Friday, February 10, 2012

Republican Circular Firing Squad c. 1966

Much has been written about the fractured state of the California Republican party during Ronald Reagan's initial run for governor.  One aspect of this was the patchwork of feuding volunteer organizations, the result of electoral reforms pushed through by Progressive Republican governor Hiram Johnson at the beginning of the 20th century. Through the 1966 primary, Reagan and his chief rival George Christopher would wage battle for the support of these organizations.  Perhaps most challenging of all, both men knew (or, should have known) that they would have to campaign in such a way that the victor in the June primary could effectively unite all the Republican faction to himself, if he was to have any chance of overcoming the Democrats who, even then, could lay claim to three of every five voters in California. (Campaign in California bitter fight)

Christopher drew first blood when the Republican Council of California, an invitation-only organization, made him their top pick for governor.(Conservative group in California gives support to Reagan)   This victory was rather meaningless, however, since the organization was so small (only 75 members) and elitist.

Reagan scored his own victory on April 3rd, when the 11,500 member conservative-leaning California Republican Assembly endorsed him.(Conservative group in California gives support to Reagan)  There was no particular surprise that the far more conservative CRA would select Reagan.  One suspects, however, that Christopher needlessly poisoned the well by announcing that he "would not be seeking" a CRA endorsement.

Perhaps in an attempt to reach out the CRA crowd, Christopher had appeared at the convention the day before to call for the rejection of “the radical right as well as the radical left.”(Reagan is endorsed)  Either it didn't occur to the mayor that it might sound just a little hubristic to stand before the people you've already said you won't seek an endorsement from and lecture them in verbiage suggesting that you, personally represent the golden mean of political virtue, and all lesser beings fall to your left or right; Or else it did occur to him...and he simply didn't care.  Christopher was booed off the stage and left without a single vote.

Fifteen days later, the political seesaw again shifted in Christopher's favor when the California Republican League chose to back him, while "snubbing" the Gipper.  According to the Toledo Blade, the CRL convention had refused Reagan's request to:
...make a brief, unscheduled talk on the grounds that he passed up his chance the day before, when other candidates spoke.  Mr. Reagon [sic] said he had previous commitments. 

“Well, that’s big of them,” he said when told he could appear for a moment, if he didn’t say anything.  “If they don’t know what I look like now, it’s a little late.”  Mr. Regan’s [sic] name wasn’t placed before the convention and he received no votes. (Reagan rival wins support

Given the rather catty treatment doled out to a former state co-chairman of Goldwater for President, it is not too surprising that May saw Reagan win the endorsement of the United Republicans of California (UROC), a group originally founded for the specific purpose of promoting Barry Goldwater for President.(History of UROC ; UROC sweepingly votes to back Reagan)  As if the CRL's treatment of Reagan were not reason enough to raise the ire of UROC members, tensions were ratcheted up when a former paid UROC director, Russ Walton predicted, "a group of extremists are going to attempt to take over and move UROC even further to the right."  Choosing to disregard the common sense that would suggest one keep one's nose out of others' business, the CRL chose to issue a warning about John Birch Society infiltration of UROC.
Michael Kahl issued a press statement from the CRL president William P. Gray expressing ‘dismay’ at the reports JBS support was ‘significant’ in the election of Crosby…(UROC sweeping votes to back Reagan)
In the end, Reagan not only won the UROC endorsement...he ran away with it.  Reagan received 761 votes.  The only other candidate to secure votes, William Penn Patrick, got a measly 28.  Again, Christopher received a goose egg.

The story of the volunteer organizations serves as an illustration of what Gaylord Parkinson said of California GOP politics:
You have every candidate running on his own.  He can run as long as he can get in the primary; then he turns to the party and says, "Okay, help me.  Well, he looks around and there's no party.  He's alienated half of them to begin with and there isn't any party--no Republican finance--no nothing...It's the most screwed-up system I ever saw in my life." (2004). The Right Moment, p. 178.
The very presence of this many different groups representing (primarily) the bitter divide between conservative and moderate Republicans perhaps help give one a sense of just how divided Republicans were, and just how big a deal it was that Reagan was able to unite them. In the midst of one of the most contested (and increasingly vicious) presidential primaries in decades, Republican candidates need to learn from the example of Reagan.  It was not a fait accompli that Ronald Reagan would win the governorship.  Before he was able to do so, he had to unite the warring Republican tribes.  The fact that he was so successful in doing so is an indication of just how remarkable his political skills and personal integrity were.

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