In order to deal with Richard Nixon's first political victory, we must put the election of 1946 in its proper perspective. The off-year 1946 election was nothing less than a massive Republican landslide. It could also be described as a conservative landslide. The main victims of the voters' impatience and anger during 1946 were Democratic liberals, New Dealers and Progressives.
When the ballots were counted across the country, Republicans had picked up eleven Senate seats, for a Senatorial majority of 51 seats out of 96. House races produced a net gain of 55 seats for the GOP, increasing the number of Republican House Districts from 190 to 245. For the first time since 1930, Republicans enjoyed majorities in both Houses of Congress, and they could take over all committee chairmanships, plus major offices like Speaker of the House and President pro tem of the Senate. Republicans would never again enjoy such strength in Congress until the election of 1994. They would get a House majority only once more as a result of the Eisenhower landslide of 1952. However, that margin was paper-thin compared to the House majority which they enjoyed after 1946.
The GOP gained two governorships, resulting in Republican control over 25 out of 48 state houses. On the state legislative level, results were even more staggering. Republicans scored major gains in 18 states: Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Utah in the far West, the Midwestern states of North Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, the border state of Missouri, and Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and New Hampshire in the East. In the legislatures of Michigan, Oregon, North Dakota, and Ohio, the Democrats were almost wiped out as a result of the 1946 election.
GOP gains were unevenly distributed with a heavy concentration of victories in the mid-Atlantic States, the Midwest, and especially the Pacific Coast region. California results were overwhelmingly pro-Republican and anti-liberal. After 1946, all California State offices were Republican. Governor Earl Warren was reelected with 92% of the vote, and Fred Houser defeated incumbent Democrat Robert Kenney in the race for Attorney General. Also, California Democrats lost eight State Assembly seats, giving the GOP solid majorities in both Houses of the California Legislature. The number of Republican House seats in California doubled, increasing from an embarrassingly low total of seven to fourteen as a result of the 1946 election. Democratic liberals George Outland from Santa Barbara and Ed Izac of San Diego lost out to Republicans. After 1946, there were only four Democrats from Southern California. Eight Southern California Congressmen were Republicans, two-thirds of the total. Three out of the remaining four Democratic Congressmen were moderate to conservative: Cecil King from the Wilmington/San Pedro area, Chet Hollifield from Montebello, and Harry Sheppard from San Bernardino County. The only Democratic liberal left in the Southern California delegation was Helen Gahagan Douglas, whose very safe Democratic district was located in the middle of Los Angeles. No wonder that Nixon won the election of 1946. The wonder was that he did not get an even higher percentage of the total vote.
The June 4th primary gave the 12th District Democrats a false sense of security. My father's total primary vote was quite high and actually exceeded Nixon's total by approximately 7,000 ballots. In addition, my father received an absolute majority of 53.5% of all ballots cast in the Democratic and Republican primaries. The primary election results did not tell the whole story, however. Independents and disgruntled Democrats did not vote in the primary, and these floating, disgusted, angry and often apathetic voters voted heavily for Nixon and the GOP in November. Also, although my father received 53.5% of the primary vote in 1946, two years earlier, in 1944, he received 60% of all primary ballots. The political erosion process was already beginning by June of 1946. Finally, the June 4th primary occurred one month before my father' 5 very controversial and unpopular vote on the Tidelands Oil Bill.
The GOP candidate for Congress in the 12th District, Richard Nixon, was by far the most attractive Republican opponent of my father, with the possible exception of Fred Houser. Nixon was young, a war veteran with a young and attractive wife who had just given birth to a baby daughter during the 1946 campaign. He was intelligent, shrewd, a skilled debater and public speaker. ~t but not least, he was not offensive to the regular Republican organization.
My father returned to the 12th District to campaign for the last time in the fall of 1946. He was exhausted from his Congressional duties. The 1945-46 session of Congress was particularly grueling because of thorny problems like atomic energy, wartime controls, U.S. occupation policies, and aid to Britain. During some of the wartime sessions, Congress met all year without a fall or summer break. My father was not in a good position to campaign against a vigorous and well-financed Republican organization.
In addition to exhaustion, my father's general health was poor during the 1946 campaign. He required surgery in Ogden, Utah, shortly before the fall of 1946. The physical good health of a candidate is perhaps the most vital factor influencing his ability to campaign and perform. In this respect, my father was not in a good position to run for reelection.
Finally, both my father and Richard Nixon, at different times to be sure, violated the second great commandment of American politics. The first commandment is that you must not speak ill of another member of your own r political party. The second is like unto it: You shall never debate your opponent' if you are an incumbent. During the fall campaign, my father agreed to debate Nixon on several occasions at different locations throughout the district. My father was tired and on the defensive. Nixon was vigorous and able to criticize all aspects of the new Truman Administration's policies, including price and wage controls, as well as rationing. Unlike McLaughlin two years earlier, there was no need for Nixon to rally around the flag in support of a wartime government. The war was over. People wanted a change. Also, many of Nixon's supporters were in the audience during each debate. My father was not able to debate in the controlled, quiet and antiseptic atmosphere of a TV studio. Instead, he had to face a noisy and often hostile audience. These debates were a strain on my father and they contributed needed media exposure to the Nixon campaign.
(Fourteen years later, Nixon would be in the same predicament as my father was during 1946. Nixon felt compelled to debate Kennedy on TV. That was a mistake. The Nixon-Kennedy debates pitted an incumbent Nixon against a young, fresh and vigorous candidate. Nixon had to defend the Eisenhower Administration when it was cooing under fire for everything from a nagging economic recession to the Communist takeover in Cuba. These TV debates hurt Nixon as much as the live debates hurt my father during 1946.)
One final millstone around my father's neck was the support which he received from organized labor. Nineteen forty-six was a year of serious and at times crippling strikes in many industries, especially in the coal mines. The mine workers actually went on strike during the war. Voters in the 12th District were very anti-labor at that time. Many believed that sane labor unions were infiltrated with communists, anarchists, and other subversive elements. This antagonism toward organized labor and its tendency to strike eventually led to passage of the Taft-Hartley Labor Relations Law, with its injunction provisions against unions threatening to strike.
My father received high scores on the lists of Congressmen and Senators which were prepared by pro-labor political action groups. The two leading labor PAC organization at the time gave my father a score of over 80% correct in his votes on labor-connected issues. He was a leader in the Campaign to pass the Fair Standards Labor Act. This pro-labor record in Congress proved to be a great political liability for my father during the conservative election year of 1946. When the votes were counted, Nixon received 65,586 ballots, compared to 49,994 for my father. Nixon benefited from post-war fatigue with controls and rationing, anti-labor sentiment, and demographics. The 12th District had become a Republican stronghold by 1946.
The GOP vote and population in the district had increased steadily, especially after 1942. The Democratic population was reduced by at least 25,000 potential voters when district boundaries were redrawn after 1940. Also, off-year apathy among Democratic voters was massive compared to their more politically conscious GOP neighbors, who usually voted in every election. Nixon and other Republican Congressional candidates could count on a steady bedrock of support in every election, barring a divisive primary or a candidate with almost no name recognition. My father and other Democrats had to depend on a fluctuating, undependable, and divided Democratic electorate, which became increasingly contentious after the death of FDR.
Nixon's 1946 victory was impressive. But taken in the context of the conservative political mood of that year, it was not remarkable, especially when one understands how Republican the district had become by that time. Later, his 1948 Congressional victory, his near defeat of John Kennedy in 1960, and his unprecedented landslide victory over the 1972 Democratic Presidential candidate, George McGovern, were all much more noteworthy. For example, during 1948, after serving only one term in Congress, Nixon was able to cross-file in the Democratic primary and secure that party's Congressional nomination. Thus, he was able to campaign as both the Democratic and Republican candidate for Congress in that year. This fact once again underscores the cohesion of the GOP and the divided and less disciplined nature of the Democratic party in the 12th District.
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