Don Yarborough’s Texas
It was an era when segregation and civil rights were still issues and liberals had a base from which to run. That Texas is gone.
Don Howard Yarborough, who died on Wednesday, played a brief but important part in Texas politics in the early sixties. A Houston attorney and a liberal Democrat, Yarborough ran for office four times during the decade—for lieutenant governor in 1960 and for governor in 1962, 1964, and 1968, and forced a runoff in the first and last of his gubernatorial campaigns.
The 1962 race was one of the most hotly contested in Texas history. Republican John Tower had just won a special election for the U.S. Senate seat that Lyndon Johnson had vacated to become vice president, and the GOP was holding “resignation rallies” around the state to urge conservative Democratic officeholders and voters to switch parties. Among the Democrats who were concerned about the future of their party in Texas (and throughout the South) were President Kennedy and LBJ. The party had dominated Texas politics for years, but it was increasingly rent by factional strife between its liberal and conservative wings.
As the spring primary approached, the liberals’ leader, U.S. Senator Ralph W. Yarborough, weighed whether to leave the Senate and come back to Texas to run for governor. The senator, who was a political ally of Don Yarborough’s but no relation, was alarmed that Johnson was urging Secretary of the Navy John Connally, a longtime Johnson ally and operative, to return to Texas and run for governor. Connally was anathema to the liberals, due to, as Ronnie Dugger wrote in the Texas Observer, “his evident lack of deep political convictions, his connections with big business, and his distaste for consorting with them.”
Ralph Yarborough was aggrieved that he, as junior senator, had been ignored by Johnson on patronage matters and that he had been bypassed as a delegate for the 1960 Democratic National Convention, at which Kennedy was nominated for president. He said he would run unless someone acceptable came forward. But labor leaders wanted Ralph Yarborough to stay in the Senate, and Don Yarborough became the liberals’ standard-bearer.
The 1962 Democratic primary for governor featured six candidates, foremost of whom was Price Daniel, the three-term incumbent. He was joined by Connally, Don Yarborough, Major General Edwin Walker, former attorney general Will Wilson, and former highway commissioner Marshall Formby. Some liberal leaders questioned whether Yarborough was one of them, but Dugger wrote, “[He] has never given liberals any specific reason to doubt him.” The race had national implications, because, as the Wall Street Journal noted, a defeat of Connally would damage President Kennedy and LBJ.
Don Yarborough ran a vigorous race, starting with a thirty-minute TV spot that ran on 21 stations. He made fiery speeches, with lines such as “a creeping dry rot has settled over state government in Austin,” and attacked Connally and Daniel as “the Gold Dust Twins.” The Observer gave him a hero’s endorsement:
At long last we are witnessing the unfolding of a campaign committed to the proposition that our government in a state with great natural wealth and untapped potential is third-rate and mediocre and shouldn’t be. There is a courageous quality about shooting high, about experimentation and reform. He supports the goals of the Kennedy Administration, rare in statewide candidates.
About two months before the election, the Observer reported the results of an informal poll of the Capitol press corps. Everybody thought that Daniel was certain to make the runoff and that Connally would finish second. Yarborough didn’t even get a mention. A Belden poll, the gold standard of the day, had Daniel leading with 33 percent, Connally second with 27 percent, and Yarborough third with 15 percent. In the closing days, Connally attacked Daniel and Yarborough attacked Connally. It was Daniel who faded. “The old-time establishment Democrats could not take Daniel again,” the Observer reported. During the last week of the campaign, both Connally and Yarborough were back on statewide TV, with half-hour shows. The Observer’s account is that Yarborough spoke without a teleprompter, and that Connally, whose presentation featured the theme from Giant, “ran from the New Frontier and aligned with the fat cats.”
The post-primary analysis showed that Connally, whose home was in Floresville, near San Antonio, had carried Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant, and Nueces counties, along with a corridor of counties in the center of the state and the population centers in the Rio Grande Valley. In one key West Side San Antonio precinct, Connally had 500 votes, Yarborough 273, and Daniel 102. Yarborough led in Harris County, the Gulf Coast, rural East and West Texas (which still had hotbeds of populism back then), and El Paso. Connally also made inroads in the African American boxes, except in Yarborough’s hometown of Houston.
Yarborough wanted to debate Connally in the weeks leading up to the runoff, but Connally refused. “I’m ahead,” the Observer quoted him as saying. “All I could do is lose votes.” Yarborough expected to win the Latin vote, as it was called then, especially in Bexar County, but Connally, who lived in nearby Floresville, knew the right people, including Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez’s local operative, and won the county by a margin of 19,200 to 9,700. Yarborough also had some bad luck. Rain fell in Harris County throughout Election Day and held Yarborough’s margin in the county to 11,000 votes.
This is not the end of the story. At that time, governors served only two-year terms, which meant that Connally would face reelection in 1964. Yarborough intended to challenge him. The White House had to be concerned. If Yarborough won the primary, conservative Democrats might abandon the party to vote Republican in November, and the Kennedy-Johnson ticket could lose Texas in the fall. If Yarborough lost, the liberals might decide to stay away from the polls, or even vote for a Republican rather than support Connally.
This possibility of a split in the Democratic party led Kennedy and Johnson to schedule that fateful trip to Texas in November 1963.