A Spouse in the House

When Representative Robert Matsui (D-Calif.) died, on January 1, his wife, Doris, faced a question most widows don't have to: Did she want her husband's job?

Both political parties have a gracious tradition of embracing congressional widows. No fewer than three now serve in Congress: Representatives Mary Bono (R-Calif.), Lois Capps (D-Calif.), and Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) all won the seat of a deceased husband. (Unlike the Senate, which usually fills sudden vacancies by appointment, the House holds special elections in such cases.) California, frequently the incubator of political trends, launched the widow phenomenon more than eighty years ago, when Mae Ella Nolan pursued and won the seat of her late husband, John. (During her brief tenure in Congress she became the first woman to chair a House committee.)

Doris Matsui decided that she, too, wished to succeed her husband, and she'll be up for a vote on March 8 (and possibly again in a runoff on May 3, if no candidate wins by a majority). The record of congressional widows who have run before her is an astounding 36—2—better even than the record of Karl Rove.

It's not hard to understand why party officials and voters find a widow nearly irresistible. To begin with, there's the sympathy factor. And a widow has the advantage of a familiar surname—critical in the typically abbreviated campaigns that precede a special election. Certainly a mourning wife campaigning to carry on her husband's legacy is daunting to would-be challengers. And support from the party establishment is nearly always a given—born of the desire to honor a colleague, but also part of a cold-blooded calculation to maintain control of the seat. "[Widows] have everything going for them in that moment," says Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics, at Rutgers University. (Widowers may be more resistible: the only time a husband sought his late wife's congressional seat, he was opposed by thirty-seven challengers, and lost.)

Politically speaking, Doris Matsui has drawn an inside straight. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed her as soon as she announced her candidacy—an unambiguous sign that the party leadership did not wish to see a challenger. Top-flight Democratic candidates who had initially expressed an interest took a pass.

But not every widow enjoys such treatment. In 1999 House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt refused to clear the Democratic field for Marta Macias Brown, widow of the California representative George Brown. She faced nine challengers in the special election and lost (though only by 518 votes).

As the record suggests, many voters make an emotional connection between a deceased congressman and his wife. This can be difficult for a widow to ignore. "People come to them and say, 'Please carry the fallen standard for us,'" says the Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who is working on Matsui's campaign. "A lot of these women are identified as part of their husband's career."

In many cases, though, the women decide to pass along the standard soon. Despite their initial success at the polls, half the widows elected to fill out their husbands' terms do not seek re-election.