Kuchel’s Loss Overshadowed By RFK’s Assassination
Historic Quote: “Oh, I think it is a mixed reaction. I can’t really speak for them. You are running pretty dangerous when you try to speak for women.” LBJ at a press conference, responding to a question of how his family reacted to his decision to not seek re-election in 1968.
There was once a rabidly moderate Republican Senator from California who is a footnote to history in a couple of very high profile endeavors.
Thomas Kuchel was appointed by Earl Warren to fill Richard Nixon’s seat when he became vice-president. And he was ousted in a Republican primary on June 4, 1968. Few noticed however, because it was overshadowed by the shooting of Robert F.Kennedy the same night, and in the same state. In between, he was the GOP floor leader on the Civil and Voting Rights legislation. And it was Kuchel who first floated the rebuttal to Barry Goldwater’s famous slogan, “In your heart you know he’s right.” Of Goldwater, Kuchel said, “in your gut you know he’s nuts.”
Unofficially, Kuchel considered himself the leader of the “baker’s dozen” of Senate Republican moderates, backing Social Security, Medicare, LBJ’s immigration measure and numerous environmental measures for California. Early in his tenure, he and a handful of other Republicans joined Democrats in backing legislation to thwart the filibuster. But it was his war against the John Birch Society, one of the earliest public officials to do so, that would earn the enmity of conservatives. He would call the group, “fright peddlers, from the simple simpletons to the wretched racists.”
Kuchel’s Republican stray did have limits. He did not favor spending simply for the sake of doing so and was a strong backer of the Vietnam War.
If Kuchel’s expressive disagreements within his party hurt him, it wasn’t with his colleagues. They made him their Whip in 1959, the number two position in the Senate. He would hold that position for ten years. But conservatives in his home state would be a different story.
Kuchel’s progressivism was no surprise. As a boy, he crusaded against the KKK. Born in Anaheim, California to a family who had helped found the town, it took Kuchel little time to become a wunderkind of sorts in California Republican circles. He knew both Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren and they would help to land him in high places.
Kuchel was a State Assemblyman at 26, a Senator six years later, and State Comptroller by 1946, the latter post chosen by Warren. In that time, he would be Chair of the Republican party. When Nixon became vice-president, Warren was Governor, and his philosophical soul-mate, Kuchel, seemed like a natural to take the Senate seat. Kuchel got the job, and Warren would joke, “now you’re on your own.”
At first it was easy. Kuchel defeated future Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty for the remainder of Nixon’s term 53-46%. But he took 54% for the full term two years later and against the same foe, Richard Richards, he won 56% in ’62. Kuchel had been so well liked by liberals that at a 1962 rally promoting his own re-election, Brown actually expressed hope that voters would re-elect “Tommy Kuchel” before correcting himself to say the Democratic candidate. It was no wonder. Kuchel did not endorse Nixon in his bid to restart his career by seizing California’s Governorship. And when it came to endorsing Kuchel, his ticket-mate at the time, Nixon said he was running “independently of candidates for national office.”
Kuchel and Goldwater had tangled mightily and publicly in the lead-up to ’64. Kuchel was chairing Nelson Rockefeller’s Presidential campaign, and used every opportunity to accuse Goldwater of political grandstanding. Kuchel was a strong proponent of the Treaty while Goldwater was sternly opposed. Goldwater had said on the Senate floor the treaty would “have a greater effect on the future of mankind than any event since the birth of Jesus Christ.”
Kuchel, who said Goldwater was reading from a prepared speech, accused him of posturing. Referring to “my friend from Arizona,” he posed the question: “Is it not a fact that every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the treaty.” Goldwater acknowledged it was true, but added, “it is also true that other members who have military responsibility have disapproved.”
Kuchel called Goldwater’s nomination a “suicidal tragedy” “If the grand old Republican Party were to become a shriveled, shrunken, impotent political haven for an anachronistic few, then vast changes, and not for the good, would enter our way of life.”
In the Senate race that same year, Kuchel refused to back Republican nominee George Murphy over Pierre Salinger because Murphy would not denounce the group.
Ronald Reagan received the anti-Kuchel treatment as well. There is some evidence it began after Goldwater’s defeat. Reagan said “We don’t intend to turn the Republican Party over to the traitors in the battle just ended. We will have no more of those candidates who are pledged to the same goals of our opposition and who seek our support. Turning the party over to the so-called moderates wouldn’t make any sense at all.”
Reagan suspected some had to do with Reagan backing Kuchel’s ’62 primary opponent, Lloyd. He later regretted it “because I realized I have been in a position where I could make a contribution to party unity and I endangered it in that campaign.” There was also lingering suspicion over a rumor circulated that Kuchel in 1950 had been arrested for drunken-driving while engaging in homosexual acts. Kuchel sued a bar-owner for libel, won, and received a written apology (the arrest documents had been forged). Reagan denied knowledge and spoke of “the despicable acts to blacken his name.”
When Reagan announced for Governor, Kuchel gave him similar treatment. In the primary, he backed moderate San Francisco Mayor George Christoher and said “within our California Republican Party is a fanatical, neo-facist, political cult, overcome with a strange mixture of corrosive hatred and sickening fear, recklessly determined to overcome our party or destroy it.”
When Reagan won, Kuchel made clear he had no plans to back him. State Republican Chair Gaylord Parkinson took him to task in a letter.”In the Navy, when general quarters are sounded, every man is expected to go to his battle station, whether he likes the war or the direction the vessel is going.” Kuchel asked, ‘”Who the hell is Parkinson?” When he decided to respond, he said he “exercise(s) his rights as a free, independent American.” Leon Panetta, an aide to Kuchel who was still a Republican in those days called Reagan, “Goldwater in a prettier package.” Many Republicans predicted, Kuchel will “come on board.” But the two never met and no endorsement was given.
Then came Kuchel’s time to pay the piper — those being Republican primary voters..
Prior to 1968, Kuchel’s penchant for outspoken moderation had not caused him many problems. He turned back a challenge from Howard Jarvis in the 1962 primary with 75%. And general elections were non-affairs. He carried all 58 counties in his ’62 re-election. But once Reagan was elected, he gave his blessing to a quest by allies to oust “that damn Tommy Kuchel.”
Boomcalifornia.org describes five businessmen (Holmes Tuttle, Henry Salvatori, A.C. Rubel, Leonard Firestone, and Justin Dart) meeting to choose a candidate to go against Kuchel. Eventually, they settled on Max Rafferty, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, a non-partisan post in California. But Reagan himself wouldn’t take a public position. He vowed to watch from the sidelines and “lean back like the Tower of Pisa.” Congressional Quarterly noted that Rafferty’s fundraising was hurt slightly as a result. But he wouldn’t need it. His $1 million dwarfed what Kuchel had.
Kuchel wrote there are certain elements of the Republican Party who have seen fit to denounce me but I have no intention of compromising the political principles I have followed for thirty years.” Independent columnists called Rafferty’s campaign “vicious” and “far below minimum standards of decent political behavior.”
Rafferty called Kuchel, “politically dishonest,” claiming that his record was so liberal that he might as well be a “floor leader for the (Johnson) administration.” Kuchel responded that he had backed the GOP on 76% of votes, but Rafferty said many of those were procedural, calling them “anything that doesn’t mean anything.”
Kuchel brandished statements in his literature from, among others, Majority Leader Everett Dirksen who said, “California has an investment in your experience and devoted service and I am confident that the people of California will want to continue that kind of investment.” Some Washington insiders thought Kuchel could succeed Dirksen when he retired (he ultimately died), but some in the caucus may have found him too far to the left.
Rafferty called Kuchel inadequate when it came to responding to “four deadly sins”: violence, pornography, drugs, and lawlessness.” “Until there is restibution — prompt, just, and drastic, we will continue to our friends murdered in the streets and our women ravaged by sneering packs of punks.”
And he called the Vietnam Peace talks, “a propaganda stunt,” saying the US “should take the handcuffs off our military people and let them do what’s necessary to get that war over with as soon as possible. Let’s stop fighting a phony war with one hand tied between us.”
When Rafferty jumped into the primary to oppose Kuchel, few, including the incumbent, took much notice. He led by 15-18% a year before, a margin unchanged a month before the June primary. Kuchel didn’t mount much of a defense.
On primary night, Kuchel enjoyed a slight lead but returns were extremely slow coming in, particularly from the Central Valley. Sometime around midnight, Rafferty pulled ahead, and it soon became evident that he had won. The difference was 69,000 votes, 50-47%.
Rafferty’s defeat of Kuchel was so shocking that it was reported that many were cheering even when they saw television reports of Kennedy’s shooting. The Almanac of American Politics notes that Rafferty’s big margins in the three GOP strongholds of California in those days, LA County, Orange, and San Diego, which he carried 60-40%, were enough to overcome Kuchel’s lead in the rest of the state. Reagan tried to get Kuchel to back Rafferty, but it was for naught.
At Kennedy’s funeral, Warren, by then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, told him words couldn’t express how “badly I feel” about his loss.
Rafferty’s win would cause Republicans to basically forfeit a seat that, before Kuchel’s loss, they had considered to be safely in their column. He ran a hard hitting, but desultory campaign against State Comptroller Alan Cranston. Among other things, it was revealed that he had faked his disability during World War II and jumped out of his wheelchair as the peace treaties were signed. Cranston won by a wide margin.
In 1970, Rafferty would lose his primary in his bid for a third term as Superintendent. become the Dean of Education at Troy University in Alabama. He would die in a car accident in 1982.
Kuchel would be true to his philosophy to the end. “Progressive Republicans,” he said, “brought to politics the philosophy of governing for the many. What comes particularly to my mind is Medicare. If it weren’t for Medicare today, there would be tens of thousands of Americans living in the poorhouse, with no care.
He died of lung cancer in 1994. He was 84.