This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
On Mar. 14, 1956, Sen. Price Daniel went on statewide television to offer his services as governor. If 25,000 viewers encouraged him to leave Washington, he would happily hop the next train home.
A donnybrook was brewing over which Democrat would top the ticket in 1956. The ballot brawl promised to be a free-swinging affair, which once again would prove the Lone Star State had a two-party system after all. The only hitch was, of course, that both parties were made up of Democrats.
Except for the recent election to congress of Dallasite Bruce Alger, the first Republican face in the Texas delegation in more than 20 years, the GOP was still an outcast minority. Ninety years after the Civil War, Republicans had yet to shed their carpetbagger stigma.
Although Texans deserted Adlai Stevenson by the thousands for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and would do so again four years later, state and local offices were still off-limits to the party of Lincoln. In fact, since 1931 not a single Republican had served in the state legislature. But with the quarrelsome Democrats always at each other’s throats, no one could accuse Lone Star politics of being dull.
Price Daniel returned to the airwaves two weeks later with the results of his straw poll. Twenty-nine thousand prospective voters had responded in the affirmative versus 400 that preferred he stay put on the Potomac. Clutching the grass-root sampling, the senator announced his candidacy and proudly proclaimed, “I consider the office of the governor of Texas as the greatest honor that can be bestowed on any man.”
Three hopefuls from divergent points on the political compass threw their hats in the ring: W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, Ralph Yarborough and J. Evetts Haley. From the beginning, Texans knew this would be a campaign to remember.
A generation after pulling off the biggest electoral upset of the century, “Pappy” O’Daniel came out of retirement to reclaim his old job. The homespun radio personality, who baffled the experts back in 1938, retained a nostalgic popularity among farmers and small-town voters.
Perennial contender Ralph Yarborough was once described as “that loneliest of all Texas creatures, the liberal.” After successive losses to departing governor Allan Shivers, many believed a third attempt only proved he was a glutton for punishment.
A West Texas rancher and respected historian, J. Evetts Haley was more concerned with making his ultra-conservative point than attracting votes. Infuriated by Yarborough’s unflagging devotion to New Deal doctrine, the zealot often forgot his other two adversaries.
Although Haley was a sure bet to bring up the rear, the remaining spots were a real horse race. While most prognosticators considered Daniel the favorite, his chances of winning the nomination without a runoff were rated slim to none. Meanwhile, Yarborough and O’Daniel, both dependent upon strong rural followings, fought tooth-and-nail for the playoff berth.
Daniel as predicted polled the most votes, but his 41 percent did not come close to settling the issue. Also as anticipated, Haley finished a distant fourth with less than six percent. In the duel for second place, Yarborough swamped ex-governor O’Daniel but trailed the front runner by a seemingly insurmountable 165,000 ballots.
The subsequent sudden-death was an honest-to-goodness cliffhanger. Capturing almost two out of every three counties, Yarborough gained ground in dramatic fashion yet failed to catch his foe, who swept the big cities.
In a photo finish, Price Daniel eked out a 3,171-vote victory from a huge turnout of 1,390,000 Texans. The Yarborough camp complained loud and long citing a rash of alleged irregularities, but their protests were shrugged off as standard sour grapes. Besides, ballot-box tampering was nothing new in Lone Star elections and widely regarded as part of the game.
With only the Republicans’ sacrificial lamb standing between him and the mansion, nominee Daniel submitted a post-dated resignation to Gov. Shivers. His unorthodox refusal to vacate the senate premises before inauguration day infuriated the incumbent.
Shivers charged in a scathing letter to Daniel, “In spite of your promises to the contrary, you now seek to control both offices — Governor of Texas and the U.S. Senate — and plan to appoint your own successor.” However, on the morning before Daniel was sworn in, Shivers had the last word by naming Bill Blakely to the still warm senate seat.
A special winner-take-all scramble in April 1957 picked a permanent occupant. Relieved of the majority-vote requirement, Ralph Yarborough whipped 17 rivals with a modest 37-percent showing.
Even for a Texan who would have given his eyeteeth to be governor, the United States Senate was not a bad consolation prize.
Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Email | Print