Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Dark Horse of 1940

An outsider businessman ran for and won the Republican nomination. That may seem familiar, but it’s not a statement from the 2016 primaries. Rather, it’s the result of Wendell Willkie’s defeat of establishment candidates to claim the nomination and run against Roosevelt. And despite losing the general election, Willkie continued working to move the party establishment away from outdated and outmoded ideals according to Steve Neal’s biography of Willkie - Dark Horse.

Willkie was an unlikely candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination. He had been a Democrat, which included being a member of Tammany Hall’s executive committe and a contributor to FDR’s 1932 campaign. And he did not switch his party registration until January 1940. Furthermore, Willkie’s campaign for the nomination was a challenge to the contemporary Republican establishment, which favored isolationism, while Willkie was pushing for internationalism, particularly more support for Britain in its struggle against Nazi Germany.

As a Republican candidate, Willkie did not participate in the party primaries of 1940 (of which there weren’t many), while recognizable Republican figures such as Thomas Dewey, Robert Taft and others vied for the nominations in these beauty contests. Willkie did go out on the stump and received the support of prominent media members, such as Henry Luce, the editor of Time, Fortune, and Life, who promoted his candidacy. Willkie arrived at the convention far behind the frontrunners Dewey and Taft, but no candidate had enough delegates to win on the first ballot. As the nomination fight began, Willkie’s supporters began to engage in some convention chicanery; one of his supporters was chairman of the credentials committee, and he ensured the hall was packed with Willkie supporters. Their clamor and some wheeling & dealing by Willkie’s floor managers secured him the nomination on the sixth ballot. Needless to say the party regulars were shocked and forced to come to terms with an unexpected nominee.


During the general election campaign, Willkie made a play for constituencies that had either abandoned the Republican party (black voters) or were opposed to Republican ideals and policies (the labor movement) - hoping to potentially split the Democratic vote. Willkie criticized Roosevelt’s civil rights record, and even received the endorsement of Joe Lewis, as well as several African-American publications. He also received the endorsement of CIO leader John Lewis, who blamed Roosevelt’s policies for worsening the Depression. However, Willkie’s campaign sagged as he struggled to get along with Republican officials, run an organized campaign, find a message (he even began to adopt a more isolationist tone, despite his earlier agreement with FDR on foreign policy). These issues helped Roosevelt, but Willkie still outperformed prior Republican campaigns and gave Roosevelt some cause for worry about winning his third term. Ultimately, Roosevelt would win an overwhelming Electoral College victory, though outside the South, he carried some states by slim margins.

After losing, Willkie continued to work on issues that were close to him during the campaign. He worked with Roosevelt’s administration to support Britain and served as a special envoy, visiting Russia and China, as well as other allies. He represented William Schneiderman, a Russian-American and secretary of the California Communist Party, whose citizenship had been revoked; Willkie argued the case before the Supreme Court defending Schneiderman’s freedom of thought (and won the case). He also continued his support for civil rights, supporting antilynching legislation, fair hiring practices, and attempting to change the portrayal of black men and women in movies.

Willkie returned as a candidate in 1944, but it was clear the Republican party had returned to its isolationist ideology. It didn’t help that Willkie seemed to be pushing even more liberal positions. After a convincing defeat in the Wisconsin primary, Willkie withdrew from the contest. He was considering forming a true liberal third party; however, he died in October 1944 after suffering several heart attacks; he was 52. Willkie had an impact and played a role unlike many also rans, and it’s interesting to think what might have been had he lived.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Disappearing Legislator: T. R. Watkins


Since looking at the partisan trends in Texas, I’ve become particularly interested in finding out more about the Populists serving in the 24th Legislature. Based on Texas Legislative Reference Library information, there were 24 Populists legislators (in the House and Senate), marking the high point of Populist electoral success.

One of these members disappeared during the 24th legislative session: T. R. Watkins. Watkins represented Navarro County and had introduced several bills in the 24th Regular Session.


According to the House journal, Watkins “mysteriously disappeared” from the Legislature and Austin. A committee was formed during the 1st Called Session to investigate his disappearance. The committee called witnesses, heard testimony, etc. They found he voluntarily left the state in April 1895 and was in “parts unknown.” They found no evidence he was “foully dealt with” but did not deem it prudent to print the reasons for his departure in the journal (Source).

The Austin Weekly Statesman also reported the House adopted a resolution instructing the clerk not to issue warrants for Watkins and two other members for “per diem, etc.” (Source).

According to Gregg Cantrell - professor at TCU - some newspaper stories from the area noted Watkins “borrowed money and bought goods on credit” before leaving town (Source).

Unfortunately, Navarro County records for 1895 are not available online, so a trip to the county courthouse would be necessary to find if there was any information, such as court cases, related to Watkins' disappearance. The testimony given to the committee may have been recorded; if it was, it is not available online, but could possibly be in the state archives or in the legislative reference library.

Prof Cantrell’s website says he is currently working on a history of the Populist Party, so perhaps he has been able to track down some information about Watkins’ disappearance. Until then, it seems to be a mystery to everyone except the deceased members of the committee and those who knew Watkins.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Partisan Shifts In The States

The Washington Post has published some graphs by Dr. Carl Klarner which shows the partisan swing in 49 states. Some of the data sets go back to the 1940′s (Source). As an example, I pulled the Texas graph:


His Texas data set only goes back to the 1960′s, but I was curious about what the partisan shift looked like over time.

The Texas Legislative Reference Library (LRL) has data going all the back to 1870. There are some quirks in data, because Texas had multi-member districts for about 100 years and some of those members were not included in the counts. And the data only includes individuals who were members when the legislative sessions began.

With that brief explanation, I’ll go and ahead and post the charts I created using the LRL’s data.* This first chart shows the partisan divide of the TX House from 1870 through 2015:


You’ll notice the number of Representatives climbs steeply after 1870; this is because of the expansion of the total number of seats. There were only 37 seats in the 1870 Texas House; most of them held by the Radical Republicans. Ever so briefly in the late 19th Century the Populist Party was able to make some significant inroads and gain seats in the House reaching a high point of 22 seats in 1895 (which the Republicans wouldn’t reach until 1979).

The next chart shows the partisan divide of the Texas Senate:


There’s a lot one could look at when reviewing the partisan divide of the Texas Legislature, such as where Republicans saw success and growth. For example, if you look at the Republican Senator for 1967 (the first Republican since 1927 - coincidentally, the year Sen. Grover was born), you’ll see he was from a large urban area - Houston/Harris County. And the next few Republican senators were also from large urban areas (Houston and Dallas).

Those trends would seem to jive with voting trends which show greater Republican success among voters in urban areas of Texas (Source).

You can look at all the data here. I also created a couple of other charts to have some different visualizations of the partisan divide; you can see those here, as well as the two already included in the body of this post.

Some Recommended Reading If This Topic Interests You:

The Texas Right by David Cullen
Rotten Boroughs, Political Thickets, and Legislative Donnybrooks by Gary Keith
Allan Shivers: The Pied Piper of Texas Politics by Sam Kinch, Jr
Reagan’s Comeback by Gilbert Garcia
Yeomen Sharecroppers and Socialists by Kyle G. Wilkison
Southern Politics in State and Nation by V. O. Key
Our Patchwork Nation by Dante Chinni
Cowboy Conservatism by Sean P. Cunningham
Red State Blue State Rich State Poor State by Andrew Gelman
The House Will Come to Order by Patrick Cox
The Texas Left by David Cullen

* - be gentle on critique of the charts; amateur at work here.