How one state elected 3 US senators to fill 2 seats, and got away with it

Ninety years ago this month -- Dec. 18, 1890 -- the State of Idaho did something unique in American history: It elected three US senators on the same day, and they all took office, even though the Constitution limits each state to two senators.

State legislators elected senators in those days, and the Idaho Legislature in 1890 was composed of 44 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Small wonder that all four serious candidates were Republicans. And not your present-day polished, genteel, ingratiating Republicans, either. They were straight out of the "wild West."

Fred T. Dubois was one. The son of Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaign manager, he brought a Yale degree and a business background to Idaho, where he became a cowboy and, later, a US marshal. He built a political machine, which he used mainly to help disenfranchise Mormons who practiced polygamy. In 1886 Dubois was elected a delegate to Congress and was instrumental in persuading it to admit Idaho to statehood.

Another was George L. Shoup, a native of Missouri and a colonel of cavalry in the Civil War. Shoup founded Salmon City, Idaho, and was the last appointed territorial governor, later elected as its first state governor.

Then there was William J. McConnell. He arrived in Idaho -- on foot -- in 1863 where, for a time, he raised vegetables to sell to gold miners. He later was a captain of vigilantes who pursued both criminals and Democrats --apparently being too subtle for Republican vigilates to notice. But this activity made McConnell unpopular and caused him to leave Idaho for several years. Eventually, he returned and opened a general store in Moscow in the northwestern section of the state.

Finally there was William H. Claggett. Maryland-born, his route to Idaho took him through Iowa, California, Nevada, Montana, the Dakota Territory, and Oregon. Twice along the way he was elected to political office and helped lead the successful effort to create Yellowstone Park. Eventually, he became president of the Idaho constitutional convention. Claggett once prospected with Mark Twain, and because of that got his name in the book "Roughing It." Alone among the four top candidates, he was not on record as ever having drawn a gun in anger.

None of these men -- no two of them, in fact -- could muster a majority when the Legislature began voting for senator on Dec. 16, 1890.

But a solution arrived in the form of a telegram to Dubois from Sen. George F. Hoar of Massachusetts. the Senate, Hoar wired, must be kept in balance -- one-third of its members elected every two years. Therefore, one Idaho senator would draw lots for a term of either two years or four years. The other would serve less than three months, his term expiring March 4, 1891, when a full six-year senate term for Idaho would begin.

Dubois proposed an alliance among himself, Shoup, and Claggett: Let Shoup and Claggett be elected to the immediate terms; let them draw to see who served two or four years and could stand for reelection; let the other serve three months and retire from the field with honor. Above all, the idea was for Dubois to be elected to the six-year term.

Shoup said yes. Claggett Said no. Claggett argued that whoever got the three-month term should also get the six-year term. The Legislature too two days to vote on the proposal -- inconclusively.

Then Dubois offered to McConnell the deal that Claggett had refused. McConnell accepted. The pro-Dubois press, which had theretofore called McConnell an "outcast" and -- when it was in more of a brotherly mood -- a "serpent," suddenly decided it was McConnell's erstwhile companions who had led him astray; McConnell now would make a splendid senator.

So on Dec. 18, on three successive ballots, the legislature elected Shoup as Idaho's first senator, McConnell as its second, and Dubois to take the six-year term.

But Claggett did not surrender. Instead, he appealed to Republicans from his region, to other Republicans who never did vote for Dubois, and to Democrats who enjoyed embarrassing Republicans. And he thus managed, late in January 1891 to persuade the legislature to elect him, by a vote of 28-to-26, to the same US Senate seat to which it had already name Dubois.

Claggett went to Washington and told the Senate that Dubois's election was illegal because, under some technicalities of federal election law, it had happened too soon.But Dubois was the one with the influence in Washington, and the Senate judged Dubois, not Claggett, to be the new senator.

McConnell drew the three-month term but subsequently served two terms as governor of Idaho. His Daughter became the bride of Boise attorney William E. Borah, who later served 33 years years in the US Senate.

Claggett returned to Idaho and practiced law there and in Spokane, Wash., Until his death.

Shoup served a four-year term and was reelected to a six-year term. In 1900 he was defeated for reelection and retired to Boise, where he died in 1904.

To make the saga complete, Dubois served out his term. But in 1896 he broke with the Republican Party over the gold standard and was defeated for reelection. In 1900, as a Silver Republican, he defeated Shoup, then chose to serve his new Senate term as a Democrat. In 1906, Borah took the Senate seat away from him. Dubois managed Champ Clark's presidential campaign in 1908, and held a variety of federal appointments until his death in 1930.

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