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The Biggest Landslide in Midterm Election History

October 23, 2018 in History

By Greg Timmons

Democrats in 1894 knew it would be bad, but they didn’t know their losses would be historic.

Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, circa 1890.

Leading up to the November midterms in 1894, the Democrats were in trouble. Democratic President Grover Cleveland, elected just two years prior, was facing a catastrophic recession, a railroad strike and an army of jobless workers demonstrating in Washington, D.C. for relief.

Party leaders knew the democrats could have a bad showing—but they did not realize just how bad it would be. In the end, democrats lost more than 100 seats in Congress in the largest single turnover of power in American history.

The Republicans taking over Congress was another big defeat for Cleveland, who had been elected for his first term in 1884 only to lose four years later to Benjamin Harrison. He was reelected in 1892 but was facing one of the nation’s biggest economic depressions, the Panic of 1893.

Traditionally, the Congressional midterms serve as a referendum on a president’s performance. Over the past 100 years only two presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush, have had their party actually gain seats in a midterm election. So why was the 1894 election so punishing for a president who had been elected twice?

A 1893 political cartoon, by Charles Jay Taylor, showing President Cleveland as a railroad engineer driving a locomotive through the ‘Business Depression Tunnel’, knocking out of the way legislators who are placing ‘Dilatory Amendments’ and ‘Teller’s Dilatory Tactics’ on the tracks, trying to derail the train.

It’s the economy, stupid.

During the Gilded Age of the late 19 century, there was ample economic growth, but much of it was dependent on high prices on basic goods. For half a decade prior, the grain market had suffered from over production, storms and then drought. In 1893, the wheat market crashed and several other commodity items followed suit.

The transportation industry was heavily dependent on the massive agricultural market and when that crashed, it was only a matter of time before financially weaker railroad companies would fall. The first was the critically overextended Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Twelve days before Cleveland was inaugurated, the company went into bankruptcy. During the panic period, another 50 railroads would go under. Thirty steel companies would collapse in their wake.

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