Another bellwether event signaling that a tectonic plate shift in the state’s political balance might be looming was the 1962 gubernatorial race. It proved one of the strangest, most bitterly contested, unpredictable, and ultimately historic political contests in Oklahoma history.
Many strands wove this singular electoral narrative. Back in 1960, Billings farmer Henry Bellmon, a decorated World War II marine and former one-term state senator, took the reins of the state Republican Party. At the time, that organization wallowed in ineffectual obscurity. The post-Civil War allegiance to the Democratic Party of the state’s dominant Southern population (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapters 10, 11), enhanced by the blame generally affixed to the Republicans for the Great Depression because of Republican Herbert Hoover’s Presidency at its onset, had rendered Oklahoma a virtual one-party state.
Other than frequent Congressional victories in the historically-Republican northern area of the state, the occasional federal office election majorities in the state for U.S. Senator or President occurred in spite of the party’s poor statewide organization, not because of it.
Bellmon’s determined leadership changed that. The “Operation Countdown” he helmed aimed for nothing less than a true statewide organization, presence, and an eventual advantage; an audacious vision in that era. Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie and historians Goble and James R. Scales recounted its comprehensive strategy:
Unusual 1961 off-year state party convention to introduce plan and build excitement
Intensive reregistration campaign of registered Democrats who had been voting for Republican presidential candidates.
Building the party’s financial coffers.
Replacing hundreds of older, low-energy state committee members with energetic, often younger delegates.
Installing county and precinct chairmen statewide.
Recruiting, training, and developing quality candidates to run for vulnerable Democratic offices.
Operation Countdown’s dividends began pouring in. Thousands of Oklahomans rallied to the Republican colors. A dramatic increase in contributions, particularly “small, grass-roots” ones, swelled the party’s financial coffers.
This enabled not only the accomplishment of steps 1,2, and 5 as listed above, but also, for the first time, a permanent state Republican staff and headquarters. All of this paved the way for a vigorous Republican run for the governor’s office, which the party had never won. And the GOP candidate was none other than the chief architect of its resurrection, Henry Bellmon.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
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