March brings another primary season to Texas, and this year’s election seems like something only Billy Lee Brammer could have dreamed up. The much-anticipated slugfest between Governor Rick Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison fizzled, and Perry’s other key Republican challenger, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, decided to dodge the primary entirely and run as an independent. The Democrats are praying that either Chris Bell or Bob Gammage can strike a chord with the voters, but the media seem content only to write about a certain musician turned writer turned politician named Kinky Friedman. The Kinkster may be the ultimate oddity this year, but his interest in politics shouldn’t have come as a surprise. As his friends will tell you, whenever he needs to use the bathroom, he often exclaims at the top of his voice, “I need to take a Nixon.”
Of course, Texas has had its fair share of colorful races, and one of the most famous occurred in 1948, when Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson ran for the U.S. Senate. Every kid who has taken seventh grade Texas History knows the story: LBJ trailed when the polls closed, but six days later, 203 votes came in from the South Texas town of Alice. All but two were for Johnson, and Box 13 put him over the top by 87 votes, earning him the ironic nickname Landslide Lyndon. But what many people don’t know is that LBJ understood exactly how his opponent, Governor Coke Stevenson, felt. That’s because seven years earlier a Senate race had been stolen from LBJ.
At that time, Johnson was a 32-year-old congressman, ambitious enough to want to move up the political ladder but not wise enough to know how statewide politics worked. When Senator Morris Sheppard died, in April 1941, a special election was called for June. As was typical of races back then, two things were a given. First, a Democrat would win. Second, it would be a free-for-all. Because this was a special election, candidates would not have to give up their current office to run. Indeed, nearly thirty people declared. Though many were nothing more than sideshow acts, a handful of formidable contenders emerged, and LBJ wasn’t one of them. A poll released on April 21 gave him only 5 percent of the vote.
Johnson faced a fierce fight from the state’s attorney general, Gerald C. Mann, and Congressman Martin Dies, who had served as the first chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee. But everyone knew that the man to beat—even though he patiently waited to announce—was Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, the singing flour magnate whose radio program was one of the most popular in the state. O’Daniel campaigned with a band called the Hillbilly Boys, singing religious and patriotic songs (“Beautiful, beautiful Texas, where the beautiful bluebonnets grow/We’re proud of our forefathers, who fought at the Alamo”) and whipping up the crowds into a populist frenzy with an unwavering belief in tax cuts and Jesus Christ. Despite his popularity, rumors flew about his tactics. As one contemporary said, “You couldn’t find anyone who voted for him, but he always won the election.”
Johnson campaigned as if the devil were behind him. He crisscrossed the state, spoke to anyone with ears and a pulse, and hammered home his close relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt. At his rallies, a giant banner that read “For Roosevelt and Unity” dominated the stage. LBJ also called in another type of star power. Washington Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh wrote a letter supporting Johnson that was distributed to football coaches across the state; Ty Cobb, the former outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, offered his encouragement on the radio.
Despite the threat of an FBI investigation into his past campaign practices and a stint in the hospital because of an illness, LBJ steadily gained on his opponents. As Election Day approached, Johnson was confident, and the results backed him up. With 96 percent of the precincts reporting, Johnson held a five thousand–vote lead. The next day, newspapers trumpeted the upset, and calls of congratulations poured in.
Yet O’Daniel never flinched. That’s because he knew something that LBJ didn’t: He controlled the key political bosses in South and East Texas who could deliver the votes he needed. As the returns came in to Johnson’s campaign manager, future governor John Connally, local election officials asked him what he wanted them to do. An upbeat Connally told them to go ahead and report their numbers. The Johnson campaign never knew what hit it.
“The opposition then—Governor O’Daniel and his people—knew exactly how many votes they had to have to take the lead,” Connally said later. “They kept changing the results, and our lead got smaller and smaller and smaller. Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, we wound up on the short side of the stick and lost the election by 1,311 votes. I’m basically responsible for losing that 1941 campaign. We let them know exactly how many votes they had to have.”
To be fair, it wasn’t just O’Daniel’s people who were manipulating the system. The Scripture-quoting governor had taken up the cause of statewide prohibition, which put some of the state’s powerful business interests on edge (including former governor Pa Ferguson, who had cozied up to the Texas Brewers Association). Those forces were more than willing to support O’Daniel, even if it meant flunking him to a promotion. In the U.S. Senate, he couldn’t do as much damage to Texas. Even better, the business lobby believed that Lieutenant Governor Coke Stevenson—Johnson’s future opponent—would stop the prohibition drive in its tracks once he filled in as governor.
Though Johnson knew that the election had been stolen, he refused to challenge the results—in part because he didn’t want any questions raised about his own campaign practices. Instead, he chose to bide his time and look for another opportunity. When it came seven years later, he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Congressman Johnson knew how to become Senator Johnson.