The Rhyme of Political History

ralph-crane-gov-robert-e-smylieThe last time an Idaho governor received a serious primary challenge he lost.

It was 1966 and three-term incumbent Republican Robert E. Smylie, pictured here dressed like he might have been trying out for The Sons of the Pioneers, seemed to be at the zenith of his political power – chairman of the National Governors Association, the senior governor in the nation and a serious player in national politics.

Time magazine took note of Smylie’s re-election announcement in April of 1966 by reporting, “In Idaho, Republican Governor Robert E. Smylie, 51, dean of the nation’s Governors and a 1968 vice-presidential hopeful, filed for a fourth four-year term, which if completed would make his the longest gubernatorial tenure in U.S. history (current record: 15 years, set by Maryland’s Albert C. Ritchie from 1920 through 1934). Smylie, who led the 1965 fight to dump Goldwaterite Dean Burch as G.O.P. national chairman, will campaign on his ‘New Day’ programs of increased state outlays for health, welfare and education financed by a 3% sales tax.”

Time confidently predicted Smylie was “assured” of winning the GOP nomination. He wasn’t. The future vice-presidential hopeful lost his party’s nomination to a little-known state senator from Bonner County named Don Samuelson. That election had dramatic consequences for Idaho’s political history.

“When the primary returns were tabulated,” University of Idaho political scientists Syd Duncombe and Boyd Martin wrote in a post-election analysis, “Samuelson carried all but seven of Idaho’s forty-four counties to defeat Smylie 52,891 to 33,753. One columnist [the Lewiston Morning Tribune's Robert Myers] attributed Smylie’s defeat to his long term of office, his support of the sales tax, and opposition from Goldwater Republicans stemming from his role in the replacement of Dean Burch.”

Following Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential lost to Lyndon Johnson – NBC’s Chet Huntley called Goldwater supporters “classic Republicans, segregationists, Johnsonphobes, desperate conservatives, and radical nuts…the coalition of the discontent” – the moderate wing of the GOP, shoved aside by Goldwater’s hard right followers, set out to reclaim the national party and Bob Smylie helped lead the moderate charge.

One major target of Smylie and the GOP moderates was Tucson, Arizona lawyer Dean Burch, a friend of Goldwater’s who the candidate had installed as chairman of the national Republican party. Burch helped turn the party hard to the right, as Rick Perlstein documents in his fascinating book on Goldwater called Before the Storm. When Ku Klux Klan leaders in Georgia and Alabama, for example, endorsed Goldwater in 1964 Burch refused to disavow their support and said only “we’re not in the in business of discouraging voters.”

Smylie’s Moderate National Role

In January of 1965, after Goldwater’s landslide loss to Johnson, Smylie made national news when he said, as the Associated Press reported, “the time is past when Dean Burch can do anything to save his job as national chairman of the Republican party.” Conservative commentators took to identifying Smylie as a leader of the “Rockefeller wing” of the national party with one writing that the Idaho governor was utilizing “meat axe” tactics to push Burch out as national chairman. Eventually Burch, who went on to serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a top aide to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, resigned the GOP chairmanship and was replaced by Ohio pol Ray Bliss, a choice acceptable to party moderates like Smylie.

In the mid-1960’s the national Republican party was badly divided, much as it is today, between an insurgent wing loyal to Goldwater’s brand of unflinching conservatism and a moderate wing where political operators, like Ray Bliss, preached the politics of expansion. Bliss, for example, once said his only concern as party chairman was winning elections.

The Goldwater partisans were, in many ways, an earlier version of today’s Tea Party adherents and in Idaho they effectively took over the state party. Bob Smylie found himself swept along in these roiling waters with a growing national profile as a moderate who at the same time had to appeal to an increasingly conservative Idaho GOP. It was a difficult, maybe impossible task, since Smylie stimulated bitter hostility from much of the party base, including a young woman named Gwen Barnett.

Idaho’s Republican national committeewoman, Barnett was the youngest member of the national committee and she made it her cause to defeat Smylie. As long-time Idaho political observer Marty Peterson wrote a while back, “Barnett had become a close ally of the Goldwater forces. Her friend Dean Burch, a former member of the Goldwater Senate staff, had been elected Republican national chairman. She was also close to such rising conservative stars as John Tower, who had become the first Republican elected to the senate from Texas since Reconstruction.” Barnett recruited Samuelson to run against Smylie, helped round up the money and saw to it that insurgent Idaho Republicans united behind the challenger. The resulting and stunning defeat of the moderate Smylie made 1966 one of the most significant years in Idaho political history.

Looking back on this near ancient political history it is now easy to see that Smylie, a governor who deserves to be well remembered for creating a state park system and establishing a balanced tax system, committed a cardinal political sin – he lost touch with his base. Undoubtedly this supremely self-confident man was overconfident.

Generally speaking there is little payoff in Idaho for being well regarded on the pages of Time or being chummy with the very liberal then-governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller. You can Google Robert E. Smylie today and find a photo of him at the Boise airport in 1959 welcoming his buddy Rockefeller to town and another picture of Smylie in 1961 at a national governors’ gathering wearing shorts, his shirt unbuttoned to the naval and at the helm of what appears to be a very large yacht. Not exactly typical Idaho political images today or in the 1960’s.

The Rhyme of Political History

Fast forward to 2013 and the news last weekend that a relatively unknown state senator, Russ Fulcher of Meridian, will challenge two-term incumbent Butch Otter for the Republican nomination for governor in 2014.

As Mark Twain is famously reported to have said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

It would be easy to overstate the parallels between 1966 and 2014, but you would also have to have political blinders in place not to recognize some of the striking similarities about the two races separated by nearly 50 years. The first would be Gov. Otter’s “long term of office” – four years in the state legislature, 14 years as Lt. Governor, six years in Congress and going on eight years as governor. It is often true in politics that as the years accumulate so do the enemies.

Another parallel: Otter’s opponent comes to the race from a perch in the state senate where by all accounts he has assembled a very conservative voting record not unlike Samuelson all those years ago. And like the man who beat Bob Smylie, Fulcher is making a straight forward play for support from the insurgent/populist wing of his party.

With Idaho Democrats still mostly an after thought in the state’s politics, the Idaho GOP has in effect become two or maybe more parties divided into various factions. There seems little doubt the anti-establishment, populist oriented Tea Party wing (and its many variations) has been on the rise since at least 2008 when insurgents pushed out a state party chairman who had the support of Otter and many of the party’s traditional movers and shakers. Many of those same insurgents, over the objections of Otter and other leaders of the party, then successfully battled to close the state’s GOP primary, in essence forcing party registration on Idaho, a move which seems certain to ensure that the most motivated and perhaps the most disenchanted Republican voters dominate next May’s primary election.

Ironically, the battle for the heart and soul of the Idaho GOP, tends to pit more traditional business-oriented, Chamber of Commerce Republicans against the same brand of populists who fueled Barry Goldwater’s rise in the early 1960’s. Generally speaking many of these voters are the most skeptical of government, dismissive of “elites” of any type and disdainful of long tenure in office. All of which makes you wonder if Gov. Otter’s forthcoming campaign event in Coeur d’Alene, featuring the great moderate hope of the national GOP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will serve to reinforce the image that the insurgents are fighting the establishment. Christie recently won a landslide re-election in New Jersey by appealing to Democrats and independents with the kind of campaign Ray Bliss would have loved, but that many in the Tea Party find off putting.

One final parallel. Don Samuelson had a compelling issue in 1966 against the incumbent. Smylie’s championing of the sales tax – first put in place in the 1930’s then repealed by voters before being resurrected in 1966 – was at the heart of the entire campaign that year. Ironically Idahoans endorsed the tax at the ballot box in November of 1966 even as Samuelson, who had voted against the measure in the legislature, was winning a four-way general election race with barely 41% of the vote. The pro-tax vote in 1966 was 61%. Samuelson simply sliced the electorate just finally enough to grab the votes of the anti-tax crowd, and that block and a few more votes were enough to give him a win.

[It's worth noting that both Idaho parties originally nominated anti-sales tax candidates for governor in 1966 even as voters were warming to adopting the tax at the ballot box.]

Fulcher’s issue is, of course, Otter’s advocacy of development of a state-managed health care exchange, which he equates to Otter supporting “Obamacare.” Never mind that Otter sued the federal government and lost over the extremely controversial health insurance reform law before concluding that the state would be better off developing its own exchange rather than relying on the federal government.

Obamacare, not unlike rank and file GOP resentment of Smylie’s moderate leadership role in national politics and his support for establishing a sales tax in the 1960’s, could become a powerful cause for many GOP primary voters, and in politics a powerful cause that juices up the base can, as long-time Idaho analyst Randy Staplius recently observed, be even more important than the profile of the candidate.

The politics of Idaho just became a lot more interesting and, while it should be said emphatically that Butch Otter has many, many significant advantages as he goes for a third term as governor – a solid conservative record, a winning personality, a polished retail approach to politics, lots of money, and the advantages of incumbency – once in a while history does rhyme.

The Wonderful Unpredictability of Politics

Political scientists Duncombe and Martin presciently noted in their 1966 election analysis that, while Idaho Republicans had won big at the ballot box that year – electing Len Jordan to a full term in the U.S. Senate, winning both of the state’s congressional seats, picking up seats in the legislature and, of course, retaining the governorship – the party came out of the Smylie-Samuelson experience badly divided. Such “rifts would need to be healed” they pointed out if the party were to consolidate its gains in 1968 and beyond. What actually happened show that the riffs weren’t so well healed.

In 1968 Democrat Frank Church won re-election to the U.S. Senate and just two years later, in 1970, Democrat Cecil D. Andrus, who had cut his political teeth on primary and general election campaigns during the dramatically unpredictable year of 1966, won the governorship over Samuelson who proved to be a better giant killer than a governor.

Andrus has often said when folks joke about Samuelson’s ineptitude as governor, “Don’t say anything bad about Don Samuelson. If there hadn’t been a Don Samuelson there never would have been a Cecil Andrus.”

That 1970 election began 24 straight years of Democratic control of the Idaho governorship, a political phenomenon that seemed unimaginable four decades ago, but that happened in no small part because of the turmoil fostered by the primary defeat of an Idaho governor who seemed unbeatable until he wasn’t.

 

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