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Rail lobbyist Keith Hartwell assesses 'wave election' prospects at RTA confab


Following is an excerpt from a speech delivered by railroad lobbyist Keith Hartwell, president of Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell L.L.C., at the Railway Tie Association’s 92nd annual conference, which was held Oct. 12-14 in Branson, Mo. The excerpt focuses on the prospects for a "wave election" in 2010.

“Currently, the House of Representatives is made up of 256 Democrats and 179 Republicans. Two-hundred and eighteen seats constitute the majority of the 435-member House, so the Republicans need to pick up a net total of 39 seats in the upcoming national elections on Nov. 2 to take control of the House. This outcome, which many are predicting will happen, would constitute what we know as a 'wave' election.

So, you might ask, how unusual is a wave election like many are predicting this year? Since the country was founded, there have been 111 elections for the House of Representatives. Of those 111 elections, the party in control has lost the majority only 26 times, or less than 25 percent of the time.

And of those 26 elections, in only 13 of them has the party taking power won 39 seats or more, the number the Republicans need to take control of the House in 2011. A wave election of this magnitude happens less than 12 percent of the time.

So, given the relative infrequency of these wave elections, I thought it might be interesting to analyze what was going on in the country at the time of these elections that caused them to happen, so that we can predict with more certainty what might happen this year.

Now, as you know, I am a railroad lobbyist. I believe that railroading is the most important industry in the country and, I think it is fair to say, has had a greater impact on the nation’s history than any other industry. And so I am naturally predisposed to view national events through the railroad lens. Therefore, I was not surprised to discover that in every one of the 13 previous wave elections, there was in that same year a significant development in the railroad world.

Coincidence? I think not. Therefore I thought it would be useful to briefly review each of those 13 railroad events so you can determine if the railroad events of 2010 rise to that level of significance, thereby signaling a wave election this November.

Remember our wave election number is 39, the net gain in seats that the Republicans need in November 2010 to take control of the House. I am going to go through these in quick chronological order and there will be a quiz at the end so please pay attention.

The first wave election was in 1800. The Democrats, then called the Democratic-Republicans, won 68 seats to take control of the House from the Federalist Party. Also in 1800, George Hudson, the English financier known as the 'Railway King' was born. Hudson was the first speculator in England’s fledgling railroad industry and in his heyday controlled over 1,000 miles of the country’s railway system.

1832 was not a wave election, but I want you to remember it because it is the year that Octave Chanute was born. Octave Chanute was a brilliant and innovative railroad engineer who is widely credited with inventing the first system for pressure treating rail ties with creosote to preserve them and for being the first to introduce the railroad date nail into the United States.  

In 1842, the Democrats won 49 seats to take control of the House from the Whig Party. Also in 1842, Frederick William IV of Prussia made the first train journey by a reigning monarch.

In 1854, the Republicans won 62 seats for control of the House and in that year the first land grant railroad in the United States, the Illinois Central Railroad was completed.

In the very next election, 1856, the Democrats took back the House by winning 48 seats. In that same year the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River was completed between Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa. (Note that this bridge was soon involved in a legal dispute between the Rock Island Railroad and the steamboat Effie Afton — the railroad was defended by a young solicitor named Abraham Lincoln.)

In 1874, the Democrats enjoyed the second biggest wave election in history by winning a stunning 94 seats.  In that year, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad began construction of the first permanent railroad tie treating facility in North America — its West Pascagoula creosote plant.

In 1882, the Democrats won big again, taking back the House with a 68-seat win. In that same year in response to a census study predicting a severe timber shortage, Octave Chanute was asked by the American Society of Civil Engineers to head up a committee to study the best way to prolong rail tie life.

In 1890, the Democrats took control of the House with an 86-seat win. Also in 1890, the Louisville and Nashville concluded that with rail ties costing only 23 to 30 cents per tie, the additional expense of creosoting was not justified, and they suspended treating operations at their West Pascagoula creosoting plant. That same year, Octave Chanute, who by this time had founded the Chicago Tie Preserving Co., was also a victim of belt tightening when he tried to get his principal customer the Rock Island Railroad to adopt date nails, but the railroad balked at the cost. Apparently, with Democrats in charge, the railroads concluded they had to hang on to every dollar they could.

The largest wave election in American history was in 1894. The Republicans took back the House with an astounding 130-seat win. The political parallels to today are remarkable. 1894 was the mid-term election in Democratic President Grover Cleveland’s second non-consecutive term. The nation was in the deepest economic depression it had ever known following the Panic of 1893 and economic issues were at the forefront.

But ultimately it was a railroad event that led to the Democratic rout.  Eugene V. Debs, founder of the Industrial Workers of the World and the American Railway Union, led a nationwide railroad strike called the Pullman strike, aka Debs’ Rebellion. It shut down the nation’s transportation system, including delivery of U.S. mail in Pullman cars, for weeks. President Cleveland eventually sent in the U.S. Army to end the strike, killing 13 strikers in the process.

Debs went to prison for mail obstruction. The powerful Illinois Governor, John Peter Altgeld, a Democrat, broke bitterly with Cleveland over ending the strike, and the fragmented and disoriented Democratic Party was crushed everywhere outside the South, losing more than half its seats to the Republicans. And even if there had been no rail strike in 1894, my theory would have held up because 1894 was the year the song 'I’ve Been Working on the Railroad' was first published.

In 1910, the pendulum swung back to the Democrats, who took back the House with a 58-seat win. In that same year, Octave Chanute tragically died at the age of 78, shortly after helping the Wright Brothers develop the first successful winged flying machine and suggesting they test it out in Kitty Hawk, N.C. Wilbur Wright delivered Chanute’s eulogy.

In 1930, the Democrats enjoyed a 52-seat wave election win to take control of the House, the same year that General Motors acquired the Electro-Motive Co.

In 1946, the Republicans won 55 seats to take back the House, the same year that President Truman announced plans for the government seizure of all U.S. railroads and threatened to draft striking workers in response to a labor impasse. The unions agreed to call off the strike the same day.

In 1948, the Democrats took control of the House with a 75-seat win, the same year the last steam locomotive built for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway was completed.

And finally, in 1994, the Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich and his 'Contract with America,' took back the House after 40 years in the minority with a 54-seat win. In that same year, the Burlington Northern Railroad merged with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to form the railroad we now know as the BNSF Railway.  

And so here we are in 2010, and given the incredibly strong correlation between wave elections and significant railroad events that I have just described, I cannot help but predict that 2010 will be a wave election for the Republicans. I say this because if railroad events are the predictive events I believe them to be, then in 2010 we have had not one but two such events. First, 2010 is the year that Warren Buffet completed his acquisition of BNSF, the very same railroad whose merger resulted in the Republican landslide of 1994. Second, and perhaps more significantly, 2010 is the 100-year anniversary of the death of none other than railroad engineering legend Octave Chanute.

For those of you that are Democrats, I do have one bit of heartening information that I must admit is very troubling to me. As I said at the outset, 1832 was not a wave election. Democrats had control of the House going into the election and added 17 seats to their existing majority. Yet, 1832 was not only the year Octave Chanute was born, but it was also the year that the railroad tie was invented. The first railroads spiked each rail to a sequence of square stone blocks. In 1832, right before the election, a shipment of these blocks to the Camden and Amboy Railroad in New Jersey was delayed. As a temporary fix, Robert Stevens, President and Chief Engineer of the railroad, had logs spiked perpendicularly under the rails. This quick solution was immediately recognized as superior to the use of stone, and the railroad tie industry was born.

I am deeply troubled by the fact that an event as monumental as this did not result in a wave election of biblical proportions in 1832. That it did not may throw my entire theory out the window, and so as to whether 2010 will be a wave election or not, my conclusion is that your guess is as good as mine.”

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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