WASHINGTON — Americans may not realize that something rare will happen as Sen. John Forbes Kerry, D-Mass., becomes the Democratic nominee for president.

It marks only the eighth time in U.S. history that a sitting senator will win the nomination of a political party.

That's a bit surprising because so many senators are always running for president. The trouble is, they usually lose.

In fact, only two sitting senators have ever been elected president. Two wins during two centuries of U.S. presidential elections makes the snake-bitten sports records of the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians (two World Series championships each in just one century) look great in comparison.

Some positive karma for Kerry is that the last time a senator was elected president, it was another Democrat, also from Massachusetts, also with the initials of JFK — John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in 1960. That coincidence is almost spooky.

The only other sitting senator elected president was Warren G. Harding in 1920.

James A. Garfield was a senator-elect when he won in 1880. He was a sitting U.S. House member who had been elected by the Ohio Legislature for a Senate term that was to have begun in 1881, but he declined it after being elected president.

The history of those three may portend bad karma for Kerry if he is elected. All three died in office — two by assassins (Garfield and Kennedy). None of the three is considered to be among the great presidents, although Kennedy and Harding are considered to be among the most charismatic politicians of their time.

The other senators who were nominees are: Bob Dole (lost to Bill Clinton in 1996); George McGovern (lost to Richard Nixon in 1972); Barry Goldwater (lost to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964); Stephen Douglas (lost to Abraham Lincoln in 1860); Lewis Cass (lost to Zachary Taylor in 1848); and Henry Clay (lost to Andrew Jackson in 1832).

That also creates some other bad omens for Kerry, and good ones for George W. Bush. Every time a sitting senator as nominee ran against an incumbent president, he lost — going 0-for-4 in 1996, 1972, 1964 and 1832.

(More positive signs for Bush are that in the past century, incumbent presidents seeking re-election have won 11 elections and lost only four. Over all time, incumbent presidents have gone 18-9.).

Senators' poor history in seeking the presidency does not stop them from running.

Consider that this year, besides Kerry, other senators who ran were John Edwards, D-N.C.; Bob Graham, D-Fla.; and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. — not to mention former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill. Those who considered running but did not include Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Also, by my count, 12 of the current 100 senators have formally run for president — one of every eight (including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who ran in 2000). Besides those already mentioned, former presidential candidates include Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; Joseph Biden, D-Del.; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Richard Lugar, R-Ind.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; and Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

Shortly after I came to Washington 16 years ago, Hatch told me some reasons why so many senators run for president. It came as we were riding the Senate subway train with the late Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa. — who told Hatch he heard rumors he might run for president (in a weird twist, Heinz's widow is now married to John Kerry).

Heinz's comment made my reporter's ears perk up. Hatch denied he was considering running. He told me that lobbyists tell every senator they should run for president — or have heard they already are. He says they learned long ago that it massages a senator's ego and helps open doors.

Hatch also said that the more senators work near presidents, the more they realize that presidents are not necessarily any smarter than them — so many figure they are just as capable of being president, reinforced by people telling them to run.

Of course, even Hatch did not resist that siren's song over time and ran, too. Enjoy watching now whether Kerry can overcome the jinx of the Senate.


Deseret Morning News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson can be reached by e-mail at lee@desnews.com