Fratricide is legendary in the Kansas Republican party, a recurring affliction since before the progressives’ and Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose insurgency more than a century ago. Later, in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was said that Republicans were the Democrats’ best friend; while Republicans fought each other, Democrats were busy collecting votes.
That is one reason why this state has elected a Democratic governor in nine of 15 elections in the past 50 years. Since 1966, Democrats have served 28 years as governor, Republicans 22.
Recent history is vivid illustration, starting in 1956 with the first election of a Democratic governor in 20 years – the after-shock of a bitter and vindictive GOP primary race between incumbent Gov. Fred Hall and challenger Warren Shaw. Hall, for example, accused Shaw of taking kickbacks on state gasoline purchases, implying that another governor, Ed Arn, had looked the other way. Shaw called Hall a liar, denouncing the allegations as a “plain, unvarnished, unmitigated lie,” and said the governor was “a desperate little man.” That and more, for weeks.
Meantime George Docking, a Lawrence Democrat who had lost to Hall two years earlier, looked on with amusement. Shaw’s primary victory was Phyrric, sapping both party and candidate. Docking won the general election by 95,000 votes.
UNTIL the late 1950s, the Republican party had been organized labor’s party, the partnership a powerful force in state and national elections. Republicans then had been the party of reform, of coalitions with progressive Democrats that led to establishing a Federal Trade Commission, minimum wages for men and women, the prohibition of child labor, antitrust laws, and a federal income tax; they worked for a Federal Reserve Act, the Food and Drug Act, workers compensation laws, safety and health standards for various occupations, and the eight-hour workday (and one day off in seven), among others. The arrangement meant continued vigilance to reduce inequities in the distribution of wealth; government, wherever necessary, became an agency of human welfare.
But things began to go sideways. On the ballot in 1958 was a right-to-work constitutional amendment that bled with savage controversy. The amendment would prohibit anyone from being denied work for membership or nonmembership in a labor union. It also outlawed the union shop in Kansas. In his bid for re-election, Democrat George Docking avoided clear commitment on the question because Republicans had been so fanatical about it. The less he said about the matter (privately, he supported it), the more money Republicans would spend to get the amendment passed, and the less his Republican opponent, Clyde Reed, would be able to raise as a result.
Besides robbing Reed of Republican party energy and money, right-to-work had capped a four-year Republican effort to drive labor out of the Republican camp. A majority of labor union members had been Republicans until the late 1940s and early 1950s, and were native Kansans most likely to be Republicans. More, the labor leaders had always known who buttered their bread. They had expected Republicans to win, and they had stayed on the GOP band wagon.
Because Republicans had been the labor party in Kansas, big business denounced Republican Gov. Ed Arn (1951-55) as loudly as his successor, Fred Hall (1955-57). Labor had made great gains under Gov. Frank Carlson (1947-50) and Arn. But big business ran the Republican party and big business, at the time, was not satisfied. After Hall’s bitter defeat in the 1956 primary, the right-wing, right-to-workers sought to control the party. Labor had nowhere to go but to the Democrats. Thus, right-to-work as an issue gave the Democrats thousands of new dollars and voters.
In 1958, organized labor rolled up its sleeves for the expensive, back-breaking precinct work to help its cause, and voted Democratic as it never had before – and with remarkable results. Docking won reelection by more than 100,000 votes, 5,000 more than his margin two years earlier. It was the first time Kansas reelected a Democrat governor, and the first time in 24 years Kansas elected three Democratic (of six, then) congressmen.
The extent of victory even included Republicans. Labor alone hadn’t elected the governor, but along with labor, Democrats kept much of the Republican vote they had earned in 1956. And more people voted a straight Democratic ticket than ever before.
This historic change had been cumulative, with gradual Democratic gains all over Kansas – in the House of Representatives, in the precincts, in courthouses. Experience in leadership and organization had followed.
Too many Republicans, especially those in control, failed to see the trends. They were disillusioned with Fred Hall, disgruntled with liberals among them and determined to defeat labor. In throwing them all out, they had lost two elections – and organized labor, for good.