Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Riding (Political) Coattails

In electoral politics, pundits and observers often look for signs that election results at the top of the ballot – for example, for President – are affecting those down the ballot, for Congress or for state offices. Dubbed the coattail effect, political analysts disagree about whether it exists at all, and if it does, when an electoral outcome can be attributed to it.

Amid a massive Republican presidential landslide for Richard Nixon in 1972, Democrats netted two U.S. Senate seats; they gained one in 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s similarly lopsided reelection victory. Meanwhile, Republicans netted modest totals of 12 and 16 U.S. House seats, respectively, in those years – not nearly enough to overcome Democratic majorities in that chamber that would last until 1994.

President Obama’s solid victory in 2008 did accompany impressive Democratic wins for Congress, with gains of eight seats in the Senate (for a 59-41 majority, the widest for either party since the 1970s) and 21 in the House (for a 257-178 majority, the widest since 1992). However, like Lyndon Johnson’s more overwhelming 1964 landslide, congressional results in 2008 may have simply represented a welcoming year for the Democratic Party, both “up” and “down” the ballot, rather than evidencing far-flung Obama coattails.

1980 gives us the most convincing example of presidential coattails in modern history. In that election, Reagan ousted incumbent President Jimmy Carter by a wide popular vote margin of 50.7 percent to 41 percent, and brought with him net GOP gains of 34 House seats (considerably narrowing, but not overturning, the Democrats’ majority) and a stunning 12 Senate seats, moving that chamber from a wide 58-41 Democratic edge to a 53-46 Republican one and ending 26 years of Democratic reign over the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

Few states that year produced more earth-shattering results than Georgia, where despite an easy 56 percent to 41 percent presidential win for native son Jimmy Carter, four-term incumbent Democratic Senator Herman Talmadge lost a close 51-to-49 race to state Republican Party chairman Mack Mattingly. Mattingly’s victory, by about 27,500 votes and a 1.7 percent margin, was the first for a Republican Senate candidate in Georgia since Reconstruction more than a century earlier, and the first since the 17th Amendment created popular elections for the U.S. Senate.

Above: Mattingly on the campaign trail, 1980. Mack F. Mattingly Papers, Russell Library.

Talmadge Campaign Leaflet, 1980 re-election campaign. Herman E. Talmadge Collection, Russell Library.

A number of factors led to Talmadge's defeat -- among them his known battle with alcoholism, and allegations of financial misconduct which landed him before the Senate Ethics Committee in 1979. When combined with a strong challenge from Zell Miller in the Democratic Primary, Talmadge's campaign was in a weakened state by the general election in November. In a year dominated by Republican victories, its difficult to say what might have happened had Talmadge not faced scandal and personal difficulties during the campaign. Mattingly served in the U.S. Senate only one term, losing to Democrat Wyche Fowler in 1986.

Below: Marion Baker and Timmy O'Keefe campaigning for HET, Savannah, GA, 1980. Herman E. Talmadge Collection, Russell Library.

To find out more about the ins and outs of the 1980 Senatorial campaign between Talmadge and Mattingly, take a look through their finding aids online HERE. Scrapbooks (available on microfilm) from the Mattingly collection, compiled by the senator's staff and family, record the highlights of the senator's political career and campaigns. The Talmadge Political Series documents all his political campaigns from 1956-1980 .

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fond Farewell

The Russell Library was sad to hear news this morning of Erwin Mitchell's passing. Our staff would like to extend heartfelt condolences to his family. Borrowing words from the title of his obituary article in the Dalton Citizen, "He was just the coolest guy" and will certainly be missed.

Mr. Mitchell has made several appearances on the Russell Library blog in the last several years. First in one of our early "Outside the Box" posts, spotlighting the AMVETS silver helmet award he received in 1960. Also, in a feature post about the Georgia Project Papers in 2009. Finally, he was interviewed as part of the Reflections on Georgia Politics oral history series in October of 2008. You can stream the full interview by clicking HERE.

More About Erwin Mitchell
Harlan Erwin Mitchell was born in Dalton, Georgia, on August 17, 1924. He served as a first lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps (1943-46) during World War II. He returned to Georgia in 1946 and earned an L.L.B at the University of Georgia School of Law. Following further service in the U.S. Air Force (1951-52), Mitchell became solicitor general, and briefly served as a Superior Court judge, for the Cherokee Judicial Circuit.

In early 1958 Mitchell was elected as a Democrat to the 85th Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Henderson L. Lanham (7th District) in November 1957. He won re-election the following year and during his term in the House (1958-61), he served as the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Patents and Scientific Inventions, as well as a member of the Committee on Science and Astronautics and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. After leaving Congress, Mitchell served as a State Senator in the Georgia General Assembly (1960-61) and then returned to Dalton to resume practicing law.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Crossing the Floor

Crossing the Floor is a term used in British politics to refer to one of two kinds of allegiance shifts by Members of Parliament – either voting against the majority of one’s party delegation on a given parliamentary vote (analogous to the American cliché “crossing the aisle”) or switching party affiliation entirely. American political pundits have no similar idiom to describe party switching, even though party switching is fairly common in contemporary political culture. Such prominent GOP figures as Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond, Trent Lott, Condoleezza Rice, and Georgia’s two most recent governors, Nathan Deal and Sonny Perdue, began their careers as Democrats, while two of the most popular liberal figures of the past decade, Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean, started out as Republican activists.

The most pronounced wave of party switching (or, as they say in Westminster, “floor-crossing”) in American history has occurred over the course of several generations here in the Deep South. Once the most loyally Democratic region in the country, the “Solid South” would typically deliver lopsided margins of 70-30, 80-20, or more – in South Carolina it was expected for Democratic presidential nominees to receive 95-98% of the vote – from the late 1870s until the Civil Rights Movement came of age in the 1950s. Democrats dominated state legislatures and congressional delegations in the South well beyond the movement’s heyday, even into the 1990s. Only in the past decade have Republicans broken century-plus Democratic monopolies in state legislatures in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, while Democratic majorities remain in such seemingly unlikely spots as Arkansas and West Virginia.

The Republican Party in Georgia
The Republican Party ascended in Georgia politics quite slowly and, indeed, later than in many southern states. Georgia elected its first Republican U.S. Senator in modern history, Mack Mattingly, in 1980, well after GOP Senate candidates saw success in Florida, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia; and the state would not reelect a Republican to the U.S. Senate until Paul Coverdell in 1998. In 1990, the Democrats held stunning majorities of 45-11 in the State Senate and 145-35 in the State House, 26 years after Barry Goldwater became the first Republican presidential candidate ever to win the Peach State and still 12 years before Republicans would claim the state’s governorship and majorities in its legislature for the first time since 1872. But there were signs of fission within the state Democratic Party as early as the 1960s.

Changing Allegiances
In 1964, Howard “Bo” Callaway (see our post about the gubernatorial election of 1966) switched his party registration to Republican en route to becoming the GOP’s first U.S. Congressman from Georgia since Reconstruction and, two years later, the first Republican nominee for Governor in 90 years. Amid these turbulent electoral happenings at home, Georgia Democrats attempted to make contrasts with a national party increasingly ambitious to advance its civil rights agenda in Washington. It was in this context that five prominent Democrats – Public Service Commissioners Crawford Pilcher and Alpha Fowler, State Treasurer Jack Ray, Agriculture Commissioner Phil Campbell, and Comptroller General Jimmy Bentley – jointly announced in 1968 that they were becoming Republicans, citing the frenzied Democratic National Convention in Chicago and national disunity. Bentley had already warned U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge, a personal friend and former boss, who claimed in a 1975 interview to have “spent about an hour trying to dissuade him.” Bentley would run for Governor in Georgia’s first-ever statewide Republican primary in 1970, but lost the nomination to Hal Suit, whom Jimmy Carter defeated handily the following November.

Above: a Clifford Baldowski political cartoon published in the Atlanta Constitution on October 2, 1968. It depicts the five party switchers clinging to the tail of Richard Nixon's elephant. Captioned "Course it ain't like it was in the saddle" gives a nod to their precarious position after becoming part of the GOP. John J. Flynt Papers, Russell Library.

The other four party-switchers also faded away from electoral politics in short order. Campbell resigned in 1969 to become a U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture in the Nixon White House. Governor Maddox appointed Democrat Tommy Irvin to replace him. Fowler retired from the Public Service Commission in 1970, followed by Pilcher in 1972. Ray ran for reelection as Treasurer in 1970 and lost by a 66-34% margin to Democrat Bill Burson. Though these five men did not last long as Republican elected officials in single-party Georgia, in the years following their defections from Democratic ranks GOP candidates began to surface on statewide ballots, occasionally running competitive races down-ballot as well as for the big prizes of Governor and U.S. Senate. The party-switchers of 1968, combined with Callaway’s near miss two years prior, encouraged many Georgia politicians to “come out” publicly as Republicans and begin a quarter-century process of party organizing that, ultimately, would bring them to the dominant position statewide they currently enjoy over the once-reigning Democrats.

Note: Clippings used in this post are scans from the John J. Flynt Papers at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies. To find out more about the Flynt Papers, visit our online finding aid for the collection, or email russlib@uga.edu.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Lame Duck

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.

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.