West Virginia Gentleman: Hugh Ike Shott

By Ray Hill
The State of West Virginia is now seen as a solidly “red” state, but there were decades when it was just as firmly Democratic.  The pendulum has swung back and forth in the Mountain State, which had created itself by leaving Virginia, the only state in the nation to come into being by having divided itself.

Suffering in America was truly terrible during the Great Depression and if anything, it was even worse in West Virginia.  As Republicans occupied both houses of Congress and the White House when the stock market crashed and the Depression began, voters turned them out of office and didn’t soon forget.  When Franklin Roosevelt rode a wave of votes into the White House, that same wave washed out the incumbent Republicans in West Virginia.  Between 1930 and 2014, only two men would win election to the United States Senate as a Republican from West Virginia.  One was Chapman Revercomb, who was elected twice; once in 1942 for a six-year term and again in 1956 when he won a special election for a two-year term.

While little more than a footnote in a game of trivia, when a senator dies or resigns, the governor appoints someone to the United States Senate who serves until the next regular election.  The appointed senator may run for election, however, there have been instances when there are two elections for the same seat.  That was the case in 1942 when Chapman Revercomb was the GOP candidate for the United States Senate against Governor Matthew Mansfield Neely, who was the Democratic nominee.  There was also an election to serve out the remainder of the term from the November election until January 3, when the senator elected for the six-year term of office would take his seat.  The contestants in that special election were incumbent Dr. Joseph Rosier and former Congressman Hugh Ike Shott.

A lanky gentleman with sharp features and a wing of hair that fell across his forehead, Hugh Isaac Shott was a successful businessman as well as a pioneer in the broadcasting industry, owning a profitable radio station, and later a television station. Both stations were known as WHIS, the former congressman’s initials.  Shott was also a newspaper publisher, owning the Bluefield Daily Telegraph and the controlling interest in the rival daily newspaper, the Mountain Sunset Review.  At the time, owning a newspaper was an invaluable asset, at least politically speaking.

Known by friends and family as “Hugh Ike,” his first taste of politics was serving as the postmaster of Bluefield.  A genial man who liked people, running for office came naturally to him.  So too did business.  Shott’s eyesight began seriously diminishing following his brief service in the United States Senate and he underwent two operations on his eyes.  Neither was particularly successful and Shott went blind in 1945, yet he continued coming into his office daily where he dictated editorials to his secretary, which supported Republican policies.

Like so many others of the time, Hugh Ike Shott started working early, as a fifteen-year-old printer’s devil in Staunton, Virginia.  Eventually, his media holdings were managed by his two sons, Hugh Ike Jr. and Jim.

When Fifth District Congressman James French Strother opted not to seek reelection in 1928 because of declining health, Hugh Ike Shott became a candidate to succeed him.  Shott was popular and well enough known to run without opposition for the GOP nomination for Congress.  Shott was allied with Governor Henry D. Hatfield who was challenging Senator Matthew M. Neely for reelection.

In the general election, Hugh Ike Shott faced State Senator John Kee, who was also a resident of Bluefield.  Kee was an able orator and a credible candidate.  The campaign centered less on issues than political party.  Hugh Ike Shott supported GOP presidential nominee Herbert Hoover, while Kee backed Democratic nominee Alfred E. “Al” Smith.  Hoover carried West Virginia and Hugh Ike Shott beat John Kee.  Within months of having taken office, Congressman Shott was faced with the collapse of the stock market and the beginning of the Great Depression.  His district, which covered the vast coal fields of West Virginia, saw acute suffering among the people.  The seeming inability of President Hoover and the Republican Congress to solve the problems did nothing to inspire confidence or garner support from voters.

Shott faced another formidable Democrat in the 1930 general election.  Thomas Jefferson Lilly had served a single term in Congress before losing his seat and was attempting a comeback.  Congressman Shott reminded the people of his district he had been diligent in his service, having never missed a roll call.  Nor had Shott missed a vote during either the regular or special session of Congress.  Hugh Ike Shott boasted he had supported expanding benefits for veterans and federal aid to build more and better roads, while also attempting to reduce the tax burden of citizens.

Hugh Ike Shott also tried hard to tend to the myriad of requests that routinely came to a congressman’s office from constituents, promptly replying to each letter and inquiry.  Lilly campaigned against the Republican administration and increased the vote John Kee had received two years previously.

By 1932, West Virginians were suffering even more than they had previously.  John Kee was once again the Democratic nominee for Congress from West Virginia’s Fifth District and was campaigning hard against the Hoover administration and pointed to Congressman Shott’s support for that same administration.  Another difference between the two congressional candidates was that of prohibition; Hugh Ike Shott had a “dry” record while John Kee supported the repeal of national prohibition.  Shott attempted to defend Hoover, saying the Depression was not the president’s fault.  Congressman Shott urged voters not to judge Hoover by the extent of the depression, but rather by what the president had done to halt it.

Kee proved to be a gifted speaker and delighted audiences as he pointed to the gilded dome of the state capitol in Charleston, declaring taxpayers would have to give up the gold fillings in their teeth for a century to pay for it.  John Kee charged the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Bill, supported by the Republicans in Congress, with having undone much of America’s economic prosperity.

Each candidate for Congress from West Virginia’s Fifth District ran with his party’s ticket.  Shott’s support for Hoover turned out to be more of a burden and could likely only notice the enthusiasm of the numerous Roosevelt-Garner-Kee-Kump Clubs throughout the area.  H. Guy Kump was the Democratic nominee for governor and Democrats were energized on behalf of their candidates.  The Republicans were clearly on the defensive while the Democrats were on the offense.

Shott’s campaign was well financed, but it did nothing to stop the Democratic sweep.  John Kee won the election and began a career in the House of Representatives, where he would remain for the rest of his life.  Shott was the last Republican to be elected to Congress from West Virginia’s Fifth District until 2014.

Hugh Ike Shott was gracious in defeat.  At the time, congressmen and senators did not leave office after defeat until the following March, when their successors were sworn in.  Unlike some of his colleagues, Shott continued to carry out the responsibilities of his office.

Once bitten by the political bug, it is quite nearly always fatal for only death seems to extinguish the virus.  Hugh Ike Shott decided to run for the United States Senate in 1936 and there was keen competition for the GOP nomination.  Shott eked out a win in the Republican primary for the right to face Senator Matthew Mansfield Neely.

Neely was an extremely formidable candidate.  Vocal, opinionated, and a powerful orator of the old school, Neely was likely the most popular politician in West Virginia, save for Franklin Roosevelt.  If not quite the most popular, Neely was certainly the most durable.  Neely died many a political death time and again and always somehow manage to resurrect himself.

The popularity of FDR and the New Deal was at its peak in the country and West Virginia was no exception.  Franklin Roosevelt had restored hope in the breasts of many millions of Americans; once where the future looked dismal, Roosevelt and his New Deal offered the prospect of a brighter future.

Hugh Ike Shott was an unapologetic Republican, and he ran as a critic of the New Deal and Senator Neely, who was its foremost advocate in the Mountain State.  Speaking in Hinton, the former congressman said the Social Security Bill passed by Congress was less a humanitarian measure than yet another New Deal scheme to collect ever more taxes from the working man.  By the time it came for folks to receive their benefits, Shott warned Congress “may have seen fit in the meantime to revise the law so that no benefits ever will be obtained for anyone, including the aged and helpless, for whom the law was originally intended.”  Shott was also a critic of the massive spending by the Roosevelt administration.

In Weston, West Virginia, a crowd estimated at 5,000 people gathered at the Lewis County Courthouse to hear the former congressman speak.  “Good intentions do not take the place of good judgment,” Shott cautioned.  “You people believed the New Dealers in 1932 when they said a job for every man by next July but by July the number of unemployed was still increasing and in spite of ten billions spent there are more than ten millions still idle.”

Despite a spirited campaign, Hugh Ike Shott only garnered 40% of the vote against Senator Neely.  The former congressman kept up a lively interest in politics and things political.  His last hurrah came in 1942 when he announced as a candidate for the “short term” in the 1942 election for the United States Senate.

Matthew Neely’s political war with the statehouse faction of his own party culminated in his running for governor in 1940.  Neely resigned his seat in the Senate and promptly appointed his own successor while the outgoing governor, Homer Holt, had made an appointment as well.  Neely’s appointee, Dr. Joseph Rosier, the longtime president of the State Teachers’ College in Fairmont, was narrowly confirmed as the rightful appointee.

Rosier was considered by most political observers to be an acceptable placeholder for Neely who was expected to run for his old seat in the U.S. Senate again in 1942.  Neely disappointed none of his critics and confidently expected to be reelected after having vanquished his intra-party foes.

Republicans nominated different men for the special election and the regular election for the full six-year term.  Hugh Ike Shott, the grand old man of West Virginia’s Grand Old Party, stood for election as the candidate of his party against Senator Rosier for the few months left of the current term of office.  Chapman Revercomb, a largely unknown Republican, faced the formidable Neely.

To the surprise of almost everyone, Republicans in West Virginia experienced the best year they had had in the Mountain State since 1928.  Revercomb decisively beat Neely for the full term, while Hugh Ike Shott beat Senator Rosier for the short term.  Republicans also won three of West Virginia’s six seats in the House of Representatives.

As one newspaper commented, with a term of two months, Hugh Ike Shott wasn’t going to set the world on fire, but he would carry the honorific of “senator” with him for the rest of his life.  Having been elected to the U. S. Senate at all is a pretty exclusive club.

Once the election returns were certified, Hugh Ike Shott, his usual cigar in his hand, hurried to Washington, D.C., and took the oath of office as West Virginia’s junior United States senator.  Shott, always a gentleman, didn’t bother to displace any of the women who had comprised Senator Rosier’s office staff.

In 1950, the aging publisher and ex-senator suffered a stroke, which confined him to his home.  Age and illness took its toll and he caught pneumonia, which carried him away at age eighty-seven.

© 2023 Ray Hill