Election of 1938

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In the 1938 congressional primaries, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought party realignment along ideological lines by advocating the defeat of selected conservative Democratic senators and representatives. His efforts largely failed, as conservatives gained strength in Congress in the 1938 election.

In 1936 President Roosevelt had won a second presidential term by a landslide and had helped the Democrats widen their overwhelming congressional majorities. He interpreted the outcome as a mandate to complete his New Deal reform package. In his January 1937 inaugural address, he had urged Congress to adopt more comprehensive New Deal programs for "ill-housed, ill-clad, illnourished" Americans.

The Roosevelt administration entered the 1938 election campaign on the defensive. During the 75th Congress, conservative Democrats had aligned with Republicans to prevent Roosevelt from attaining his New Deal reform programs. The conservative coalition, which protested the expansion of federal power and especially executive authority, had rejected Roosevelt's U. S. Supreme Court and executive reorganization plans and had stalled other New Deal reform measures. The economic recession of 1937 and 1938 had weakened Roosevelt's position further and made his New Deal programs more vulnerable to attack. Democrats were expected to lose congressional seats as presidential parties had done in every off-year election since the Civil War except 1902 and 1934.


President Roosevelt denounced the conservative coalition tactics as undemocratic and intolerable. He considered the 1938 primaries an opportune time to remove anti-New Deal Democrats from the party and bring conservatives in line with the party's national platform. In a June 1938 fireside chat, Roosevelt publicly announced his intentions to campaign for liberals in selected Democratic congressional primaries and inform Americans about which candidates supported his New Deal programs. He backed twenty-one of the thirty-one Democratic senators seeking reelection. The president, who complained that the 75th Congress had not fulfilled his party's "uncompromisingly liberal" 1936 platform, pictured the primaries and elections as ideological contests between New Deal liberals and anti-New Deal conservatives. As Democratic party leader, he declared, "I feel that I have every right to speak in those few instances where there may be a clear issue between candidates for a Democratic nomination involving those principles, or involving a clear misuse of my name." Roosevelt's realignment strategy encountered several problems. Besides belatedly launching his party realignment effort, Roosevelt did not define what he meant by a conservative or indicate what specific strategy he would utilize. White House assistants Tom Corcoran, Harold Ickes, and Harry Hopkins supported the president's tactics, but other advisors dissented. Newspapers accused Roosevelt of attempting to purge conservative Democrats. The president did not organize his strategy well, adopting various tactics as he zigzagged across the nation by train.

Roosevelt targeted for defeat ten conservative Democratic senators: Alva Adams of Colorado, George Berry of Tennessee, Bennett Champ Clark of Missouri, Walter George of Georgia, Guy Gillette of Iowa, Augustus Lonergan of Connecticut, Pat McCarran of Nevada, Ellison Smith of South Carolina, Millard Tydings of Maryland, and Frederick Van Nuys of Indiana. Political leaders quickly convinced Roosevelt that four of the targeted candidates could not be removed. The president did not, therefore, intervene in the primaries involving Adams, Clark, Lonergan, or McCarran, all of whom won party renomination. Several New Deal Democrats endorsed by President Roosevelt triumphed in primaries. Congressman Lister Hill defeated segregationist J. Thomas Heflin in Alabama, while Senator Claude Pepper withstood conservative challenger J. Mark Wilcox in Florida. Senate majority leader Alben Barkley outpolled conservative governor Happy Chandler in Kentucky. Senators Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, Robert Bulkley of Ohio, and Elmer Thomas of Oklahoma and Representative Lyndon Johnson of Texas also won their primaries. The president campaigned against New York representative John O'Connor, helping James Fay oust the conservative House Rules Committee chairman.


Roosevelt's party realignment efforts, however, suffered setbacks in key midwestern and western Senate primaries. The Roosevelt administration campaigned in Iowa for liberal congressman Otha Wearin against incumbent Guy Gillette, who had opposed the president's court plan. Gillette, solidly backed by the state party organization, easily withstood Wearin's challenge. The Indiana Democratic party organization could not find a New Dealer to unseat the moderate Van Nuys. Conservative congressman D. Worth Clark benefited from Republican crossover votes to upset Senator James Pope in the Idaho primary.

The most critical setbacks for Roosevelt came in southern Senate primaries, where Roosevelt had intervened most directly, speaking on behalf of lesser known liberal Democrats against conservative incumbents George of Georgia, Smith of South Carolina, and Tydings of Maryland. At a Democratic meeting in Barnesville, Georgia, Roosevelt backed youthful attorney Lawrence Camp against George. George, however, nearly doubled Camp's vote total in a three-way primary. In Greenville, South Carolina, the president endorsed Governor Olin Johnston against agriculture committee chairman Smith. Smith, a states' rights segregationist and senator since 1909, won his primary, in part because of reaction against Roosevelt's intervention. Roosevelt stumped Maryland for two days in support of Representative David Lewis, who was running against Tydings. Tydings, nonetheless, easily prevailed in the primary. In the House, liberal Maury Maverick of Texas was unseated and House rules committee conservative Howard Smith of Virginia handily won renomination.

Roosevelt launched his party realignment strategy too late for it to be effective and he damaged his prestige with his impulsive effort. Ten of the twenty-five Democratic Senate candidates with prior voting records on national legislation were conservatives, showing Roosevelt's vulnerability. The president did not plan his strategy well, varied his tactics too much from state to state, and relied too heavily on often divided state party organizations. The American electorate disapproved of interference by federal officials in state politics and prevented the personally popular Roosevelt from realigning the political parties ideologically. The primaries stiffened conservative resistance and intensified the liberal-conservative split within his party. Roosevelt did not attempt again to develop a strong liberal party.

That November the Democrats retained sixty-nine seats and controlled over two-thirds of the Senate. Lonergan was the lone conservative Democrat to lose. The Republicans kept all their Senate incumbents and gained eight Senate seats, six of them replacing New Deal Democrats. Robert Taft unseated Bulkley in Ohio and quickly emerged as a Republican leader. The president thus faced a Senate that included twenty-three Republicans and twenty to thirty anti-New Deal Democrats. Although the Democrats maintained a comfortable majority in the House, holding 260 seats, the New Deal coalition was crippled, as public opinion shifted in a more conservative direction. The seventy defeated House Democrats were mostly liberals from industrial northeastern and midwestern states. Most anti-New Deal Democrats won reelection. Around eighty Democrats held at least strong reservations about New Deal reform programs. The Republicans gained eighty House seats, nearly doubling their strength from eighty-nine to 169, with thirteen governorships. Liberal governors Philip LaFollette of Wisconsin, Frank Murphy of Michigan, Elmer Benson of Minnesota, and George Earle of Pennsylvania lost reelection bids, while Republicans John Bricker of Ohio, Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts, and Harold Stassen of Minnesota won governorships. In Roosevelt's home state of New York, Thomas Dewey attracted national attention by nearly defeating incumbent Governor Herbert Lehman.


Irregularities in three 1938 senatorial campaigns provoked the Hatch Act of 1939, regulating the political involvement of federal employees in primaries and elections. Several New Deal liberals who were either seeking renomination or attempting to unseat conservative incumbents were accused of manipulating the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to enhance their electoral prospects. In the Kentucky primary, WPA authorities had solicited $24,000 in contributions from WPA employees to help Barkley defeat Chandler. Party officials had raised these funds directly, with WPA personnel being canvassed to ascertain their political affiliations. In neighboring Tennessee, WPA administrators had requested numerous donations from WPA workers to help insure the triumph of New Dealer Thomas Stewart over Berry in the primary. Democratic senatorial aspirants had benefited from political malpractices in the November election against Republican candidates. The Pennsylvania WPA director had manipulated WPA finances in an unsuccessful attempt to help Governor Earle unseat incumbent James Davis. Besides selling tickets to WPA workers at party gatherings, WPA administrators had ordered many Republican employees to change their registration to Democratic.

Disclosures from the Senate campaign expenditures committee in January 1939 intensified the drive for reform. The committee, led by Democrat Morris Sheppard of Texas, upheld accusations that WPA officials diverted relief funds for political purposes in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. They spiked similar allegations concerning congressional races in Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. The Committee recommended legislation prohibiting government officials from either soliciting or receiving contributions from WPA workers and other federal employees. The Hatch Act of 1939 banned the assessment or solicitation of funds from WPA employees or removal of any personnel because of refusal to change political affiliation. Federal officials and workers were prevented from using their positions to interfere in presidential or congressional primaries or elections.

Following the 1938 election, the conservative coalition controlled both the Senate and the House. Conservative Democrats aligned with Republicans to stymie any Roosevelt initiatives and to search for ways to reduce New Deal programs. In 1939, Congress slashed WPA appropriations, authorized an investigation of the National Labor Relations Board, and rejected self-liquidating projects and housing bills. The failure of party realignment diminished Roosevelt's personal power because he was serving the final two years of what most Americans expected to be his last presidential term. Roosevelt denied that the election was a rejection of his domestic reform program, but the New Deal remained on the defensive in Congress.



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