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, in fact, could be made that Gov. Leon Phillips and U.S. Senator Ed Moore actually prefigured them.
In any event, the significance of these 1950s presidential votes looms much clearer two-thirds of a century later. Prior to those 1950s contests, Oklahomans had supported the Republican presidential candidate exactly twice, both in the 1920s. After them, they supported only one more Democrat for the nation’s office, in the early 1960s—ever.
Historian Arthur Herman offered a national vantage point:
“Eisenhower was the first Republican many Americans had ever voted for. They were tired of Truman and his administration’s constant scandals. They were tired of his vacillations on the communism issue. They were tired of the war in Korea….Eisenhower’s victory was in any case part of a greater sea change in American politics: of a middle-class tide that was beginning to roll away from the Democratic Party.”
Conservative Migration Begins
The very real problem for the Democrats was that, increasingly, in political contests of all stripes, the content and distinctions of candidates’ positions on issues determined the voters’ choices, rather than history or friendships or civic status or how grandpa voted. More specifically, generally conservative Oklahomans—as in other Southern states—gradually figured two things out.
Their first conclusion was that Republican presidential candidates generally shared more of their views than their more liberal Democratic opponents. Second, that no matter how down home and chicken fried Oklahoma’s Democratic politicians seemed and perhaps were, they ultimately had to support the national leaders and policies of their party with whom Oklahomans disagreed. Not to support those, in fact, increasingly forced Oklahoma Democrats officeholders to the margins of their parties, and, increasingly, into the Republican Party.
The truth was, many of Oklahoma’s Democratic leaders in the 1950s, including Gary and Turner, were quite conservative and might well be Republicans in the 21st century. Others, like Kerr, were pragmatic and tended to go with the prevailing power. That power today, in Oklahoma, is Republican.
Another key to the burgeoning sea change in Oklahoma politics was the contentious issue of legislative representation. From statehood, rural interests that leaned strongly Democratic and rural refused to adjust legislative districts to reflect shifting urban population trends. What did this mean?
By the end of the 1950s, Oklahoma and Tulsa counties comprised more than one-third of the state’s population. However, only two of 44 state senators and 15 of 109 house members represented them! One vote in sparsely-populated Cimarron County carried as much weight as eight in Tulsa County or 10 in Oklahoma County.
This cockeyed, ever-worsening situation weighted state legislative policy, for better and worse, toward rural sensibilities. Increasingly, however, it did the same toward the Democratic Party, as the larger cities and counties were beginning by 1960 to brim with Republicans. Northern transplants, affluent professionals, and social conservatives who monitored the national Democracy’s increasingly liberal social platform all contributed to this. Many more Oklahomans would in the 1960s.
In summary, legislative representation and political leadership party affiliation, like most major American historic trends, did not erupt from a vacuum. Nor were they without significant quality and philosophical impact on Oklahoma society. In this case, they emerged from very real, but largely-unrecognized societal shifts in the 1950s. During the decade covered in the next chapter, these would grow very recognizable indeed.
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.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.