It is generally understood in political circles that the term favorite son refers to a presidential candidate whose electoral appeal is greatly linked to his home-state or regional popularity, or who uses said regional popularity as a springboard for national viability.
Historically, presidential hopefuls from the South have been especially likely to use this strategy, with mixed success—a contemporary example is Bill Clinton, who coupled a second-place finish in the New Hampshire Democratic primary with utter dominance in Southern primaries and less overwhelming victories elsewhere on so-called “Super Tuesday” to claim his party’s nomination. This week on the blog we'll consider three candidates from Georgia who have run for President, and how each attempted to launch a credible nationwide effort. Our first case study: Senator Richard B. Russell, Jr.
Right: Georgia delegation and other Russell supporters (including Herman Talmadge and Tic Forrester) at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, 1952. Richard B. Russell Collection, Russell Library.
"Now the politicians, particularly those from the large metropolitan areas, are saying that I can’t win the Democratic nomination for President because I am a Southerner. This is sheer nonsense. The people of this country, in these critical times, are not interested in where a man was born. They are interested in getting the best man they can to serve as Chief Executive of this nation.” -- Senator Richard B. Russell, Jr. addressing an audience in Spokane, Washington, June 1952
Russell ran for President in 1952, at a particularly tenuous moment for the Democratic Party. With the Korean War dragging on toward eventual stalemate and President Truman’s approval ratings exceedingly low, Republicans hoped for their first White House victory since 1928, though they faced divisions between a conservative isolationist wing led by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio (today famed for sponsoring the Taft-Hartley Labor Act of 1947) and a moderate wing seeking to recruit General Dwight Eisenhower to run. Some Democrats wanted Eisenhower to run on their ticket as well. As it became clear that he would not, the “bosses” who typically brokered party conventions pursued Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II, a liberal known for his compelling oratory, instead. Meanwhile, the announced Democratic field consisted of Russell, Vice President Alben Barkley—whose candidacy was discounted due to his age, 74—Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, and former Commerce Secretary Averell Harriman, among more minor players.
Kefauver, seen as an anti-corruption, “tough-on-crime” reformer, was dominating nonbinding primary elections and had even forced Truman out of the race by defeating the incumbent President in New Hampshire. Though popular with voters, Kefauver’s candidacy was a nonstarter with party bosses, who abhorred his investigations into mafia activities within urban machine politics. Much more influential behind the scenes than as a public icon, and with a victory in the largely unnoticed Florida primary behind him, Russell attempted to replace Kefauver as the designated “Southern candidate” in the eyes of party officials. He argued that nominating him could preclude another convention walkout of Southern delegates like that in 1948 which prompted pro-segregation “Dixiecrats” to nominate Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as a third-party alternative to the more racially progressive Truman.
Despite loyalty from Southern officials, Northern delegates considered Russell the “Jim Crow candidate” and therefore unelectable. Though he never denied his stance on segregation during the campaign, always carefully couching the position within a broader constitutional states’ rights position, the brewing storm of the Civil Rights Movement was too much for a candidate from the Deep South. He lost out to Adlai Stephenson for the Democratic nomination, but gracefully accepted defeat and supported the party ticket.
Above: Richard Russell and Sam Rayburn on the podium, Chicago, Illinois, July 1952. Richard B. Russell Collection, Russell Library.
How did things go differently for a southern candidate in 1976? Tune in Tuesday to find out.