Color Coded: Party Politics in the American West, 1950-2016

Color Coded: Party Politics in the American West, 1950-2016

by Walter Nugent

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The now–staunchly red state of Texas was deep blue in 1950 and had virtually no functioning Republican Party. California, on the other hand, was reliably red. Today, both states have jumped to the opposite end of the political spectrum. Texas is one of the most conservative states, while California has become one of today’s most liberal bastions. These are the most dramatic cases, but notable shifts in voting patterns have occurred throughout the western states in recent decades—shifts so varied and complex that they have, until now, eluded the attention focused on the drastic examples of the South and Northeast. Bringing clarity to the remarkably mixed yet poorly understood map of America’s red, blue, and purple western half, Color Coded presents the first comprehensive history of political change and stability in the region between 1950 and 2016.

The West, in Walter Nugent’s analysis, includes nineteen states: the thirteen that the U.S. Census Bureau calls the Western Region—roughly from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, as well as off-shore Alaska and Hawaii—plus the six Great Plains states from North Dakota south to Texas. Consulting official voting results of more than 5,300 state and national elections, as well as newspaper reports, oral histories, public documents, and other sources, Nugent reveals the ever-shifting patterns that have defined western politics in modern times. Geography, culture, history, political trajectories, and the charisma of key political actors have all played their part in these changes—and will, Nugent asserts, continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

A powerful, exhaustively researched study of modern political organization, party development, and shifting voter blocs in the West, Color Coded deftly charts, as well, the profound red-blue tensions that have defined modern America.

Returns for the 5,300-plus elections on which the book is based, covering the nineteen western states between 1950 and 2016, are compiled in the book's appendix.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806162997
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/15/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 45 MB
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About the Author

Walter Nugent is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame.  He is the former President of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and former president of the Western History Association.  As a widely recognized expert in the fields of western history and progressive age America, Nugent has authored many books.  His most recent publications include Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansionism (Vintage, 2009), Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009), and Into the West: The Story of Its People (Vintage, 2001)

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Oklahoma: Starting Blue, Turning Deep Red

Is Oklahoma truly a western state? Visit the southeastern quarter of it, known as "Little Dixie," which includes Mississippi-reminiscent county names like Pushmataha and Atoka, and you would not think so. But visit the counties west of El Reno, and the Panhandle, where the early settlers were farmer-ranchers trying to make a living on wheat and cattle, and you would not doubt the state's western character. In truth, it is both southern and western, as is Texas. The best writers on American regionalism have agreed that Oklahoma cuts across, or better, combines, elements of both the South and the West.

Authorities differ. V. O. Key's magisterial Southern Politics (1949) has a chapter on Texas but not one on Oklahoma, nor is there even an index entry for Oklahoma. But Raymond Gastil's widely cited Cultural Regions of the United States (1975) places Texas and the southern two-thirds of Oklahoma in the "Western South," where "the white masses are religiously traditional, individualistic, against the use of alcohol. ... They expect little of government, vote against bond issues, and for [George] Wallace or other populist candidates." The Western South is "thoroughly in the Southern Baptist world that I have taken as a principal marker of Southern Culture." Neal Peirce solved the problem by stressing geography and longitude rather than culture; he included the state in his fine The Great Plains States of the United States (1972). It is unarguable that the state is part of the Great Plains tier. And it is also unarguable that in its politics and culture Oklahoma has been both southern and western. Consequently, Oklahoma's political culture has traditionally been conservative, in one sense or another, with greater or less intensity depending on candidates, issues, and the prevailing regional-national context.

In the spectrum of Goldwater-to-Reagan-to-Tea-Party conservatism, Oklahoma participated in its own ways. In Oklahoma, as elsewhere, Republican conservatism rested on several bases and perennial issues. Anti-union legislation appeared later than in most southern states, but a right-to-work law did pass in 2001. Modern conservatism's anti-regulatory, low-tax principles have been expressed for some time. The state was not hard-line opposed to civil rights for African Americans — it voted for George Wallace in 1968 far less than Deep South states did — and Governor Henry Bellmon, though certainly a GOP conservative (for his time, the 1960s), was no racist. Oklahomans have been strongly religious, as was most starkly demonstrated politically in the crucial 1994 election, which was a Republican victory resting in substantial part on a coalition of Baptists, other Protestants, Mormons like Congressman Ernest Istook, and conservative Catholics like soon-to-be-governor Frank Keating. In short, all of the elements of modern conservatism have been present, in an amalgam peculiar to itself and perhaps to Texas.

Oklahoma expressed its conservatism in its own way. But then, it had always had some of the ingredients — the tradition of self-made homesteading; the romantic (though not law-abiding) legend of the original Sooners, who literally jumped the gun in the land rushes of 1889 and later; and the idea, reinforced by oil booms, that anyone might strike it rich (and therefore had no use for "government handouts"). A key ingredient in Oklahoma's conservative mix was religion. It could act positively, providing help for the down and out, or negatively, fighting against abortion and lax sexual mores. Oklahoma had a submerged reservoir of conservative traditions and attitudes, and the efforts in 1994 by the Christian Coalition brought it to the surface. The state's conservatism, as was true elsewhere, comprised several unstable factions, but they have largely stayed together for more than two decades.

Oklahomans, then, like their Great Plains neighbors to the south and the north, were receptive to modern conservatism, or various forms of it, as it developed across the South and parts of the West from the 1970s on. At times it built on remnants of the John Birch movement of the 1950s, though that was not especially strong in Oklahoma. At times it took a libertarian turn, resting in part on the radical individualism inherent in evangelicalism, as well as the Sooner frontier tradition. In the 1980s and 1990s emergent conservatism fed upon "social issues" such as "law and order," anti-abortion, and prayer in public schools — issues suggested as winning ones in Kevin Phillips's Emerging Republican Majority (1969) — and statements typical of Richard Nixon and other leading Republicans at that time. The Tea Party movement of 2010 did not engage all Oklahoma Republicans, but it was a reinforcement and yet another conservative mode.

Oklahoma thus participated, in its own way and its own time, in the wholesale shift of the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican in the 1960s and 1970s. It also participated in the deepening of political (and other) conservatism that was taking place in the Great Plains states, though most of them north of Oklahoma had traditionally voted Republican and did not shift party labels, as Oklahoma had to in order to reflect its increasingly palpable conservatism in the late twentieth century. I am well aware that there are different kinds of conservatives and liberals, and of Republicans and Democrats, but no one will gainsay the generalization that the Republican Party has, for at least a hundred years now, been the conservative party and the Democratic Party the more liberal. To use the color scheme first developed on television news, Oklahoma used to be blue, and now it is red.

It was not always thus. Oklahoma in 1950 was home to about two and a quarter million people, with an economy heavily invested in agriculture and oil. Many farmer-ranchers could still recall the land rushes of 1889–96 and the homesteading that followed. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, it had more Socialists than New York and a strong memory of the People's Party, which had flourished among farmers in the territorial period. Political scientists were calling Oklahoma a "modified one-party state." Except for president, Sooners voted Democratic in the 1950s, as they traditionally had. The state had followed the national Republican flow briefly in 1920 and just after and decisively rejected Alfred E. Smith, Catholic and "wringing wet" on Prohibition, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1928. For the next twenty years, however, the Democratic presidential nominee carried Oklahoma solidly; Truman's percentage in Oklahoma in 1948 was his second-highest in the nation.

Oklahoma voted for Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt (four times) and Truman but has voted Republican for president ever since, except for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, while staying (until recently) Democratic for other offices. This pattern, which was also true in Texas, has been called "presidential Republicanism." In the 1950s, Oklahomans elected Democrats for governor, for both U.S. Senate seats, and for five of the six congressmen. They enjoyed large majorities in registered voters and in both chambers of the state legislature. They elected down-ticket state and county officials through most of the rest of the century. Gradually, however, the GOP made inroads. Voters broke the Democrats' lock on the governorship in 1962 and on one Senate seat in 1968. The governorship has seesawed between the major parties, though since 2010 it has been safely Republican.

Democrats won every election for seats in the Senate up to 1968, with only three exceptions, in 1920, 1924, and 1942. But aside from Democrat David Boren's three victories in 1978, 1984, and 1990, Republicans have won the Senate races every time since 1968. Democrats took four or five of the then-six House seats until 1994, but after that Republicans have won almost every seat, every election. The two chambers of the state legislature were the last to change, with Republican majorities finally in place in 2004 and 2006. The red shift in the state legislature occurred some years after Republicans began controlling U.S. Senate and House elections. A likely reason is that Democrats remained registered as such long after their real partisan preference changed because Republican primaries were often no-contests, and at least the Democratic primary was a way of making one's views felt. Except for a Republican majority elected to the lower house in 1920, both chambers had been historically Democratic and stayed that way until 2004.

Such was the timing of Oklahoma's "red shift." After Rick Santorum won Oklahoma's 2012 GOP presidential primary, a local political scientist remarked that "we are the reddest [state] in the Union." How did a thoroughly Democratic state change so completely?

In 1950, when A. S. "Mike" Monroney was first elected senator and Johnston Murray governor, Democrats in statewide contests could rely on counties in the far western Panhandle and most of the southwestern, Red River, and eastern regions of the state. Republicans won in the northwestern and north-central counties next to Kansas, where much of their original settlement came from, and urban Tulsa. If one visualizes the state as two roughly equal northern and southern halves, in 1950 Murray and Monroney won the southern one, and the Republicans took much of the northern half as far east as (and including) Tulsa. The two big cities and their counties, Oklahoma and Tulsa, have traditionally produced Republican majorities. After 1960 a Republican who did well in those two would win statewide. One who did poorly would be sunk by the more rural, more Democratic counties. Democratic hegemony held for another decade. The 1954 election put Democrat Raymond Gary in the governor's chair, cushioned by huge Democratic majorities of 109 to nineteen in the state house and thirty-nine to five in the state senate. Democrats Murray, Gary, and J. Howard Edmondson (1958) were all elected governor without serious Republican opposition. Oilman Robert Kerr, a lion of the Senate and mentor of Lyndon Johnson, held one Senate seat from 1949 until his sudden death in January 1963, and New Deal/Fair Deal liberal Monroney held the other, winning three terms, in 1950, 1956, and 1962.

The results of the 1950 census reduced the state's congressional seats from eight to six, and they remained five to one or four to two Democratic through 1992. From 1952 through 1978, Democratic candidates won seventy-eight of the 105 contests for the House. Speaker Carl Albert in the southeastern 3rd District and Tom Steed in the mostly southwestern 4th District ran unopposed several times in these early years, like their famous neighbors across the Red River in Texas, Wright Patman and Sam Rayburn.

The dangers of such overwhelming control, of course, were factionalism and complacency. Legislators represented many local interests, and Raymond Gary worked with them all to build rural roads, modernize the state's extensive welfare system, and integrate the schools (with surprising smoothness) in line with the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board decision of 1954. Although Oklahoma has had anything but an untroubled racial history — recall the hideous 1921 race riot in Tulsa — the state did not resist school integration as the Deep South did. Gary cooperated with the rural old guard in the legislature and accomplished much.

A serious factional division began after the 1958 election. The thirty-three-year-old J. Howard Edmondson defeated Oklahoma City developer W. P. Bill Atkinson in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and won the general election by about four to one, carrying every county. He managed to repeal Prohibition, institute central purchasing for state agencies, and start a merit system for state jobs, upsetting entrenched patronage arrangements. However, he neglected to discuss most of these changes with legislators, and within months Edmondson had split with the state Democratic executive committee. In February 1960 local party conventions rejected Edmondson's slates; his candidates lost the July primaries; and, in the fall, three constitutional amendments that he proposed (including one to reapportion the legislature) were soundly defeated. Kennedy lost the state to Nixon "above all else, for his religion," and some counties voted Republican for the first time. By 1962, Oklahoma's Democratic Party was "badly fractured."

Into this breach, this opportunity, rode Henry Bellmon. Bellmon was a burly farmer-rancher from north-central Oklahoma, a decorated tank commander on Iwo Jima and other Pacific battles, and a very hard worker. After becoming state chairman of the vestigial Republican Party in 1960, he traveled to every county seeking out the scarce registered Republicans, and with them he built precinct and county organizations. "I believed our support of Nixon [in 1960] was the chief selling point," Bellmon later wrote. Why Nixon appealed to Sooners is not fully clear. His familiarity after eight years as Eisenhower's vice president probably helped, and Kennedy was rejected as eastern, Boston, Harvard, Catholic, and liberal, thus uncongenial or even anathema to Oklahoma's political culture on several grounds.

In the longer run, it was Bellmon's own assiduity that created a new and lasting party and made him, as many have said, "the father of Oklahoma's modern Republican Party." (It had never had an ancient one.) Bellmon constructed a plan he called "GOP Countdown," and he hired a public relations firm to reassure "our major financial contributors" — many of them oil-rich — that their money would be used to maximum effect. He began a statewide county-by-county fund-raising drive; promoted reregistration of voters to attract disgruntled Democrats; drew up a list of registered Republicans in every county to discern precinct- level patterns; and replaced two-thirds of the Republican state committee. The result was, in his own words, "an active aggressive Republican organization in every county" for the first time. The average age of the three hundred state committee members "dropped overnight to the mid-thirties, roughly thirty years below the previous average."

In 1962, Bellmon was the consensus Republican candidate for governor. He defeated the Democrat, Bill Atkinson, by a decisive 392,316 to 315,357. He "showed surprising statewide strength," even in Little Dixie, and racked up large majorities in Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties. The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate on the same ticket, Hayden Crawford, failed to carry many of the counties that Bellmon won — Oklahoma County most notably but also its collar counties (Canadian, Cleveland, Pottawatomie) plus some west-central farming counties. It was Bellmon's personal appeal, on top of the reorganized party machinery that he had built in the preceding two years, that won the day for him. The Republican youth movement, the replacement of geriatric deadwood and sedentary oil and cattle grandees, was not fully in flight, but it was definitely off the ground. The Republican advance in 1962 was not the product of an ideological shift. It resulted from the combination of Democrats' disarray — the conflict between Howard Edmondson and the rural old guard — and Bellmon's sagacity in seizing this opportunity, plus his hard, shrewd work.

Proof of that lay in the Senate race. Two-term veteran Democrat Mike Monroney defeated Crawford, the Republican, by a solid 352,000 to 308,000. Half of Monroney's margin came from Oklahoma County. But Bellmon, running for governor, easily outpolled both senatorial candidates. Bellmon and the Republicans could look to a bright future.

No fewer than twelve candidates ran in the 1962 Democratic primary for governor, and when the top two vote getters met in the runoff developer Atkinson beat ex-governor Gary by 953 votes out of 462,781. In the general election, when Gary would not endorse Atkinson, many Gary supporters then voted for Bellmon. Upon Senator Kerr's sudden death in January 1963, Edmondson resigned the governorship with only a few days left in his term, and the new acting governor, George Nigh, appointed him to Kerr's seat. The voters did not like that. When Edmondson ran for the final two years of Kerr's term in late 1964, he lost to Fred Harris in the primary.

A few years later, the longtime political analyst of the Daily Oklahoman, Otis Sullivant, observed that more young people were "voting and thinking Republican than in former years when most of them were Democratic. It adds up to a changing political scene in Oklahoma, with more accent on youth and glamour." Correct, but the youth movement had already begun by 1961.

As governor, Bellmon appointed a young black woman as the receptionist in his front office, shocking some first-time visitors unused to seeing a black face sitting behind a government desk in Oklahoma City, according to his autobiography. No bigot, he later deplored the fact that "the waste of human resources which discrimination ha[d] caused in lives of women and minorities ... [was] incalculable." Bellmon also oversaw the redistricting mandated by the Supreme Court's one man, one vote rulings-thus one-third of the members of the legislature elected in 1964 suddenly came from Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties. Extensive road building and repair along with a state employees' retirement system rounded out his successful and popular efforts.


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Copyright © 2018 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Introduction: Party Shifts in the West,
1. Oklahoma: Starting Blue, Turning Deep Red,
2. Texas Roams from Blue to Red,
3. The Red Belt: Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Alaska,
4. Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico,
5. Oregon Becomes (Usually) Blue,
6. California,
7. Basically Blue: Hawaii and Washington,
Appendix: Election Results, 1950-2016,
Sources Cited,

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