In the fall of 1966, Republican Howard Baker kicked off his general election campaign for the United States Senate. He faced Democrat Governor Frank Clement in November, one of the most popular and experienced campaigners in Tennessee for the last decade. Since 1953, Frank Clement had served as Tennessee’s governor for all but four years.
Although both his father and stepmother had served in Congress, Howard Baker, Jr. had never been elected to any office. Both Clement and Baker had run for the Senate in a 1964 special election and both had been beaten by the same man: Ross Bass. Bass had faced Frank Clement in the Democratic primary in 1966 and barely lost. To the end of his life, Ross Bass contended his defeat had come through Republicans voting inside the Democratic primary because they believed it would be easier for Howard Baker to beat Frank Clement.
Governor Clement entered the general election full of confidence; after all, Tennessee had never popularly elected a Republican to the United States Senate. Since the turn of the century, only a single Republican had served in the U. S. Senate from Tennessee. Newell Sanders of Chattanooga had a brief term of a few months by appointment from Governor Ben W. Hooper. The possibility of losing never seemed to enter Governor Clement’s mind.
Howard Baker campaigned hard, lambasting President Johnson and the Great Society. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and the real war in Vietnam were eroding his personal and political popularity.
There were other signs that Frank Clement’s once incandescent popularity with Tennesseans had begun to burn far less brightly. He tallied only thirty-six percent of the vote in the 1964 Democratic primary, his once good friend Buford Ellington was seeking to return to the governor’s office in 1966. After pondering a gubernatorial bid, Congressman Bill Brock decided to seek reelection and the GOP offered no opponent in the general election to Ellington. The former governor still had to face a bruising primary contest with young attorney John Jay Hooker. Ellington won narrowly and many have assumed the “leap frog” governorships of Frank Clement and Buford Ellington made the two warm personal friends. They may have been true at one time, but by 1966 that friendship was tattered and torn.
Frank Clement had certainly given Ellington his start in statewide politics, naming his friend to his Cabinet. Had Clement not done so, it seems impossible Ellington could have been nominated to run for governor in 1958, a nomination he won by the barest of margins. Clement endorsed Ellington, but the former governor said nothing on behalf of his former friend.
An editorial in the Kingsport Times News pointed out Clement’s defeat in 1964 had surprised just about everybody. Yet, the editorial also noted what no one seemed to consider was the champ got into the ring with a “glass jaw.”
According to the Kingsport Times News, “The glass jaw was caused by resentment over the extra sales tax that the governor had engineered which resulted in the big surplus which the governor is now planning to spend. That ill-will had Frank Clement licked before he started fighting.”
Tennesseans had been notorious for enjoying whatever benefits were derived from tax increases, but they habitually defeated the politicians they felt responsible for raising the taxes in the first place.
Clement had said during the primary campaign Americans should give “100% cooperation” in pressing the Vietnam War.
“Some people don’t think we should be there. Others are of the opinion that we had no alternative. But since we are there, and our men are dying in the jungles and swamps in Vietnam, then we must support them 100 percent until every boy is back home.”
Clement promised, if elected, he would sponsor legislation to increase the income tax exemption from $600 to $1,000. The governor said he favored a balanced national budget. “As governor we had a balanced budget,” Clement said. “My thinking would not change in the Senate. I know that one person can’t do it alone, but I can at least start such a movement.”
Governor Clement hedged on the issue of sending American dollars overseas. “I am not against foreign aid. I think for our own good we need to help those nations not as fortunate as we are.
“But,” Clement continued, “I am against a give-away program which results in our getting kicked by those to whom we give it. Some of our friends are mighty strange in expressing their friendships.”
On the night of the primary, Howard Baker thanked his supporters, was gracious to his vanquished opponent, and looked ahead to the general election. While Governor Clement celebrated with his own supporters, Baker took note of the governor’s very narrow margin of victory, saying, “Recent returns from the Democratic primary for the U. S. Senate indicate a sharp division of feeling and a great deal of doubt as to Governor Frank Clement’s ability to represent Tennessee in the U. S. Senate.”
It was a shrewd forecast of things to come.
Speaking in Nashville, Baker said he welcomed the support of all Tennesseans, “Republicans, Democrats and Independents without distinction.” For the formal opening of his fall campaign, Howard Baker chose the Grand Ole Opry House. Baker announced he intended to try and appeal to every citizen “regardless of race, color or creed.”
In his opening speech, Baker iterated five major points; he was highly critical of the Johnson farm policy, promoted what eventually became known as “revenue sharing” between the states and the federal government. Baker called for unity of purpose in the United States in prosecuting the Vietnam War. Howard Baker proposed transferring the jurisdiction of the development of the Cumberland River system from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Lastly, Baker urged tax incentives to help encourage private businesses and industries to provide on the job training for new employees.
Baker painted Lyndon Johnson and his administration as out of touch and out dated.
“This administration’s ideas are stereotyped and sterile. It is so dedicated to the solutions of the ‘30s that it cannot and will not meet the crises of this new era,” Baker told his audience of 1,000 persons.
Throughout the campaign for the United States Senate, Howard Baker always looked to the future and associated himself with that future. Frank Clement, although only forty-six years old in 1966, seemed all too much a part of the past.
Baker blamed rising inflation and high prices of food on the Johnson administration and Democrats while campaigning in East Tennessee. Howard Baker, campaigning along side popular Congressman Jimmy Quillen, noted many housewives were positively outraged by high food prices. Baker pointed out disgruntled housewives could do something about it, by voting for candidates who would work to stop the spiraling inflation.
Baker was careful to make a distinction; by taking decisive action, he did not mean “in terms of imposing odious wage and price controls, and raising taxes.”
Howard Baker believed, “…we should impose an austerity program on every federal agency to cut back the big spending programs which are not essential.”
Governor Clement, campaigning in Middle Tennessee, spoke out on behalf of teachers, saying there had been a war, which had raged for twelve long years in the state to redress the “meager” pay of teachers. Clement said he agreed with President Johnson’s decision to raise the amount received by Social Security recipients, but felt that it should be paid immediately rather than waiting until 1968. The governor also chided Howard Baker for having criticized President Johnson for having gone on an Asian visit during the campaign season.
“I think that whether it is two weeks, two days, or two hours before an election, it is crucial we work for peace,” Clement thundered.
The governor demurred on the topic of the war in Vietnam, saying it should not really be a partisan or political issue. “This war is so important we should forget politics and urge public officials to seek avenues to the peace table,” Clement opined.
Baker persistently waged a hard-hitting campaign and in late October, he charged the Johnson administration intended to raise taxes by perhaps as much as ten percent. “A tax increase is the wrong approach to fighting the worsening problem of inflation,” Baker said.
As Election Day approached, Richard Nixon came to Tennessee to campaign for Baker and Congressman Jimmy Quillen. Nixon made at stop at the Tri-Cities Airport on November 3, already anticipating his presidential candidacy in 1968. Nixon made hundreds of appearances all across the country in 1966 on behalf of Republican candidates. Nixon had done rather well in Tennessee; when he was the GOP vice presidential candidate, Dwight Eisenhower had carried Tennessee in both 1952 and 1956. Nixon had carried the Volunteer State in 1960 over John F. Kennedy.
Yet when asked if he intended to be a candidate again in 1968, Nixon dodged the question, saying he was concentrating his efforts on electing others. “This is coming from one who has been over-nominated and under-elected,” Nixon told a reporter.
Richard Nixon was due to arrive at 11:30 a.m. but his plane didn’t touch down on the runway until 12:15 p.m. Just before making his brief speech on behalf of Howard Baker, Nixon had held a press conference. The weather was cool, with temperatures hovering in the 30’s. Nixon quickly warmed up the Republican crowd.
“The American consumer ought to make November 8 ‘National Protest Day,’” Nixon proclaimed, “by throwing out the spenders and electing a consumer’s Congress rather than a Johnson Congress.”
The 4,000 people gathered in the chilly hangar roared their approval.
Nixon continued to feed his audience red meat, saying, “The housewives’ rebellion against food prices is the opening of a Consumer’s Revolution. That revolt will be one of the healthiest political developments in a decade.
“It’s first major casualties will be Lyndon Johnson and the rubber stamps of the Johnson Congress who are trying the buy the peoples’ votes with the peoples’ money.”
Nixon declared that the “Johnson inflation” had awakened a sleeping giant and Republicans would reap the dividends on Election Day.
Nixon had already spoken in Memphis in September of 1966 where the former vice president had flatly predicted Howard Baker would be elected to the U. S. Senate. He also predicted victories for the GOP candidates in three Congressional districts in West Tennessee. His predictions were too optimistic.
Howard Baker’s claim that he would go to Washington without any ties to the Johnson administration began to sting Governor Frank Clement a bit. Clement had realized from the time he had won the nomination that he would need to distance himself from President Johnson. Speaking in Nashville, the governor said he would “not hesitate one moment if at any time there was a variance in party policy and Tennessee thought, to take the action that would be in harmony with the will and wishes of the people of Tennessee.”
In his ornate speaking style, Governor Clement cried, “With this nomination for United States senator in one hand, no one is going to place a rubber stamp in my other hand.”
Governor Clement praised Baker as an “attractive young man who will get a fair vote,” despite the fact he was only six years older than his opponent. Clement denied he would be an automatic vote for the Johnson administration, while Baker hammered home Clement’s party label, which would have been no liability previously.
Baker charged the governor “cannot rid himself of the fact that he is a rubber stamp. He is a member of the majority party and if he is elected he will become a rubber stamp for it. He can’t deny it and he can’t get rid of it. It is a fact that the Democrats are more easily swayed by the White House than members of the minority party.”
Howard Baker accused Clement of “ducking” the big issues in the campaign, an accusation the governor naturally denied. Yet Governor Clement’s campaign seemed rather tame, especially compared to some of his earlier electoral outings.
In the end, Frank Clement was handed a crushing defeat, winning fewer votes in the general election than he had in the Democratic primary. Howard Baker became the first Republican elected to the United States Senate from Tennessee.
It was the beginning of Howard Baker’s political career and the death knell of Frank Clement’s own career.