Tennessee’s Modern Republican Party: Dan Kuykendall

By Ray Hill

There are a handful of folks who deserve the lion’s share of the credit for creating a true two-party system in Tennessee.  From 1900-1970, Tennesseans only elected three Republican governors. Howard Baker Jr. became the first Republican to be popularly elected to the United States Senate from the Volunteer State in 1966.  Congressman Carroll Reece paved the way, waging the first serious bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1948 since 1916.

Presidential elections helped to change the voting patterns in Tennessee.  Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first Republican to carry the Volunteer State since Herbert Hoover’s 1928 victory when he only barely squeezed past Adlai Stevenson in 1952.  Eisenhower and his vice presidential running mate carried Tennessee once again in 1956 in a rematch with Stevenson.  It is all the more surprising as Stevenson’s running mate was Tennessee U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver.  Richard Nixon won decisively in 1960 over John F. Kennedy.  Lyndon Johnson became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry Tennessee in 1964 since Harry Truman had won it in 1948.

Once Tennesseans began to feel comfortable in voting for GOP presidential candidates, it became easier for them to cast their ballots for Republicans running for lesser offices.

There were, of course, numerous folks who began to make up the core of Tennessee’s growing Republican Party.  As the suburbs grew, so, too, did the GOP.  Carroll Reece died in 1961 and did not live to see what would occur within a few years of his passing.  If Howard Baker and Bill Brock became the leaders of Tennessee’s modern Republican Party, there were a handful of men and women who were godparents, including Winfield Dunn, Dan Kuykendall, Jim Haslam, Ted Welch, John Waters and others.

1962 proved to be a pivotal year in growing the Republican Party in Tennessee.  That year James B. Frazier Jr. was upset inside the Democratic primary by a young attorney, Wilkes Thrasher Jr.  Frazier was a fixture in Democratic politics in Tennessee, the scion of one of Tennessee’s most prominent families.  His father, James Beriah Frazier, had been both governor and United States senator from Tennessee.  The younger Frazier had been appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee in 1933 when Democrats once again came to power under Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Frazier was appointed by Senator Kenneth D. McKellar and remained in office until 1948 when he ran for Congress after Estes Kefauver left his seat in the House of Representatives to seek election to the Senate.  The seventy-two-year-old congressman was ill during the 1962 election and lost narrowly to his challenger.

Republicans in Tennessee’s Third Congressional District had a legitimate and attractive candidate in William E. Brock III, himself the scion of a wealthy and political family.  Brock’s grandfather, the original William Emerson Brock, founded the Brock Candy Company and was the inventor of the chocolate-covered cherry.  Bill Brock was a superb organizer and was a big believer in engaging young people in the political process.  Wilkes Thrasher Jr. had his own political connections as his father had been the elected judge (the equivalent of county mayor) of Hamilton County.

Thrasher was considered much more liberal than the defeated Frazier and an enthusiastic backer of President John F. Kennedy’s administration.  Many of Congressman Frazier’s supporters drifted over to Brock who was considered to be even more conservative than Jim Frazier.  Bill Brock won the 1962 congressional election to become the first Republican to represent the Third Congressional District since 1920.  Tennessee Democrats were shocked by Brock’s victory, which many considered a fluke.  Even more shocking was the near-victory of Republican Bob James in Shelby County against veteran Congressman Clifford Davis.  The congressman, who had been in office for twenty-two years, only won by a little over 1,200 votes.

Tennessee politics was roiled by the unexpected and sudden death of Senator Estes Kefauver.  Both of Tennessee’s seats in the United States Senate would be up for election in 1964.  Albert Gore Sr. would be seeking a third six-year term while a special election would be held to determine the winner of the election to serve out the remaining two years of the late Senator Kefauver’s term.  When a member of the U.S. Senate dies in office, the governor of the state appoints an interim senator to serve until the next regular election; conversely, when a congressman dies in office, the governor calls a special election to determine the next representative.  Governor Frank Clement’s choice to succeed Estes Kefauver was Herbert S. “Hub” Walters of Morristown.  A millionaire businessman, Walters was past seventy and had suffered from a bout with throat cancer, but his appointment was also a recognition of his long service to Tennessee’s Democratic Party.  “Hub” Walters was considered by many to be Tennessee’s “Mr. Democrat.”  Many political observers thought Clement’s appointment of Walters signaled the governor’s own desire to go to the Senate.  Clement had come back from an enforced political exile to win the governorship once again in 1962 and had only served just over seven months when Kefauver died.

Prior to the 1964 election, Tennessee Republicans were mighty high on the prospects of electing Barry Goldwater president.  Initial polling indicated Goldwater was well ahead of President Lyndon Johnson in the Volunteer State.  Republicans also were enthused about the coming election.  Just four years earlier, the GOP had offered only token opposition against Estes Kefauver, who was winning more than 70% of the vote against Republican nominee A. Bradley Frazier.  Kefauver carried every congressional district in the state while Richard Nixon won Tennessee.

The election of Bill Brock and the near-win of Bob James only added to the determination of Tennessee Republicans to nominate serious candidates to contest both of Tennessee’s Senate seats in the 1964 election.  Howard Baker was the Republican candidate for the Senate seat which had been occupied by Estes Kefauver while Dan Kuykendall was the GOP nominee for the seat held by Senator Albert Gore.

Kuykendall (pronounced Kirk-en-dahl) was a native of Cherokee, Texas who had come to Tennessee for work.  Like most other men from the “Greatest Generation,” he was a veteran of the Second World War; Dan Kuykendall trained to become a B-29 pilot when only 18 years old.  After coming back to the United States, Kuykendall graduated from Texas A & M University and then moved to Memphis in 1955 where he was employed as an executive for Proctor & Gamble.

Dan Kuykendall had volunteered for the presidential campaigns of Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 and Richard Nixon in 1960.  In 1962, it was Kuykendall who had managed the congressional campaign of Bob James, who had come so close to beating Congressman Clifford Davis.  An avid backer of Barry Goldwater for the GOP presidential nomination, Dan Kuykendall won the Republican nomination to face Senator Albert Gore.

Gore was a shrewd politician and something of a political maverick, who had challenged the authority of then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson.  Senator Gore knew how to win elections, demonstrating his political ability when he was first elected to Congress in 1938 after having served as Governor Gordon Browning’s Commissioner of Labor in 1937.  Gore had been reelected to the House of Representatives continuously until he faced the longest-serving U.S. senator from Tennessee, Kenneth D. McKellar.  The venerable McKellar was 83 years old while Gore was a youthful 44.  Senator McKellar had become increasingly frail with the passage of time and was ailing.  Although Gore said he found the senator to be deeply entrenched with the people of Tennessee, the congressman won a decisive victory in the primary.

To win reelection in 1958, Gore had badly beaten former Governor Prentice Cooper, who had run on a segregationist platform.  An able speaker, Gore was somewhat aloof and like the late Estes Kefauver, had a reputation for being a liberal.  Gore’s reelection in the general election was even more one-sided.  Hobart Atkins, a sometime state senator from Knox County, had been the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate in both 1952 and 1958.  In 1958, Atkins won less than 20% of the vote.

Dan Kuykendall had been considering a race for the United States Senate for some time.  In January of 1964, Kuykendall was in Knoxville to meet with political leaders and told a gathering at S & W Cafeteria that Gore could be beaten.  “He is vulnerable in all fields and desperately needs to be beaten,” Kuykendall said.  The Memphis businessman was particularly unimpressed with Gore’s record on foreign aid policy, which he termed “disastrous.”  “He cares more about the situation in Ghana than he does the cotton situation in Tennessee,” Kuykendall insisted.  The Memphian told his listeners the United States needs to reassess and change its foreign aid policies.  “We must concentrate on helping only those countries who show willingness to help themselves,” Kuykendall said.

“We must export ideas instead of dollars,” the Republican senatorial candidate told his audience.  “We must create a healthy climate for American businessmen to go into foreign countries by vetoing the idea of taxes on profits not brought into this country.”  Dan Kuykendall lambasted Senator Gore, saying, “His actions have cost Tennessee industry.”

As might be expected of a conservative Republican, Kuykendall was highly critical of the promotion of programs that conditioned Americans to expect “handouts” or “more pay for less work, security without opportunity, or by socialistic standards of mediocrity if our free working man or businessman is to survive in his historical freedom.”

It was Dan Kuykendall’s sixth visit to East Tennessee to explore his political prospects in anticipation of the coming GOP senatorial primary.

Some wondered why Kuykendall did not seek election to Tennessee’s other Senate seat, but the businessman scoffed he was not intimidated by Albert Gore’s previous electoral success.  “Wherever I go,” Kuykendall told a reporter, “I find country folks are pretty well fed up with Sen. Gore’s brand of liberal international politics.”  “He’s not nearly so strong as many still consider him,” Kuykendall added.

The Nashville Tennessean, the voice of liberalism in the Volunteer State, when it first took notice of Dan Kuykendall, was not much impressed.  Citing a speech Kuykendall made before the Tennessee Republican State Executive Committee, the Tennessean published an editorial saying aside from getting himself “wound up about how ultra-liberal President Johnson is and how he is following the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier policies of his predecessors” the senatorial aspirant “couldn’t come up with anything much to be positive about . . .”  The Tennessean editorial said Kuykendall merely wished to turn back time.  “There may be a few in the area who want to go back to the good old days of malaria, malaise, and misery in the name of conservatism,” the editorial opined.  Yet the newspaper didn’t believe the average voter much cared about conservatives’ “screams of liberals and ultra-liberals.”

Dan Kuykendall methodically covered the state, attending the various meetings, both big and small, that routinely fill the schedules of successful candidates for statewide office.  Kuykendall traveled to those counties which were solidly Republican in East Tennessee, as well as others where an actual member of the Republican Party was as rare as an ice-skating pig.

Kuykendall’s intentions were perhaps the worst-kept political secret in the State of Tennessee.  The Memphian officially announced and kicked off his senatorial campaign with a press conference in the John Sevier Hotel in Johnson City.  Kuykendall made his declaration of candidacy for the United States Senate by loudly stating his opposition to credit-card government.

“I believe that people of Tennessee want good, dependable, common sense, for a change, in their representation in the Senate,” Dan Kuykendall cried.  “I believe they are tired of weak words and weaker resolve in world affairs.”

Accompanied by his wife, the candidate’s announcement was to be made by a flying tour with five stops all across the state.  Heavy rain and thunderstorms across Tennessee did not diminish the candidate’s enthusiasm or determination.  Kuykendall had resigned as a regional marketing director of the foods division of Proctor & Gamble.  Dan Kuykendall was giving his all to win a seat in the United States Senate.