Walter Huddleston, Senator Toppled by Mitch McConnell, Dies at 92


Walter D. Huddleston, a two-term Democratic senator from Kentucky whose hairsbreadth loss in a rancorous re-election campaign put Mitch McConnell on the road to becoming a Republican power in the Senate, died on Tuesday in Warsaw, Ky. He was 92.

He died at his son Stephen’s home, where he had been living for the last 14 months, Stephen Huddleston said.

It was 1984 when Mr. McConnell, a 42-year-old Republican judge and executive of Kentucky’s largest county, challenged Mr. Huddleston for the Kentucky Senate seat he had held for more than a decade.

Mr. McConnell’s television commercials mocked Mr. Huddleston’s paid speechifying and his voting and attendance records by depicting baying bloodhounds on the hunt for an absentee senator.

The ads were orchestrated by Roger Ailes, the remorseless political consultant who later built Fox News. They helped Mr. McConnell squeak past Mr. Huddleston by barely 5,300 votes, or less than one percent of the nearly 1.3 million cast.

It was the most consequential upset of the 1984 national elections, leaving Mr. Huddleston, who was widely known as Dee, as the only Democratic incumbent senator to lose his seat that year despite the resounding re-election victory of President Ronald Reagan, a Republican.

Mr. McConnell, the executive of Jefferson County, went on to become Kentucky’s longest-serving United States senator, re-elected five times. He was chosen Senate majority leader after Republicans gained control of the chamber in the 2014 elections.

“When we each had the opportunity to share our visions for Kentucky’s future in 1984, I experienced Dee’s tenacity, competitiveness and skill firsthand,” Mr. McConnell said in a statement after Mr. Huddleston’s death. “He was a tough competitor, and I always respected him for his service to our home state.”

With his 1984 victory, Mr. McConnell, an ardent conservative, replaced someone who was generally considered a moderate. Mr. Huddleston had favored the Equal Rights Amendment for women but opposed abortion rights. He supported voluntary school prayer and was a champion of Kentucky products, including tobacco (he favored price supports, but preserved them by shifting some costs to farmers), bourbon (he objected to labels warning against excessive drinking) and coal.

He endorsed the 1977 treaty ceding the Canal Zone to Panama and sought to limit covert intelligence operations. He also served on the board of advisers of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that wants to sharply curtail the influx of foreigners. Its leaders have been accused by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, of having ties to white supremacist groups and of making racist remarks.

Walter Darlington Huddleston was born on April 15, 1926, in Burkesville, in the foothills of Appalachia, in south central Kentucky. He was one of nine children of William and Lottie B. (Russell) Huddleston. His father was a Methodist preacher.

After enlisting in the Army and serving as a tank gunner in Europe during World War II, Mr. Huddleston attended the University of Kentucky in Lexington on the G.I. bill and graduated in 1949 with a degree in radio arts.

He worked as a disc jockey, a sportscaster, a sports director, a program director and a general manager for radio stations in Bowling Green, Elizabethtown and Lebanon, Ky.

He married Jean Pierce; she died in 2003. In addition to their son Stephen, he is survived by another son, Philip, and two granddaughters.

After winning a vacant State Senate seat, Mr. Huddleston served in that body from 1965 to 1972, when he faced off against Louie B. Nunn, a Republican former governor, in a contest to succeed Senator John Sherman Cooper, a Republican who was retiring after 16 years in Washington.

President Richard M. Nixon carried Kentucky by a record margin of more than 300,000 votes, but Mr. Huddleston still managed to win by 35,000 after repeatedly faulting Mr. Nunn for raising the sales tax when he was governor.

In 1978, he survived a brief primary challenge from former Gov. John Y. Brown of Kentucky and defeated Louis R. Guenthner Jr., a state legislator.

But in his losing re-election campaign in 1984 he had to defend several contentious votes, an imperfect attendance record and an opponent embraced by President Reagan. Reagan carried Kentucky over his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, by more than 280,000 votes.

After he retired from the Senate, Mr. Huddleston returned home to Elizabethtown, Ky. He worked as a Washington lobbyist for railroad, tobacco and agricultural clients; Louisville-based Humana, the health insurance company; and Capitol Holding, the parent of Commonwealth Life Insurance.


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