Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reagan vs. Kuchel: What Did the “Experts” Know, and When did They Know it?

Chances are pretty good you’ve never heard of Thomas Henry Kuchel.  But in the summer of 1965, he was the senior senator from the state of California.  What’s more, some saw him as, “near to a sure thing to beat [Democratic Governor Pat] Brown as is possible in American politics.” 

Sen. Thomas H. Kuchel 
pic courtesy of
Kuchel was a man alternatively described as “liberal” or “moderate” depending upon who is writing about him.  He first joined the Senate in 1953, when Governor Earl Warren appointed him to fill the vacancy created by Richard Nixon’s election as vice-president of the United States.  Kuchel went on to win his own elections in 1956 and 1962.  As Senate minority whip, he co-managed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

Kuchel seems to have had a very complex (some might say, “dysfunctional”) relationship with fellow Republicans.  In 1958, he supported conservative Senator William F. Knowland’s attempt to oust liberal governor Goodwin J. Knight in the Republican primary.  In 1962, he refused to endorse former Vice President Richard Nixon in the gubernatorial race against Pat Brown.  By 1964, Kuchel rebuffed Knowland when asked to endorse the Republicans’ conservative presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater. 
Gov. Edmund "Pat Brown

Following the crushing electoral defeat of Goldwater by Lyndon Johnson, there was discussion afoot that Republicans might not have much of a future—and they surely wouldn’t if they continued to follow the “now-discredited” path of Goldwater conservatism.

Back in California, the supposedly disheartened conservatives seemed to be anything but.  In fact, Holmes Tuttle, Henry Salvatori, and other conservative Californians with deep pockets, believed that while they had lost the presidential contest, they had perhaps uncovered a “diamond in the rough” in actor Ronald Reagan. 

Over the previous ten to twenty years, Reagan had slowly morphed from a New Deal Democrat into a Goldwater conservative.  Indeed, though Reagan was well known nationally from his acting days and his stint as a goodwill ambassador for General Electric, it was his speech on Goldwater’s behalf at the 1964 Republican convention which made Tuttle, Salvatori, and others begin to see Reagan as more than just a pretty face.

Much early handicapping of CA’s 1966 gubernatorial race held that Kuchel would easily defeat Brown, whereas Reagan would lose.  One polling report stated that:

...while a good many people think [Reagan] would be an "excellent" Republican choice for governor, a much larger group feel he would be a "poor choice."  By contrast, Senator Kuchel is very seldom rated a "poor choice," and is much more likely to be rated a "good choice" than is Reagan.
The California Poll of August 11, 1965 concluded that:

…if Kuchel were running against Brown now, the Senator would be preferred over the Governor by a margin approaching two to one…Today’s Poll highlights  a dilemma for Republican leaders.  Should they back Kuchel who has the best chance of winning the governorship, facing the fact that if he wins in November of 1966 he would have to resign his U.S. Senate seat before taking office and give still-Governor Brown a chance to appoint a Democrat to fill his unexpired two years?  Or should they back Reagan…on the gamble that the governorship could be won without Kuchel, thus placing Republicans in all three top state offices?
As it turned out, one month later Kuchel decided not to enter the primary race for governor, and then refused to support Reagan in the general election against Brown.  The Democrats rejoiced at this—confident that Brown the “giant slayer” who had beaten back Knowland and Nixon would trounce this upstart actor.  As it turned out, Reagan defeated Brown by over one million votes, and carried all but three of California’s counties.
And the moral of the story for we beleaguered conservatives in 2011?  Be extremely cautious of voting against your conscience in the primary because one candidate or another is labeled “unelectable” by self-appointed wizards of smart.  Reagan was unelectable too. 

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