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Senator Ross Bass Part 2

Senator and Mrs. Ross Bass celebrating on Election Night in 1964.

By Ray Hill

Congressman Ross Bass and Governor Frank Clement were fighting a close race for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate in 1964 to complete the remaining two years of the late Estes Kefauver’s term.  While there had been few real differences between the two leading candidates for the nomination, the race had been hard fought, if not actually bitter.  Election Day brought the first defeat of Frank Clement’s long political career.  Ross Bass won the senatorial nomination by almost 100,000 votes.  Congressman Bass carried all of Tennessee’s four big urban counties, Shelby, Davidson, Knox, and Hamilton.  Bass did very well in the more populous counties in East Tennessee, largely swept Middle Tennessee, and carried far West Tennessee.  Likely most distressing of all to the governor, Clement even lost his home county of Dickson to Bass.

Tennessee would prove to be a battleground state during the election of 1964.  Lyndon Johnson was campaigning to win the presidency in his own right and while Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s candidacy did not represent a threat to LBJ nationally, Goldwater could still do well in Tennessee.  There had been clear signs the political landscape in Tennessee was changing significantly.  The Republican Party in Tennessee had been a negligible factor in statewide elections.  No Republican had ever been popularly elected to the United States Senate in Tennessee history; the last Republican to be elected governor had been Alf A. Taylor in 1920.  Yet with the candidacy of General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, Tennessee tumbled into the Republican column.  Even with Senator Estes Kefauver running as the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, Eisenhower again carried the Volunteer State.  Protestant Tennessee preferred Quaker Richard Nixon to the Catholic John F. Kennedy in 1960.  While the First and Second Congressional districts in East Tennessee had been reliably Republican even at the worst of times for the GOP, there were other signs that the Republicans were gaining ground.  When Congressman James B. Frazier, Jr., a conservative Democrat, was defeated in the Democratic primary by liberal insurgent Wilkes Thrasher, Jr., many Frazier supporters bolted to back Chattanooga businessman William E. Brock, III.  Bill Brock became the first Republican Congressman from the Third District since 1920.

Tennessee Republicans had nominated not only presentable, but serious challengers for both of the Senate seats in 1964.  Republican attorney Howard H. Baker, Jr., son of the late Congressman Howard Baker, was facing Congressman Ross Bass in the general election while Memphis businessman Dan Kuykendall was running against Albert Gore who was seeking his third six-year term in the Senate.  The GOP ticket might have done even better had it not been for Barry Goldwater visiting East Tennessee and suggesting the Tennessee Valley Authority might be better off were it sold to private power companies.

Ross Bass barely edged out Howard Baker by just over fifty thousand votes.  Albert Gore beat Dan Kuykendall by a slightly larger margin, but the Memphis Republican still won more than 46% of the vote.

Ross Bass was able to be sworn in to his Senate seat immediately following the general election results being certified, causing appointed U. S. Senator Herbert Walters to complain that Bass seemed all too anxious to take his seat.  Senator Bass had little time to make much of an impact during the two years he served in the United States Senate.  Perhaps the most lasting achievement of that term is the warning label on cigarettes, which persists to this day.  Ironically, Bass was himself a very heavy smoker.

There was little doubt Ross Bass would run to serve a full six-year term in 1966, but he would have to face both of his former opponents from the 1964 election to remain in the Senate.  Despite his humiliating loss two years earlier, Governor Frank Clement was determined to try again for the United States Senate.  Clement, under Tennessee State law, could not succeed himself as governor and there seemed little likelihood he could get a Federal appointment from President Johnson.  To remain in public life, Clement had nowhere else to go.  Howard Baker was again a candidate for the United States Senate in 1966 and Republican prospects seemed so promising that there was actually a primary contest between Baker and Ken Roberts.

Senator Bass, much like K. D. McKellar before him, had a temper that could erupt quickly.  Unlike Senator McKellar, Bass was not firmly politically entrenched all across Tennessee.  One widely publicized incident during the primary campaign occurred when Senator Bass and his beautiful wife, Avanell, attended a fundraiser for the national Democratic Party in Washington, D. C.  The Mistress of Ceremonies, introducing Bass, made a foolish word play on the Senator’s name, referring to him as “big mouth Bass”.  Senator Bass was highly annoyed and publicly left the event, although his wife remained at the head table.

Perhaps for the first time in modern history, the black vote loomed as vitally important to every candidate for statewide office, especially in the Democratic primary.  Even former Governor Buford Ellington, making his second bid for the gubernatorial nomination, made an effort to secure a higher percentage of the black vote against his young challenger, John Jay Hooker.  Both Senator Bass and Governor Clement worked hard to get as many black votes as possible.  Although both Bass and Clement were in favor of expanding most social programs, Senator Bass was especially critical of the tax increases during much of Governor Clement’s administration, many of which went to pay for expansions of programs.

As Buford Ellington was winning a surprisingly close nomination for governor, Frank Clement enjoyed a political resurrection, beating Senator Ross Bass by little more than 18,000 votes out of more than 750,000 ballots cast.  Despite the all too apparent signs Republicans were making inroads with voters all across Tennessee, Governor Clement felt certain of his victory in the general election.  1966 was a good year for Republicans nationally and Tennessee was no exception; Howard Baker defeated Governor Frank Clement by almost 100,000 votes.  Clement did not even receive as many votes in the general election as he had in the Democratic primary.  Clement was stunned by his loss and his defeat spelled the end of his political career, although he was only forty-six years old at the time.

Years later, Senator Bass told me he was convinced his narrow loss in the primary in 1966 was accomplished through thousands of Republicans crossing over to vote for Frank Clement.  Bass believed many Republicans felt it would be easier for Howard Baker to beat Clement than an incumbent senator.

Following his loss, Bass became a consultant for various companies.  Aside from lobbying, Bass spent a lot of time playing golf, which he thoroughly enjoyed.  Bass made a tour through upper East Tennessee in 1968 on behalf of the Democratic presidential ticket of Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie, which was a sure indication the former senator had not entirely given up his political aspirations.  Bass waited until 1974 to attempt a comeback of his own, announcing he would be a candidate for governor.

The Democratic primary that year was crowded with serious contenders; former Congressman Ray Blanton, who had lost a senatorial campaign against Howard Baker in 1972, was one of the leading candidates, along with Knoxville banker Jake Butcher.  Tom Wiseman, State Treasurer for Tennessee, entered the primary, as did Stan Snodgrass, who had run a very strong race for governor against John Jay Hooker in 1970.  David Pack, Tennessee’s Attorney General, was also a candidate.  The gubernatorial primary that year was a brutal, bloody affair with the free-spending Butcher investing more than all the other candidates combined.  Still, Blanton had a lot of name recognition from his failed Senate campaign from 1972 and he won the nomination with just over 22% of the vote.  Ross Bass had by that time been out of public office for almost a decade; he had not been especially active in keeping up his political contacts, preferring to spend most of his time on the golf course.

Bass’s last hurrah came in 1976 when he decided to run to regain his old Congressional seat.  The incumbent was Robin Beard, a Republican who had been elected in 1972 when Richard Nixon had carried Tennessee by an overwhelming margin.  To gain the Democratic nomination, Bass had to confront his old foe, former Congressman Pat Sutton.  Sutton, who had served a brief prison term, was not an especially strong candidate, but Bass won more than 55% of the vote against several opponents for the right to face Robin Beard in the general election.

There was reason to believe the Democratic ticket would do well in Tennessee.  Jimmy Carter was enormously popular in the Volunteer State and Jim Sasser was mounting a serious challenge to Republican Senator Bill Brock who was seeking a second term.  President Gerald Ford had succeeded Richard Nixon without having been elected and was crippled after a bruising contest with former California Governor Ronald Reagan who quite nearly wrested the GOP nomination from the incumbent.  Ford had pardoned Nixon and Republicans had suffered devastating losses in the off-year elections of 1974.

Posters and buttons started appearing throughout the district promoting “Carter – Sasser – Bass”.  Despite reaching his goal of winning 100,000 votes more than he had in 1970, Senator Brock lost to Jim Sasser.  Jimmy Carter did carry Tennessee and it proved to be his second best state in the country; only Carter’s native Georgia gave him a greater percentage of the vote.  Still, Ross Bass’s hopes of a comeback were dashed as Congressman Robin Beard proved to be hugely popular inside his own district.  The old warrior lost to Beard, who won more than 65% of the vote.

Following his loss in 1976, Ross Bass knew he was done as a candidate for public office.  Bass continued to lobby some, but spent even more time on the golf course.  He divided his time between homes in Tennessee and Florida and visited Washington, D. C. whenever he felt the need.

Ross Bass became ill with lung cancer after a lifetime of heavy smoking.  It was quite ironic, especially as one of his legislative achievements was having the warning label placed on cigarette packages.  Former Senator Ross Bass died at his home in Florida on New Year’s Day in 1993.

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