“Always remember, Abraham Lincoln only served one term in Congress, too.”
— Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) on NPR talking about his prospects after an election defeat, Nov. 30, 2012
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) is an outspoken conservative, one of only two African American Republicans in Congress and a former Army officer who served in both Iraq wars. He lost his bid for re-election this year after just one term in office, ending — at least temporarily — the rise of a one-time tea party star.
In an interview for NPR’s “Tell Me More,” West spoke about his election defeat and his prospects for the future. He ended the discussion by reminding listeners that President Abraham Lincoln served only one term in Congress, hinting that his political career may not be over and that a loss this year does not dim his hopes for the future.
We have no interest in rubbing salt in West’s wounds. But we wondered whether his comments about Lincoln’s political career warranted some clarification.
Let’s examine Lincoln’s biography to determine how much the former president’s single term in Congress serves as a lesson for West.
West’s statement suggests Lincoln might have mounted a political comeback after suffering a defeat in a House race — at least that’s what any uninformed listener might assume. But no such thing ever happened.
Lincoln promised while campaigning for Congress in 1846 that he would serve only one term if elected. He won the race and lived up to his vow, declining to run for re-election in 1848.
In a technical sense, West is correct that Lincoln served only one term in Congress. But Lincoln left the House voluntarily. West, on the other hand, lost an election, and therefore has no choice but to leave after this year.
It’s worth noting that Lincoln didn’t always avoid election defeat. In fact, he lost two out of the three contests in which he ran — before he aimed for the presidency.
In 1832, at the age of 23, Lincoln lost his first election in a bid for a seat in the Illinois state legislature. More notably, he lost a U.S. Senate race in 1858 to Stephen A. Douglas — a contest featuring the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates that gained much national attention at the time.
The Republican party nominated Lincoln to be its presidential candidate in 1860, and he won in that year’s general election to become America’s 16th president. He won re-election by a landslide in 1864.
Like Lincoln, West lost his first bid for office, losing to then-incumbent Democratic Rep. Ron Klein in 2008. Former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin endorsed West in a 2010 rematch against Klein, and the Florida Republican won by 8 percentage points.
The redistricting process added a number of Democratic precincts to West’s congressional district after the 2010 Census, making his seat one of the most vulnerable for Republicans in the 2012 election, according to the National Journal.
West lost his bid for re-election against Democratic businessman Patrick Murphy by about 2,000 votes.
West’s office declined to comment.
The Pinocchio Test
This then is Lincoln’s record: He served one term in the House because he planned it that way, not because he lost an election. Furthermore, Lincoln never lost a bid for re-election.
West can draw some lessons from Lincoln, but the closest analogy to his own career doesn’t come from his one term in Congress. Instead, he should look at how Lincoln rebounded from two election defeats — one for state office and one for U.S. Senate.
West’s point about the former president serving only one term in Congress is irrelevant in the context that he used it. His statement could easily confuse listeners about Lincoln’s biography, and so it deserves One Pinocchio. (Note: President Obama also got One Pinocchio for once comparing himself to Lincoln.)
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