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Political Ground Rumbles

The Democratic Party continued to dominate Oklahoma politics during the 1950s. The party had rarely seemed more powerful. U.S. Senator Robert S. Kerr of Ada was the richest United States Senator in Washington, with a net worth of perhaps half a billion dollars in 2020s currency.


His political power transcended his financial. Even though future President Lyndon Johnson of Texas held the most powerful official Senate position of Majority Leader, Kerr’s remarkable political skill set gradually propelled him forward to his rounded-regarded title of “Uncrowned King of the United States Senate” by or near the end of the decade.


Another Democrat, Mike Monroney of Oklahoma City, held the other U.S. Senate seat the entire decade. The Democrats also retained the Governor’s office and all other statewide offices, lopsided control of both chambers in the state legislature, and nearly all Oklahoma Congressional seats throughout the ‘50s. In addition to Kerr and Monroney, Democrat politicians like Raymond Gary, former governor Roy Turner, and Governor J. Howard Edmondson possessed great political power in the state. Not least, Democratic voter registration continued to overwhelm Republican by around 90-10%.


A closer look, however, revealed the beginning of fault lines along Oklahoma’s seemingly impregnable Democratic bastion. “The Solid South” had long proven the Democracy’s most dependable region, even more so than the northeast. This stemmed from the section’s bitter hatred of the Civil War-era Republican Party. Led by Abraham Lincoln, it had prosecuted a strategy of total war against the South and destroyed huge sections of it beyond its soldiery.


Then, under other leaders following Lincoln’s assassination, the “Radical” Republicans of the era unleashed a corrupt and vindictive “Reconstruction” on the South following the war. As Shelby Foote, dean of Civil War historians, mournfully lamented, the mutual respect between Northern and Southern fighting men that war produced was destroyed by the subsequent peace.


Generations of Southerners thence voted against the “Party of Lincoln” as much as for the Democratic Party supported by most Confederates, even as that party grew ever more liberal while the 20th Century proceeded. But as Appomattox and General Sherman’s March grew more distant, and the Cold War and culture wars increasingly invaded the everyday life of the mid-late-20th century, legions of Southerners followed the lead of non-Southerner Ronald Reagan, who famously declared, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the Democratic Party left me.”


The silent harbinger of this tectonic shift in the plates of Oklahoma history was the Democrat-dominated state’s successive votes for Republican candidate Eisenhower in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections. An argument,