The winner could be decided before the end of the year — or the candidates could wind up in court, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said.
So far, the recount is going well, but a court challenge and the possibility of drawing the Senate into the fracas is becoming more likely after a panel denied Franken's request to factor absentee ballots rejected by poll workers into the recount.
The Minnesota race has gained national attention because a Democratic victory could hand President-elect Obama a filibuster-proof Senate.
N.H. recount set historic precedent
Locally, it has rekindled memories of the 1974 New Hampshire Senate contest and the precedents it set for the state and the nation, although people who played a part in the saga do not always agree about the legacy.
"Minnesota's trying to steal one on us," said Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester. "But if you're trying to draw an analogy, New Hampshire's first. We set the stage."
He conceded the Minnesota matchup is also a classic with "two characters" in Coleman and Franken. But D'Allesandro remembered the 1974 New Hampshire Senate race and recount as a "completely unique experience."
Wyman, who died in 2002, was a Harvard Law School graduate and former U.S. Congressman. Durkin was "the upstart." Durkin was state insurance commissioner, and he'd also worked in the attorney general's office.
D'Allesandro can recall walking through the Statehouse corridors and hearing the slogan, "Keep Durkin Workin'." Everybody understood the stakes; this was the closest Senate race in U.S. history.
"It bounced back and forth," D'Allesandro said. "It came down to two or three votes. It was unbelievable."
Closest race left its mark
Durkin, now 72, remembers it well.
"It was the closest federal race in the entire country, going back to the founding fathers," he said last week. "I would much rather have read about it in the paper than lived it."
But live it he did.
"The way it broke, Louie (Wyman) won election night, but by a margin that was not an awesome margin," Durkin said.
He demanded a recount after two of the Senate's power brokers — Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale and Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson — called him election night and put the recount bug in his ear.
"They suggested it," Durkin said. "At least, I'm sure Jackson did. And I didn't fall off a turnip truck and then decide to run for the Senate. I'd been around the Statehouse. If a guy's not elected and doesn't know he's entitled to a recount, I wouldn't send him to Washington unless it's on a one-way trip."
Yet a recount was a bold move in 1974, Durkin said.
"There hadn't been many recounts for the Senate across the entire country; this was more of an eye-opener," Durkin said. "We broke the dam or the ice-jam."
He paid a price.
"There was a lot of sniping," he said. "'What do you think you are doing, young man?' We had people saying we were undemocratic. We had people saying we wanted to tamper with the ballots. It's notable that after our Senate recount, there hasn't been any fuss or muss about recounts."
But Durkin recalls plenty of fuss and muss.
The first recount, supervised by then New Hampshire Secretary of State Bob Stark, lasted about a week and a half. Ultimately, Stark declared Durkin the winner by 10 votes.
Durkin criticizes Ballot Law Commission
But the marathon contest didn't end there; Wyman appealed to the state Ballot Law Commission.
"Surprise, surprise," Durkin said. "Louie won with the state ballot commission. They pondered each ballot until they could find enough to declare Wyman the winner."
Wyman beat Durkin by two votes in that review of the challenged ballots. The immediate result: Both candidates went to Washington and presented certificates of election.
The margin of victory and the winner changed three times, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner said. The margin of victory went from 365 votes to 10 to 2. Then the outcome was still up in the air because the Senate tried to hold its own recount.
"That went on for months and months and months," Gardner said. "There were stories about it every day in Washington about how many ballots had been counted. Then they just decided they just couldn't figure it out. They had 100 senators voting on every ballot."
Everyone was exhausted, Durkin said.
"You'd go in morning after morning after morning after morning with the same group of bored or angry senators sitting at the bench," he said. "They didn't want to be there; I didn't want to be there; Louie didn't want to be there. We wanted to get it solved. Grass grows faster than the Senate Rules Committee moves."
Finally, New Hampshire held a special election in September 1975 between Durkin and Wyman. Durkin won by about 27,000 votes.
"It was sort of a mob scene in the Senate at the swearing-in," Durkin said. "It was done after the day's business was concluded. I was pleased. It was sort of mundane, quiet and sedate after the rough-and-tumble election, rough-and-tumble recount and ballot commission. Getting actually sworn in to the Senate was very low key."
Lawyer recalls the 1974 'adventure'
Concord attorney Tom Rath was there from the beginning.
"Basically, the Senate gave the New Hampshire voters a mulligan," Rath said.
According to Rath and Gardner, the elections committee in the state Legislature came up with the solution by passing a new law. If the Senate declared the seat was vacant, New Hampshire would hold a special election. So, the Senate declared the seat vacant.
Rath "lived through" the longest election, he said, starting with election night in 1974. He answered the call from the attorney general and witnessed one of the first legacies of the Durkin-Wyman race.
"Warren Rudman was attorney general at the time," Rath said. "He called me and said it was getting really close. He suggested we have the state police collect the ballots and bring them to Concord."
That's standard operating procedure on election nights now, Rath said, but the first time it happened was the night of the November 1974 election.
At that time, seven or eight out of every 10 ballots were paper ballots, but some New Hampshire municipalities used voting machines, "great big pieces of machinery that looked like telephone booths on wheels."
After the election, local officials moved the voting machines back into storage in school or city hall basements. Rath combed through basement closets to read the machine counts.
"You had to go out physically and look at them," he said. "It was quite an adventure. Both parties engaged high-powered players, and their lawyers challenged every ballot marked with an X, instead of a checkmark, because the statute demanded a check."
The Democrats demanded recounts in every town, Rath said, if anyone saw a discrepancy between the number of voters on the checklist and the turnout.
"They challenged everything from the color of the wallpaper to the carpet on the floor," Rath said.
In Rath's opinion, Durkin ultimately was the last candidate standing because the Democrats dragged out the process. They handcuffed the state Ballot Law Commission and pitched their case to the Senate.
"The Senate refused to seat Wyman because Durkin alleged all sorts of improprieties," Rath said. "There was a lot of argument about whether the Senate had a right to make a political decision of its own after the state had decided."
Rath doesn't think the U.S. Senate should make the call.
"It's the wrong thing to do. It's a partisan body overriding the decision by a state and its voters after it's been thoroughly reviewed," he said. "I don't know who would want to be elected that way. There always ought to be a stain or a question mark over that individual. The Senate was very sensitive to that."
Ultimately, New Hampshire found a way out for the Senate, Rath said. But if that hadn't happened, the Durkin-Wyman legacy would have been negative.
Race emphasized importance of recounts
Durkin sees it differently.
"The only appeal was the Senate," Durkin said. "The Senate has the ultimate authority to seat its members, but it was a long, drawn-out, tiresome ordeal.
"No one promised democracy was going to be Spic-and-Span clean in the sense there isn't going to be any pain and suffering," Durkin said.
He said he sees the legacy as reminding candidates and the public the recount is an important right.
The marathon event didn't sour voters on the system, Gardner said. The turnout at the 1975 special election was bigger than at the polls in 1974.
Generally, Americans accept election results after a recount, even when there's good reason to be skeptical, according to Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
"It's a recognized right," he said. "And, in many states, it's the law, and you don't have a choice."
Minnesota's law, in fact, requires a recount automatically if the margin of victory is less than one half of 1 percent. The recount in the Senate race was one of four triggered automatically Nov. 4.
"We have a lot of recounts in Minnesota," Secretary of State Ritchie said, "because we have six active parties and we split our vote. It's been wonderful for me, as secretary of state, hearing all the recount stories within our state and other states, as well. We just did one two months ago, and that has given us a great deal of confidence how to proceed. We are sticking with our plan."
Erin Rath, Coleman's deputy campaign manager, said so far the recount is "a textbook example of how a recount should go."
She is Tom Rath's daughter and is not anxious to repeat her dad's experience with the Durkin-Wyman race.
"We will happily leave New Hampshire with the title," she said, when asked about the Granite State's claim to the longest U.S. Senate race.
Experience led to reform in N.H.
In Gardner's opinion, the marathon recount led to reforms in New Hampshire election laws.
"Quite a few reforms resulted because the whole process was put under a microscope," he said. "We tightened up the process of absentee voting, At that time, you didn't have to fill out a form and sign your name. A person could walk in, pick up 15 ballots, go to a nursing home and get people to vote for them. There was legislative reform that no one could get an absentee ballot unless that person requested it in writing, and it couldn't be picked up by anyone else."
Another change altered the makeup of the Ballot Law Commission. At the time, Rudman was part of the three-member panel. After the Durkin-Wyman contest, the Legislature decided the sitting attorney general shouldn't be on the commission because his main job is to enforce the laws.
"I think a lot of the blame goes to the Ballot Law Commission," Durkin said. "In 47 states, I'd have been seated (after the secretary of state's recount)."
"But New Hampshire has that political creature," he said. "They should dress the Ballot Law Commission in weighted socks and drop them over the side when the ice goes out of Winnipesaukee next year. They serve no purpose. They muddy the water."
But Gardner defended the commission's role.
"John Durkin was not happy with some of the rulings of the Ballot Law Commission," he said.
But Gardner sees the commission as a forum where candidates can appeal election results, short of a courtroom.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.