For much of its early history California had been regarded as solidly Republican state. This multi-part diary series will look at how California slowly transformed from Republican bastion that brought us Nixon and Reagan to the Democratic stronghold we know it today.
This diary will start at the New Deal Era to age of Reagan in the governorship
Republicans held the governorship for nearly a 40 year span from (1899-1939). The only exception was former Republican Hiram Johnson winning as a Progressive in 1910. During this period the Democrats were shut out of most state wide elected positions (the only exception was the single term for senator James Phelan who was elected during the progressive era of Woodrow Wilson)
The Great Depression and FDR
GOP dominance of the state began to weaken at the start of the Great Depression. A huge influx migrants flocked to the state as the population of California exploded.These new demographics gave the state a whopping 9 additional house seats during the 1930 census. Democrats which at the time were nothing more than an insignificant minority in the legislature. They held only a mere 8 seats in the assembly and 5 seats in the state senate. With the economic downturn at hand Democrats began to make huge gains throughout the state. FDR's 1932 election coattails gave California Democrats a majority of the US House delegation and a senate seat. By the time FDR secured a landslide reelection in 1936 Democrats had tripled their numbers in the state senate (5 to 15) and had won control of the state assembly for the first time in a half a century. President Roosevelt openly supported Culbert Olsen's candidacy for the governorship in 1938. Olsen's victory ended the Republican's 40 year hold over the governorship and was known as one of the founding father's the modern California Democratic party.
Olsen defied the national Republican wave of the 1938 midterms and defeated the sitting conservative Republican governor, Frank Merriam. Olsen had campaigned on a New Deal/Pro-Labor platform and won in a landslide. Merriam as it turned out had committed political suicide by angering both the left and the right. His actions in suppressing the
Longshore Strike angered progressives and labor communities. Secondly his support of a tax increase infuriated many conservative Republicans. These factors tipped the scale in favor of a Olsen victory.
Trivia: Olsen was an intriguing governor, although raised a Mormon he declared himself an atheist at age 10 and refused to say "under god" while taking his oath of office.
Olson had a rocky relationship with his divided legislature, which made it tough to pass his new deal proposals. Business friendly Republicans remained in control of the state senate, while the assembly was under the control of a coalition containing both conservative and socialist Democrats (yes it's shocking to see conservative and socialist running under the same party)
The GOP was on the defense during the New Deal era, and decided to create new a organization. The GOP activists created the California Republican Assembly(CRA) in 1933 which would serve as the conscience of the CA GOP party. They endorsed attorney general, Earl Warren for Governor to take on Olsen in the 1942 gubernatorial election. An important note: although the CRA today is viewed as a very conservative organization it was not so during this period. In fact moderates and progressives made up a healthy portion of the CRA. Warren, himself campaigned as moderate to appeal to both sides of electorate. Olsen faced a tremendous uphill battle for reelection. Unable to accomplish much with his divided legislature and a strong Republican wave election on his heels, Olson was ultimately defeated by Warren in a landslide. Republicans resumed control of the assembly and padded their majorities. Earl Warren won reelection in a rout in 1946 by taking in 90% of the vote. He had taken advantage of the cross filling system in California that allowed him to win both the Republican and Democratic primaries ensuring an easy victory. The success of Earl Warren earned him the VP spot on Thomas Dewey's 1948 Presidential Campaign. In a major upset President Truman won the election and narrowly carried the state.
The 1950 US Senate Race and the Age of Ike
The 1950 midterm elections resulted in a near clean sweep for Republicans who gained back a senate seat with Richard Nixon. The current incumbent Democratic senator, Sheridan Downey had grown more conservative and had become a big supporter of the oil industry. Downey faced a spirited primary from congresswoman, Helen Gahagan Douglas. Ill health resulted in Downey dropping out and endorsing a another Democrat, Manchester Boddy, in the primary. When Douglas won the Democratic nomination, Downey promptly endorsed Nixon as he felt Douglas was too liberal for the state. Nixon used his usual campaign scare tactics by painting Douglas as communist sympathizer ("who was pink right down to her underwear") who was far too left for CA. Nixon ran with the advantage of running for the open seat with a Democratic candidate still bruised from a bitter primary. The end result was an easy victory for Nixon in the good Republican year.
Trivia: Both nicknames "the pink lady" for Douglas and "Tricky Dick" were originally coined by Manchester Boddy. Nixon and Douglas would then recycle these nicknames during the general election.
Earl Warren's popularity enabled him to win a 3rd term in 1950 (the first CA governor to do so). The overall results of the 1950 midterm elections left Pat Brown as the sole statewide elected Democrat in the state. In 1952 Eisenhower selected Nixon as his running mate. Although Nixon had less than 2 years of the senate under his belt, he had made a name for himself as strong opponent of communism after his house career. The Ike-Nixon ticket easily won California and Republicans padded their majorities in all levels of government in the state. Ike nominated Earl Warren to the position of Chief of Justice and Republican Lt. Governor Goodwin Knight assumed the governorship.
Democrats ,down in their luck, decided to reorganize the party and formed the California Democratic Council (CDC).
Ike easily carried CA in his 1956 reelection campaign, but at the same time Democrats gained 4 seats in the state senate. This small change resulted in Democrats winning control of the chamber for the first time since 1890 (which may have served as a harbinger for upcoming 1958 midterms). Republican never again won back the state senate which has now been in Democratic hands continuously for 56 years!
The Big Switch and start of a Democratic California
Republicans still had a strong grip in the state, but there were growing divisions within the conservative and moderate wings. Three men fought for influence of the state party. Goodwin Knight ,now serving a second term in his own right, represented the moderate wing (with sympathies to labor unions). William F Knowland ,US Senator and leader of the Senate Republicans, symbolized the conservative wing of the party. Finally there was Richard Nixon ,current Vice President, who had his eyes set on winning the Republican nomination for president in 1960. The problem was that Knowland also had his eyes on the presidency. Unsatisfied with the US senate, Knowland felt the statehouse would be a better spring board for the Presidency. Thus Knowland decided to challenge sitting governor Knight for the governorship by running to Knight's right. The growing conservative movement within the CA GOP would make the primary an uphill battle for Knight. To avoid a bruising primary Ike, Nixon and Knowland pressured Knight to run instead for Knowland's open senate seat. Knight agreed and the move was dubbed the "big switch" as a means to keep two popular GOP officials in office. Also on the ballot was a Right to Work initiative, Prop 18. Knowland, who wanted to bolster his conservative credentials, endorsed the proposition.
The 1958 midterms served to be decisive win for Democrats. Proposition 18 was wildly unpopular with voters and led to massive turnouts by unions and pro-labor forces in the state. In a single election Republicans were decimated on all fronts. Knowland and Knight went on to lose their respective races in landslides to Pat Brown and Clair Engle.
Fun Fact: On June 10, 1964, during the roll call for the historic, successful effort to break the filibuster on what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when the clerk reached "Mr. Engle," there was no reply. The tumor had robbed Engle of his ability to speak. Slowly lifting an arm, he pointed to his eye, thereby signaling his affirmative vote ("aye").The cloture vote was 71-29, four votes more than the two-thirds required to cut off the filibuster. Nine days later the Senate approved the Act itself.
Democrats also padded their state senate majority, won control of the state assembly, regained a majority in the US house delegation, and took 5 out of the 6 partisan statewide races. Since this election Republicans have never been able to gain a majority of the CA House Delegation.
Trivia: shortly after the 1958 elections Pat Brown was a special guest on the game show "What's my line"
Democrats decided to have their national convention in Los Angeles where they nominated JFK and LBJ. The ticket would narrowly win the presidency while Nixon won CA.
Pictured below are Kennedy, Brown, Johnson, and senator Stuart Symington
Pat Brown went on to stop a strong challenge from Richard Nixon in the 1962 gubernatorial election. Nixon, suffering from two stinging defeats in a row, went on to declare his "political retirement" famously telling the media that they "won't have Dick Nixon to kick around"
The 1964 Presidential election became a major turning point for the CA GOP, up until this point the moderate and conservative factions of the party constantly fought over for control of the party. The candidacy of of Barry Goldwater, an ardent conservative, aggravated the situation in the state. Moderates and establishment Republicans favored Nelson Rockefeller in the CA primary. Conservatives in the CRA at the time did not have the votes give Goldwater the endorsement of the CRA. Instead conservatives worked to override the 2/3 rules required for an endorsement and just have a simple majority voter. The Rockefeller supporters(Republican moderates) eventually left the convention, giving the CRA the opportunity to endorse Goldwater and made the CRA the conservative organization that we see today. Despite this seemingly Goldwater/Conservative victory, deep rifts within the GOP were still visible. Liberal Republican Senator Thomas Kuchel, refused to endorse Goldwater ticket, earning the ire of conservatives. 1964 was a pivotal battle for the heart and sole of the CA GOP. Conservative began gaining clout in the party. Liberal moderate Republicans would still exist but their influence and stature in the party was fading. Lyndon Johnson carried the state handily (by nearly 20 points). It was the first time a Democratic candidate had won CA since Truman won it in 1948. The feat would not to be repeated till Bill Clinton won the state in 1992.
1966 Republican Resurgence
Incumbent Democratic governor Pat Brown ran for a 3rd consecutive in a rough political year. The now conservative dominated CRA wholeheartedly endorsed Ronald Reagan for governor. Reagan, a former liberal New Deal Democrat, had grown more conservative and became a Republican in 1962.
Trivia: The last time Ronald Reagan actively supported a Democratic candidate was in 1950 when he helped Helen Gahagan Douglas in her unsuccessful Senate campaign against Richard Nixon. Yes that's the same Douglas who Nixon once labeled as the "pink lady" for her supposed communist leanings.
Reagan had gained much of his conservative fame from when he gave his "a time for choosing" speech in which he endorsed Goldwater's campaign for president. Running against anti war protests, and welfare, Reagan upended Brown in a landslide election. Republicans won 5/6 of the statewide partisan offices.
The 1968 elections came with mixed results for the GOP. Nixon easily carried the state and GOP won 2 house seats along with control of the state assembly. At the same though, Senator Thomas Kuchel was narrowly defeated in the primary by the conservative Max Rafferty. Many consider Kuchel's loss to his increasingly liberal views in a party that was rapidly moving rightward. Rafferty proved to be too conservative for CA and was defeated by Democratic State Controller, Alan Cranston. The senate seat has been in Democratic hands ever since.
Ronald Reagan had now become a darling of the conservatives, with his tough tactics against Berkley anti-war protesters during "Bloody Thursday" at the people's park protests. In 1970 Reagan faced a spirited challenge from former Democratic Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, but was easily given a 2nd term.
The most interesting race to watch was the US Senate race. Democrats had a bruising primary between two congressman to face the incumbent Republican senator George Murphy. The two congressman were John Tunney and George Brown (who also happens to be the last democrat to represent my hometown Riverside). Both Democrats questioned the war in Vietnam but differed in opinion when considering the military draft. George Brown, known as a liberal democrat who managed to win in largely Republican areas, campaigned as the anti-war candidate who had always opposed the war from the start including the draft. Tunney, painted himself Robert "Kennedy-esque" candidate, who highlighted his youth and charisma. He campaigned as center-right candidate. While he wasn't in full support of the war he still approved of the draft. Tunney had the advantage of getting into the race early and having a bigger organization, but still was trailing to Brown. The primary got nasty with Tunney saying that Brown supported the violence going on in the campuses. Brown countered with calling Tunney a spoiled rich kid. An 11th hour ad blitz allowed Tunney to narrowly beat out Brown. At this point Republican Murphy was leading in the polls by over 20 points. But this all changed as Tunney began getting his message out in the state. Although he was a center-right candidate Tunney was still to the left of Murphy who was the staunchest supporter of the Vietnam war. Murphy had suffered from throat cancer which made him barely able to speak over a whisper (further hurting his campaign). In the end Tunney won the race by 9 points giving Democrats both US senate seats the first time since Milton Latham lost his seat in 1862!.
Trivia: Tunney's successful Senate race in 1970 is reportedly the inspiration for the 1972 Robert Redford film The Candidate.
Democrats also retook control of the state assembly. Jerry Brown was elected as Secretary of state and was the sole Democrat in the statewide offices.
This concludes the first part of my California Politics diary, I hope you enjoyed it. There was so much more I would have loved to include but I wanted to keep things as concise as possible.
If you're interested in hearing more about the 1950 US senate campaign (which If I covered in full detail would have a taken a whole diary by itself) I recommend you try here
Anyways when I continue we'll look at Jerry Brown terms as governor, Prop 13, and much much more.