Presidential candidate Donald Trump expressed outrage at the method used by Colorado Republicans to choose delegates to the party’s convention in Cleveland this summer. “Nobody should take delegates and claim victory unless they get those delegates with voters and voting,” Republican presidential front-runner railed. “It’s a crooked system. It’s a system that’s rigged. And we’re going to go back to the old way; it’s called, you vote and you win.”
Except that wasn’t the old way…
Before the 1970s, there were only a handful of primary elections. The two major parties selected their candidates at their annual conventions. A candidate entered primary elections not to win delegates as much as to show party power brokers that he was worthy of consideration for the nomination. Party leaders thought it demeaning for candidates to beg for votes before the nominating conventions. “How long must our system of selecting nominees for the presidency go on at the mercy of the sentimental disorders of the preferential primary – or popularity contest – method?” Pulitzer Prize winner William S. White complained in the New York Times when Wayne Morse, senior senator from Oregon, began his run for the White House in 1960.
Morse was elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1944. He was one of the early opponents of Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt when he signed, along with five other Republican senators, Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience.” Morse won re-election in 1950. He changed his party affiliation to Democrat in protest of Dwight Eisenhower’s selecting Richard Nixon as his vice-presidential running mate in the 1952 election.
Senator Morse set the record for filibustering when he held the floor for 22 hours and 26 minutes in opposition of the 1953 Tidelands Oil bill. Unlike today’s Senate rules, filibustering back then required a legislator to actually stand and speak. Morse’s record was broken four years later when Strom Thurmond spoke nearly two hours longer to combating the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Senator Morse entered the 1960 primary elections in D.C., Maryland and Oregon. He declared he “would be a candidate with no backing of any political machine, and that would be good because the people could be sure that I would be speaking my own views.” This was a blow to the odds-on Democratic favorite, Hubert Humphrey. Also contending were Lyndon Johnson and the little-known senator from
Massachusetts, John Kennedy. Morse stirred controversy by refusing to say he would support whomever was the nominee. He expected to win Oregon by a wide margin. He didn’t. Following his decisive win over Humphrey in West Virginia, Kennedy won by a nineteen-point margin in Morse’s home state. Winning primary elections was becoming the means to secure a party’s nomination.
Senator Morse won re-election again in 1962. He and Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening cast the only votes against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing expansion of the Vietnam War. Morse alienated his own party in 1966 by endorsing Republican Mark Hatfield for governor of Oregon because of the Democratic opponent Robert Duncan’s support of the war. Hatfield served two terms as governor before being elected to the U.S. Senate. Duncan ran against Morse in the 1968 Senate primary. Morse won by a narrow margin but lost the general election by only 3,500 votes to Republican Bob Packwood, a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War. Packwood, an early advocate of abortion rights, resigned in 1995 after the Senate Ethics Committee recommended his expulsion on charges of sexual harassment.
In politics, as in many other things, our memories are short. The way we’ve always done things often isn’t so.