A 1985 Recount Is Suddenly Relevant Again

In the fight over Indiana’s Bloody Eighth, Democrats won the seat, but lost the larger narrative.

Frank McCloskey in 1985
Frank McCloskey in 1985 (John Duricka / AP)

As Florida begins a statewide recount to determine the outcome of its gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests, commentators are rehashing the famous Bush v. Gore recount of 2000. That’s the most obvious reference—the same state and even some of the same counties are at issue, after all—but it’s not the only or even the most useful one. Democrats in particular should look to the now-forgotten fight over Indiana’s “Bloody Eighth” Congressional District.

Immediately after President Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory against Walter Mondale in 1984, which also returned to Congress a Democratic majority in the House and a Republican majority in the Senate, a bruising battle unfolded over Indiana’s Eighth Congressional District. The freshman Democrat Frank McCloskey, a 45-year-old first-term Democrat, led the Republican Richard McIntyre, a promising 38-year-old conservative state legislator, by 72 votes after the initial count. But a tabulation error in one county seemed to swing the election to McIntyre, by just 34 votes, at which point the Republican secretary of state, Edward Simcox, certified McIntyre the victor. After a full recount, McIntyre was up by some 400 votes—but many thousands of ballots were not counted for technical reasons.

The tight race was not a total surprise, since, like Florida today, the Bloody Eighth of Indiana, as it was known, was a notoriously competitive swing district.

Democrats responded with intransigence. They said that Simcox had certified the election prematurely, and that “irregularities” put the apparent result in doubt, including allegations that Republicans had unfairly disqualified a sizable number of African American voters in the urban parts of the district. When McIntyre arrived on Capitol Hill on January 3, 1985, Democrats refused to seat him; the House voted 238 to 177, along strict party lines, to keep the seat vacant pending a congressional investigation and a new recount.

Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, the Majority Leader Jim Wright, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Tony Coelho charged one of their own, Representative Leon Panetta, to lead the recount. Under Panetta were two Democrats and just one Republican. Republicans cried foul that the majority was trying to steal the election. Even Minnesota’s Bill Frenzel, a gregarious Republican who was known as a moderate in his disposition and politics, characterized the process as a “rape” of the voters.

Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich, a young renegade elected in 1978, saw an opening to score partisan points. Gingrich was the leader of the Conservative Opportunity Society, a caucus of right-wing Republicans that he created in 1983. One of its goals was to encourage a more aggressive approach to challenging Democrats, who had been in the majority since 1954, than the 62-year old House Minority Leader Robert Michel had been willing to try. COS wanted to break with conventional norms and stretch procedure as far as possible to advance Republican objectives.

The Indiana recount fit nicely into Gingrich’s plans. Gingrich worked to convince reporters that this was a scandal of Watergate-like proportions. Indeed, he told one of his acolytes, Joe Barton of Texas, that the public needed to understand that “this is a constitutional issue! We have to make the press understand that.”

Guy Vander Jagt, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was initially reluctant to take Gingrich’s advice. He feared that doing so would blow up any chance of future bipartisan civility. But he quickly caved. Vander Jagt sent out to every Republican in Congress a draft of an op-ed titled “Stealing a Seat.”

Partisan tensions reached a boiling point when Panetta’s task force determined in late April that the seat should go to McCloskey. By a party-line vote of two to one, the committee decided that McCloskey had won by four votes, 116,645 to 116,641. Republicans went ballistic. “I think we ought to go to war,” the Wyoming Republican Dick Cheney declared.

Seeking retribution, Republicans kept their colleagues in session all night after the committee announced the recount outcome and prevented the House from conducting any business for three days. Live on C-SPAN, a relatively new channel created in 1978, Republicans delivered one tirade after another alleging that Democrats were stealing an election.

Nevertheless, on May 1, the House voted 236 to 190 to seat McCloskey, with 10 Democrats joining the unanimous Republican opposition. And by a vote of 229 to 200, the House once again rejected a Republican proposal to hold a new special election to settle the matter at the ballot box.

Republicans weren’t quite finished, though: Theatrically, they stormed out of the chamber before O’Neill could officially seat McCloskey. “Would the gentlemen remain within until I have had an opportunity to administer the oath?” O’Neill asked. “No!” yelled House Minority Leader Robert Michel, usually considered one of the most civil voices on Capitol Hill.

As O’Neill swore McCloskey into office, Republicans stood side by side on the steps leading out of the House chamber to speak with reporters. “This has united the Republican Party as nothing else,” McIntyre told the press. “The American people are not going to forget.” Republicans compared Democrats to “slime” and “thugs.”

Some Democrats were uncomfortable with the outcome, which they considered dubious. The Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, for example, voted against the committee recommendation. O’Neill, Frank recalled, was “mad at me until I explained myself; then he became furious.”

But most Democrats brushed aside the criticism. In their minds, what mattered most was that they’d held the seat. They didn’t understand that Republicans had succeeded in convincing the public that something was amiss—that, perhaps, the very legitimacy of the Democratic majority was suspect. Nor did they anticipate how the Bloody Eighth would embolden Republicans, convincing many of them that Gingrich’s way of thinking was fundamentally correct. In short: Enough with bipartisanship; it was time for a do-anything approach to taking back control of the House. “It validated Newt’s thesis,” Vin Weber, a COS ally, recalled. “The Democrats are corrupt, they are making us look like fools, and we are idiots to cooperate with them.”

Arguably, the Bloody Eighth is what led to the eventual GOP takeover of the House, under Gingrich, in 1994. The Bloody Eighth was his trial run, and the 1994 election his proof of concept. Thus even though Democrats won their seat, they lost the long-term narrative.

When pundits look back at the 2000 presidential election, the lesson they tend to draw is that what really matters in a recount is raw power. Who cares that the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision was, by many lights, among the most partisan, least legitimate rulings ever issued? George W. Bush, not Al Gore, became president.

But what’s at stake in this year’s recount is not the presidency—it’s a Senate seat that won’t determine which party controls that chamber, and a governorship that was previously in Republican hands. Of course the result matters, but, as in the fight over the Bloody Eighth, the narrative matters, too. Indeed, how the public perceives the process could influence the 2020 election (and beyond) more than the actual outcome. Which side will claim the mantle of justice? Which will end up looking corrupt?

Republicans understand that. President Donald Trump has been tweeting allegations that Democrats are up to no good. “Trying to STEAL two big elections in Florida!” he tweeted. “We are watching closely!” Senator Lindsey Graham joined in to say, “They are trying to steal this election. It’s not going to work.” Rick Scott has filed several lawsuits against county officials. He claims that there is evidence of fraud, even though state officials have found none.

Democrats need to counter GOP talking points with a clear message that they are trying to protect the integrity of the U.S. election system. The fight for a fair recount, they must explain, is a fight to push back against several decades of conservative attempts to restrict the franchise and undermine the legacy of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Every eligible person should be able to vote, and their votes must be counted. Those are bedrock principles for any democracy. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor, already took a step in the right direction by exchanging his election-night concession for a defiant statement: “I am replacing my words of concession with an uncompromised and unapologetic call that we count every single vote.”

Recounts are much more than legal disputes; they are fundamentally political fights. And in politics, story matters.