Mrs. Haven (Virginia) Smith, R.I.P.

When she died January 24 at age 94, Virginia Dodd Smith was remembered not only as a solidly conservative voice in Congress (1974-1990), but as someone who clearly demonstrated that there are second acts in life. At an age when most of her contemporaries were close to retirement, 63-year-old Smith was doing something else in 1974: she was running for an open U.S. House seat in Nebraska. It was not exactly an easy feat: The sprawling 3rd District (Western Nebraska) contained 61 counties, one of which was as large as three New England states. More ominously, it was the so-called "Watergate Year," and Democrats, having smelled blood, were fielding a well-funded nominee in former State Sen. Wayne W. Ziebarth, who had run a strong race for U.S. senator two years before.

Undaunted, Smith. the longtime chairman of the American Farm Bureau Women and wife of a wheat farmer won the Republican nomination over two younger opponents. It took a recount to confirm that she had won the nod by 141 votes. Turning to her fall opponent, she charged that if Democrats ever got a "veto-proof" Congress, then (as she told Human Events) "the Democrats would turn to reviving the inflationary Great Society legislation of the Johnson years. Labor will seek to pass a multi-million-dollar health insurance scheme, a $5,500 guaranteed income plan, and an isolationist trade bill."

Smith’s good nature, strong identification with farming, and ability to dish it out with her opponent paid off — barely. By 727 votes, she edged out Democrat Ziebarth and went to Congress. The Republican hopeful may also have been helped by Ziebarth’s remark to reporters in the closing days of the race that a woman doesn’t belong in politics.

In her 16 years in Washington, Smith never again had a close race. She rose to be ranking member of the Agriculture Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee and voted a solidly conservative line. In 1976, the Nebraskan was one of only 10 Republican U.S. House members with the courage to support Ronald Reagan for President over Gerald Ford.

While studying at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln) in 1931, the young Virginia Dodd met and married classmate Haven Smith. Their marriage would last until his death 66 years later. As candidate and congresswoman, Smith always referred to herself as "Mrs. Haven Smith."