For the last few weeks, many Idahoans – particularly those who enjoy a good political tale – have been fascinated by the congressional primary between Raul Labrador and Vaughn Ward that will be decided today. The Ward-Labrador GOP primary has been a fascinating race, but can’t hold a candle to a long ago Democratic primary.
Fifty-four years ago, Idaho witnessed one of the most contentious primary elections ever and the guy who lost that epic battle – Glen Taylor – went to his grave believing the victor – Frank Church -had stolen his chance to return to the U.S. Senate. That 1956 primary launched Church’s distinguished 24 year career.
Idaho has produced its share of political characters – Big George Hansen, Steve Symms, C. Ben Ross, to name but three – but few could hold a candle to Glen Taylor, the Singing Cowboy. Taylor ran for the Senate six times, but won only once, in 1944, when he beat incumbent D. Worth Clark in the Democratic primary.
In his earlier attempts at elective office, Taylor traveled Idaho with a sound truck, his wife Dora and the GlenDora Singers. As Taylor’s biographer, F. Ross Peterson, has colorfully detailed in his excellent book on Taylor – Prophet Without Honor: Glen Taylor and the Fight for American Liberalism – the Taylor clan would ride into town, set up on a street corner and start belting out country-western tunes. After a crowd gathered, Taylor would climb up on the roof of the truck and deliver his political stump speech. It must have been quite the show.
Taylor ran and won in 1944 as an unabashed liberal, an advocate of what became the United Nations and a supporter of civil rights. His left-leaning politics eventually propelled Taylor onto the 1948 Progressive Party national ticket where he ran as former Vice President Henry Wallace’s running mate. They two liberals lost badly – Wallace and Taylor polled fewer than 5,000 votes in Idaho – and the stench of socialist or communist influence in the Progressive Party never completely left Taylor. He lost the 1950 Idaho Democratic primary to the guy he’d beaten in 1950 – former Sen. Worth Clark. Clark, in turn, lost to one-term Sen. Herman Welker.
Taylor tried again for the Senate in 1954 and lost again. He made one final try two years later against the 32-year old Church. Church ran a vigorous campaign and by the morning after primary election day he held a less-than-commanding 170 vote lead over Taylor.
Taylor alleged irregularities in the vote count in Elmore County, but Church was declared the winner and went on to defeat Welker in the fall. A subsequent Senate review of the election – lead by Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore, Sr. – confirmed that Church had indeed won, but Taylor never believed it.
In his 1979 memoir – The Way it Was With Me – Taylor wouldn’t let the long-ago election die. I remember interviewing Taylor at the time and he remained, at age 80, feisty, opinionated and outspoken. Taylor died in 1984, a one-time senator from Idaho and a many time candidate. One of the true Idaho originals.
After running out his string in politics, Taylor made a fortune as the inventor of the Taylor Topper and he operated the extremely successful toupee business for many years. The ex-senator was a walking advertisement for his hairy product.
In 1963, TIME did a piece – pardon the pun – on the male hair piece and quoted the general manager of the Taylor Topper company as saying: “The Senator is always saying that the only thing that will stop hair from falling is the floor.”
Don’t forget to vote today.