Albert Gore’s Congressional district had been eliminated in the redistricting following the 1950 election. Gore was unconcerned as he had something bigger in mind; he was determined to run for the United States Senate seat held by Kenneth D. McKellar.
K. D. McKellar remains to this day Tennessee’s longest serving United States senator. McKellar was Tennessee’s first popularly elected senator, defeating incumbent Luke Lea and former governors Malcolm Patterson and Ben W. Hooper. McKellar was one of the most powerful members of the United States Senate and had done more personal favors for voters in Tennessee than any other man. McKellar was the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, as well as the Chairman of the Senate’s most powerful committee, Appropriations. From his perch on the Appropriations Committee, Senator McKellar directed billions of dollars to Tennessee.
McKellar was such a formidable figure that Chattanooga Congressman Estes Kefauver had contemplated a race against the old senator in 1946 and quickly decided against it. When Congressman Gordon Browning had likewise contemplated a race against McKellar in 1934, he later admitted he could not garner a single pledge of support from any important personage in Tennessee.
Yet, there were cracks in the McKellar foundation that were readily apparent to those with sharp eyes. McKellar would be eighty-three years old in 1952 and had earlier announced he would not run again for the United States Senate. In 1948, McKellar had issued yet another announcement that he was keeping his options open. Realizing there were several potentially serious candidates eyeing his office, including Governor Gordon Browning and Congressmen Pat Sutton and Albert Gore, McKellar released a statement in June of 1951 that “God willing”, he would be a candidate for a seventh term in 1952.
Senator McKellar had not aged well and the news media dutifully reported every cold and illness plaguing the old gentleman. McKellar suffered from rheumatism in his legs and was oftentimes unsteady and every fall was reported in the newspapers. McKellar once fell so hard in the Capitol, it cut a gash in his forehead and broke his glasses. It was increasingly difficult for McKellar to get around and his health was to be an issue in the coming primary campaign. There were also those who claimed McKellar was not as mentally alert has he had been and there was some evidence he had suffered a series of small strokes during the 1940s. Certainly, K. D. McKellar was perhaps the most formidable political force in Tennessee’s political history, but by 1952 the old senator was vulnerable.
The long friendship between Congressman Albert Gore and Governor Gordon Browning would be ruptured by their competing senatorial ambitions. Browning had served in Congress for twelve years before being elected Tennessee’s governor in 1936; despite winning three terms as governor, Browning’s fondest wish was to serve in the Senate of the United States. As 1952 approached, Browning still hungered to run for the Senate, yet he was wary of attempting to unseat Senator McKellar.
Years later, Albert Gore admitted that his friendship with Gordon Browning suffered due to their conflicting ambitions. Browning, being the older of the two and having given Gore his start in statewide politics, felt he was entitled to first consideration in the Senate race. Gore had already begun his own quiet effort to take the Democratic nomination away from Senator McKellar. Browning thought there was some possibility McKellar might die before the election or withdraw; if so, Governor Browning determined to run for the Senate. Browning had decided he would seek reelection as governor if McKellar were able to run again, as he believed a three-way race would simply reelect Senator McKellar.
Albert Gore crisscrossed Tennessee as often as possible from 1950 until the 1952 election. He campaigned hard for Frank Wilson in 1950, who was challenging Republican Howard Baker for Congress. Baker had defeated the incumbent Congressman, John Jennings, in the primary. Wilson made a spirited race, but fell short of victory. Still, many local Democrats appreciated Gore’s hard work on behalf of Wilson.
As usual, Gore entered the 1952 senatorial primary short of money, while Senator McKellar had little difficulty in attracting contributions. Gore made his plans official on February 2, 1952 in Jackson, Tennessee. In his speech, Gore subtly underlined McKellar’s advancing age by reminding voters they would be electing a senator for a six-year term. Throughout the 1952 campaign, Gore would always point to the future and a senator would be ninety-years old at the conclusion of his term seemed to have little to do with the future.
Years later, Albert Gore would tell interviewers that he had calculated a strategy of treating Senator McKellar with respect. Gore admitted that McKellar’s record of support for the Tennessee Valley Authority was superior to his own, as far as securing funding was concerned and he made no criticism of McKellar’s record in that respect. Gore believed that Tennesseans held McKellar in high esteem and affection, so he determined not to run against McKellar, but to tout his own record and relative youthfulness. It was a brilliant strategy.
Senator Estes Kefauver complicated the Tennessee political situation by running for the Democratic presidential nomination that year. Kefauver both mortally embarrassed and infuriated President Truman when he beat Truman in the New Hampshire primary. Truman quickly announced he would not be a candidate himself, but the president had never especially liked Kefauver and his dislike escalated to out right loathing.
Kefauver’s presidential aspirations would have serious political repercussions in Gordon Browning’s reelection race for governor. While Gore was supportive of Kefauver, he wisely managed to avoid the fallout that tumbled around the governor’s head. Having been affiliated with Browning and Kefauver’s wing of the Tennessee Democratic Party, it was natural that he would draw significant support from those who had long opposed the domination of Volunteer State politics by Senator McKellar and E. H. Crump. Gore even invaded Shelby County, seeking support inside Crump’s domain.
Having been reelected in 1946 without once visiting Tennessee, Senator McKellar was advised that he could not afford that luxury once again facing the forty-four year old Congressman Gore. McKellar came home to Tennessee, appearing before a rally of some 10,000 persons in Cookeville, which was in the heart of Albert Gore’s Congressional district. McKellar spoke for almost an hour and while his voice was strong, his hand shook so badly when he tried to raise a glass of water to his lips that he had to put it down without drinking.
Congressman Gore continued to run a campaign stressing his own abilities and was openly complimentary of his opponent. When reminded he had landed at McKellar Field (the local airport) in Jackson, Tennessee, Gore immediately responded the airport was one of the many things Senator McKellar had done during his time in Congress.
The crux of Gore’s argument to be sent to the Senate was summarized by his question as to which of the two would best be able to represent Tennessee during the next six years. It was a powerful argument and TIME magazine, reporting on the Tennessee Senate race, headlined it as “44 v. 83”, the ages of the two candidates.
While Gore moved across Tennessee with the vigor and stamina of a young man, Senator McKellar’s own appearances were carefully planned and highly choreographed. McKellar traveled in limited areas in an air conditioned bus to avoid the oftentimes stifling heat of a Tennessee summer. Many of the senators’ strongest supporters, like McKellar, had aged or died and were not active during the campaign. McKellar’s campaign stressed the importance of retaining the old senator in office due to his power, prestige and seniority in Congress. As the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, McKellar wielded enormous power. Signs began appearing all across Tennessee urging the “Thinking Fellow Votes McKellar”. It was a subtle reminder of McKellar’s power and at first Gore admitted he was amused by the campaign posters. His amusement turned to alarm when he noticed it was having an effect with voters. Many national publications covering the Tennessee Senate race had felt that Gore enjoyed an advantage over the ailing Senator McKellar, but some were beginning to believe McKellar was closing the gap with his return to Tennessee to campaign personally.
Congressman Gore credited his wife Pauline with the reply to the McKellar campaign posters. The two fixed a pot of coffee and sat at their kitchen table to think of a retort. Pauline Gore came up with “Think Some More and Vote for Gore”. Those posters were placed beside those of Senator McKellar and proved to be effective.
Like many another aging incumbent, K. D. McKellar had remained in Washington far more often than returning home to Tennessee. When he had been home in Memphis, he rarely visited other cities and communities. Crump himself observed it had been a decade since Senator McKellar had traveled the state extensively. Congressman Gore demonstrated remarkable energy and it was not unusual for him to make perhaps 10 or 12 speeches in one day. Senator McKellar no longer possessed that kind of stamina and he managed to make appearances in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Jackson, as well as a few other towns and cities close to his home in Memphis. Save for Jackson, where he appeared outside and gave a speech, McKellar’s campaign appearances were oftentimes held in hotels, allowing voters to come to see the senator and shake hands.
Gore effectively used the new medium of television as well as radio. He won a comfortable victory on Election Day, taking 58% of the vote. McKellar carried upper East Tennessee and his native Shelby County, while Congressman Gore won most everything else. Interestingly, McKellar carried Putnam County, the site of his big speech in Cookeville.
Senator McKellar was gracious in defeat, offering his congratulations to Albert Gore. McKellar told friends on the night of the election he harbored no ill will toward any Tennessean. Later, McKellar said he hoped Tennesseans would find in Albert Gore a man better suited for the Senate than he would have been. Gore’s respectful attitude toward the old senator during the campaign doubtless took out much of the sting of defeat. Senator McKellar offered his support to the Democratic ticket in the fall campaign and while State Senator Hobart Atkins of Knoxville was the Republican nominee, nobody expected Gore to have any trouble beating him.
Yet there were troubling signs for the future. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Republican candidate for president and for the first time since 1928, Tennessee supported the GOP nominee for president.