In political parlance, a lame duck is an elected official nearing the end of his or her tenure in office, due to retirement, defeat, or ineligibility to seek reelection, and refers especially to one whose successor has been elected but not yet sworn in. Pundits often see lame ducks as holding less influence over their colleagues than those officials who will return in the following term. Yet lame ducks are often known to enact contentious policies at the proverbial eleventh hour, leaving partisan “parting shots” or “midnight regulations” for their successors to either accept or confront. Before 1976, the Georgia Constitution limited governors to a single four-year term (though governors were allowed to seek the office again after sitting out one four-year term).
Essentially, then, Georgia governors were lame ducks upon their election. Today, only Virginia denies its governors the possibility of consecutive reelection.
Right: Eugene Talmadge on the campaign trail, 1946. Herman E. Talmadge Collection, Russell Library.
In Georgia, lame duck status conspired with a procedurally suspect gubernatorial election in late 1946 and early 1947 to produce what the New Georgia Encyclopedia dubs “one of the more bizarre political spectacles in the annals of American politics.” The so-called Three Governors Controversy arose when voters elected Eugene Talmadge, a conservative 62-year-old former governor, to succeed Ellis Arnall (see our previous post HERE), a liberal up-and-comer. The contrast between the outgoing Arnall and incoming Talmadge could not have been much starker. Arnall repealed the poll tax and respected a Supreme Court ruling ending all-white party primaries, while Talmadge (as Governor from 1933 to 1937) had vehemently opposed any and all elements of the New Deal he perceived as favorable to blacks. Arnall had also enacted education reforms necessary to restore accreditation to Georgia’s colleges after Talmadge’s efforts to terminate academic faculty with left-leaning politics had caused the removal of said accreditation.
Below: James V. Carmichael platform, 1946 gubernatorial campaign. Helen M. Lewis Collection of James V. Carmichael Campaign Material, Russell Library.
Talmadge had defeated Arnall’s preferred candidate, and a favorite of young voters, Jimmy Carmichael, in the summer’s Democratic primary. Despite losing the popular vote to Carmichael by 16,144 votes and about 2.33% of the vote, Talmadge's victory came at the hands of the state’s “county unit vote” system that weighted votes in rural counties. As the Republican Party of Georgia had not fielded a gubernatorial candidate since Reconstruction, Talmadge sailed on to an easy victory in November.
The hitch? Those in Talmadge's inner circle knew that their candidate was in poor health, so they devised a plan to ensure the election went their way. The state constitution stated that in the case of a Governor-elect’s death, the General Assembly was empowered to choose a successor from among the second- and third-place candidates. With no Republican on the ballot, supporters ran Eugene Talmadge’s son Herman as a write-in candidate. On Election Day, the elder Talmadge won with 98.5% of the vote, but importantly, his son Herman placed second with a mere 675 votes, or 0.46% of the total. On December 21, Eugene Talmadge died.
Above: Herman Talmadge (center) being sworn in as Governor of Georgia, January 1947. Herman E. Talmadge Collection, Russell Library.
One wrinkle for legislators seeking to replace the Governor-elect with his son: the lieutenant governor. The new state constitution established an office of lieutenant governor, effective in the 1946 election. “Anti-Talmadge”candidate Melvin Ernest (M. E.) Thompson had been elected to that office in November, and upon the elder Talmadge’s death, laid claim to the governorship himself. On January 15, 1947, a General Assembly dominated by Talmadge-affiliated “Dixiecrats” voted to declare Herman Talmadge the next Governor. Thompson sued. Meanwhile, “lame duck” Governor Arnall refused to leave office until a successor had been legitimately chosen (“legitimately” here meaning “not by fiat of the state legislature”).
Some two months later, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of Thompson but called for a special election to fill the remainder of the late Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge’s term (due to expire in 1951). Herman Talmadge easily defeated Thompson in that special election, held in September 1948, and did the same two years later for a full term as governor; then again in 1956 for a U.S. Senate seat that Talmadge would hold for 24 years.
Above: M.E. Thompson and his wife, Ann, in the Governor's mansion in 1948. M.E. Thompson Papers, Russell Library.