Physician Roy Nearly Discharged Dole From Senate In ’74
Historic Quote: “I wouldn’t mind if he did a fly over.” Bob Dole during the waning days of Watergate on whether he wanted Nixon to campaign for him.
In the 1970’s, it was rare to find a doctor in the House. For two terms, Kansas had one in Bill Roy. And in 1974, they darned near sent him to the Senate, over none other than Bob Dole.
Roy’s resume would make every parent proud, as he could boast of both law and medical degrees. He had attended the White House Conference on Children and Youth in 1960 and the Brooking’s Institute Conference on Urban Affairs eight years later. The only thing he lacked was political background. So Roy’s filing for Congress against incumbent Chester Mize in 1970 attracted little attention. Had it not been for the fact that Roy had been a registered Republican until just before the filing, it may have not attracted attention at all.
But Roy had assets. About 5,000. He had been a Topeka area obstetrician for the past 17 years and while, as the Almanac of American politics 1974 points out, “none of the children could vote for him, but the parents of the children could and apparently did in great numbers.” That gave him a big head start.
Kansas-2 hardly seemed winnable. No Democrat had won it since a 1907 special. But Roy raised $100,000 and attacked the issues. He talked inflation, a balanced budget, a negotiated withdrawal from Vietnam, and in an issue near and dear to his heart, increased physician training. mounted what Congressional Quarterly called “perhaps the most stunning upset of the year,” Roy won 52-45%, taking 58% in Shawnee (Topeka).
In 1972, Nixon was taking 70% in the district and Republicans were determined to make political hay of some of his votes. But with the 25th amendment in effect, now the babies Roy had delivered were able to vote for him and as Nixon was taking 70% in the district, Roy was waltzing with 61%. No Democrat was ever safe in Kansas but it seems Roy could have held the seat for the foreseeable future. But a funny thing happened on the way to his re-election. He passed and ran for the Senate.
Dole was only a freshman but as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, was already building his national portfolio. And Kansas had last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1938. But Watergate was sending Republicans tanking all year long. Roy sought to add Dole to the rubble.
Roy would later recall that 1974 was “a wonderful opportunity to take him out of politics, which I thought was very important at that time.” Roy told PBS during Dole’s ’96 presidential bid that “he had chosen to during the six years from 1968 to 1974 to be the Senator from Richard Nixon rather than the Senator from Kansas. And I felt that very strongly and others felt that very strongly, that his personal ambition to be close to the President had made him neglect the interests of the people of the state.”
The campaign was dirty for that period’s standards. Both complained to the Fair Elections Committee, with Roy’s camp accusing Dole of “leaking” information to columnist Jack Anderson, and Dole complained Roy was using the Fair Committee for his personal gain. Roy hit Dole for not signing a clean campaign pledge, which the incumbent would vow to do. Dole would quip that they “even accused me of hiding the burglars in my apartment.”
Dole often said “he was prepared to lose” in ’74. He very nearly did. In fact, a Central Research Corp. Poll of Topeka released in early October found Roy in the lead by 8 percentage points, and at the 50% mark.
Roy didn’t make Watergate an issue. In fact, with Nixon having just resigned and Ford keeping the issue alive by virtue of a pardon, he had little reason too. Dole was already hurt by statements he had issued as national GOP head expressing support for Nixon, while hammering Democrats, on Watergate. Roy acknowledged many believed Dole knew about the illegal activities but Roy refuted it, saying, “I have no reason to believe Senator Dole knew.” But Dole was well aware of the position Ford had put him in and said, “I don’t need any more help of that kind before November.” And others were bothered by the time Dole’s Chairmanship took him away from Kansas, with some complaining about his accessibility when they had problems.
Instead, Dole focused on Roy’s ties to labor. He hit Dole on voting against agriculture interests, though the incumbent responded that he’d be top Republican on the Agriculture Committee if re-elected. Roy ran as a physician and as a moderate, eschewing federal control over land and talking about spending cuts.
Roy’s challenge may have been establishing name recognition beyond central Kansas, which at times was made difficult by Dole outspending him 2-1. But his advertising still put him on par with Dole name wise. And the incumbent had the added burden of having been divorced after 25 years of marriage.
But this time, Roy was put on the defensive over his deliveries. It was over the issue of abortion, which Roy had performed, and Dole posed the question in a debate. “I want to know how many of them you’ve performed!” The right is well organized in Kansas, and this issue mobilized them. Many anti-abortion protesters would picket Roy’s events.
Dole also ran a hard hitting ad on veterans issues. Roy was apparently on the wrong side of two bills important to vets and the tag-line was that “the only military term Bill Roy knows is AWOL.” That stung. “Well, I served two years honorably in the Air Force. I didn’t get shot. But my service was as honorable as his service.” But he didn’t respond the way he should have.
Roy’s strategy was to go positive and he fully acknowledges that it was costly. “We did not counter the mud slinging ads..we talked only about how good I was supposed to be rather than how bad he was, the last two weeks. We didn’t do anything even as far as hitting his record during the last two weeks. These are things I regret.”
By Election Day, the race was back to a tossup and stayed that way all night. Out of 794,000 votes cast, Dole kept his joined by 13,000, a margin of 50.8-49.2%. He may have kept his distance from Ford but, after being assured of his win, received among the few congratulatory calls the President was able to place on an otherwise disastrous night.
Dole would rebound, being tapped by Gerald Ford two years later to be his vice-president. Years later, Roy recalls he and Dole talking at a funeral, “Bill if I’m doing a better job, if I’m a better Senator, you should receive some credit for that because I found out in 1974 if I didn’t clean up my act I wasn’t going anywhere.” It wasn’t just talk. Roy said he had friends “who said it was a chastened and humble Bob Dole who came back to the United States Senate
1978 brought an open seat, as incumbent Jim Pearson was retiring. Roy hoped he could simply finish the job he started. Once again, Roy had led. Both were pro-choice and both backed energy policies. But 1978 was back to it’s old partisan habits. The GOP nominee went to Nancy Kassebaum, daughter of 1936 GOP standard bearer Alf Landon, who at 91, was still living in Topeka. That helped her overcome a serious name deficit. Kassebaum was put on the defensive over tax issues but took 56%. Years later, he’d say “she beat me pretty good.” He said some voters “decided it was time for a woman.”
Roy returned to delivering babies, retiring in 1989, when his total had reached about 8,000.
In 1990, Roy again filed to challenge Kassebaum but withdrew before the primary. He won anyway. Roy was asked to take his time deciding whether to keep the nomination, but he demurred. Dick Nichol, whom he had beaten, was given it.
At 87, Roy is In other words, “what’s the matter with Kansas.” As Dole was running for President, Roy was asked to reflect on his loss to Dole. His answer: I probably feel worse in 1996 about that race than I felt in 1975. I feel responsible in part for the way history has turned and for the fact that Bob Dole might be President of the United States.”