Thursday, September 01, 2016

Favorite Son: Part I

In anticipation of the November 2016 presidential election, the Russell Library’s Access and Outreach staff has been working on an exhibit, On the Stump: What Does it Take to Get Elected in Georgia? opening September 2nd in the Harrison Feature Gallery. The exhibit considers the evolution of campaigning for state office and asks visitors to imagine life on the campaign trail. This post is one in a series exploring political slang and its role in elections. 

In political circles the term favorite son refers to a presidential candidate whose home-state or regional popularity aids their electoral appeal and is as a springboard for national viability.

Historically, presidential hopefuls from the South have used 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. Three candidates from Georgia have run for President—our first case study is: Senator Richard B. Russell, Jr. 

Left: Georgia delegates and other Russell supporters (including Herman Talmadge and Tic Forrester) at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, 1952. Richard B. Russell Jr. 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 and President Truman’s low approval rating, Republicans hoped for their first White House victory since 1928. However, Republicans faced internal divisions between a conservative isolationist wing led by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio (sponsor the famous Taft-Hartley Labor Act of 1947) and a moderate wing seeking to recruit General Dwight Eisenhower. Some Democrats wanted Eisenhower to run too, but as it became clear that he would not, the party “bosses” pursued Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II—a liberal known for his compelling oratory. Aside for Russell, many vied for the Democratic nominating including: Vice President Alben Barkley—whose candidacy was discounted as he was 74 years old—Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, and former Commerce Secretary Averell Harriman.

Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, the “tough-on-crime” reformer, dominated nonbinding primary elections and defeated incumbent President Harry Truman in New Hampshire. Though popular with voters, Kefauver’s candidacy was a nonstarter with party bosses, who abhorred his investigations into mafia activities and urban political machines. Russell knew his stance on segregation diverged from the national party platform, but felt his years of experience in government could win over voters nationwide. Russell attempted to replace Kefauver as the “Southern candidate” even though he was more influential behind the scenes than as a public icon and his victory in the Florida primary went largely unnoticed. Russell argued that nominating him could preclude another convention walkout of Southern delegates like that in 1948 which prompted pro-segregation “Dixiecrats” to nominate South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond as a third-party alternative to the more racially progressive Truman. Despite loyalty from Southern officials, Northern delegates considered Russell the “Jim Crow candidate.” Amidst the growing Civil Rights Movement, a candidate from the Deep South was too much for many delegates. Although Russell received 294 votes from 23 states at the convention, he ultimately lost the nomination to Adlai Stevenson yet he 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.

Would other Southern presidential hopefuls be more successful? Check out our next blog post.

Want to find out more? Visit On the Stump on display in the Harrison Feature Gallery in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries from September 2, 2016 through August 18, 2017. The Russell Library gallery is free and open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. For more information, email or call 706-542-5788

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