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Before ‘Stop Bernie,’ a brokered Democratic convention stopped Estes Kefauver

In 1952, Kefauver, a U.S. senator from Tennessee, won 12 of 15 primaries. But it didn’t matter.

Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) flashes a victory smile March 12, 1952, in Concord, N.H., as he reads a newspaper account of his victory over President Harry S. Truman in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. (File/AP)

In 1952, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, a soft-spoken candidate in a coonskin cap and horn-rimmed glasses, swept to the head of the Democratic presidential pack by winning 12 of the 15 primaries. The tall, lanky Kefauver declared that his string of victories “practically assured” him of winning his party’s nomination.

He was wrong. The upstart senator’s rise sparked a “Stop Kefauver” movement by Democratic Party leaders and led by sitting President Harry S. Truman that resulted in the nation’s last convention that wasn’t decided on the first ballot.

The resistance foreshadowed the current “Stop Bernie” fervor in the Democratic establishment about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the democratic socialist who has emerged as the front-runner for the nomination. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that dozens of Democratic Party officials said they would oppose the nomination of Sanders if he arrives at the convention in Milwaukee in July without the majority of delegates needed.

The Democratic race is now Sanders against the field, and a contested convention possibly awaits the party

That’s exactly the scenario that played out in 1952.

Kefauver had gained fame as a “crime buster” in 1950 when he headed televised Senate hearings into organized crime. With the 67-year-old Truman noncommittal about seeking another term, the 48-year-old senator decided to enter the March 11 New Hampshire primary. Truman had famously upset Republican Thomas Dewey in 1948, but his popularity had waned amid discontent about U.S. involvement in the Korean War.

Truman sniffed that the primaries were “eyewash” and that he didn’t need them to be nominated. But he reluctantly allowed his name to be put on the New Hampshire ballot. Then he went off to his winter home in Key West, Fla.

Kefauver, with his wife, Nancy, headed to snowy New Hampshire with his coonskin cap, a shoestring budget and an old sedan borrowed from a friend. The folksy Tennessean perfected the art of personal campaigning. One newspaper described it as a “handshaking, back patting campaign along the state’s byways, stopping and talking to everyone he met, and making a few speeches.”

Truman was still favored by 3 to 1. But Kefauver scored a stunning upset, winning 54 percent of the vote. Kefauver’s victory was enough “to make Truman shiver in his sports shoes and shirt, no matter how high the temperature in his Key West hideaway is just now,” the New York Daily News wrote.

Two weeks later, Truman announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection. He later claimed that he had made his decision long before the New Hampshire primary loss. But “Give ‘em Hell Harry” never forgave Kefauver.

Kefauver traded his coonskin cap for a more presidential felt fedora and moved on to April 1 primaries in Nebraska and Wisconsin.

In Nebraska, he faced Sen. Robert Kerr (Okla.), a conservative oil-industry millionaire who accused Kefauver of having communist leanings. Kefauver decried the attack while also taking a swipe at unfounded allegations made by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) about communists in government: “I don’t like the idea of smearing, and I don’t like the idea of McCarthy.”

Socialists were winning U.S. elections long before Bernie Sanders and AOC

Kefauver won both primaries, and five more before running into a tough challenge in Florida against Sen. Richard Russell (Ga.). Russell, a segregationist, alleged that the populist Kefauver opposed states’ rights. He stopped Kefauver’s winning streak at eight, but the outcome was closer than expected. On the same day, Kefauver scored an upset victory in Ohio’s primary and went on a new winning streak.

Despite his primary victories, he was still far short of the 615½ delegates needed to gain the nomination. In those days, state delegates often were not obligated to vote for the primary winner. Plus, Kefauver faced mounting opposition from party bosses.

“The big city machines detest him, and will do their best to stop him,” wrote the author John Gunther, who was covering the campaign. “This is partly because he is a lone wolf, an irregularity, a nonconformist, and partly because the crime investigation upset the Democratic apple cart in states like Illinois.”

Most important, Truman was out for revenge. He appealed to 52-year-old Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson to get into the race. Stevenson said he didn’t want the nomination but indicated that he wouldn’t refuse a draft. When the Democratic convention began in late July at the International Amphitheater next to the Chicago Stock Yard, the Stevenson draft was on.

Truman publicly claimed to be neutral but revealed his choice in a message read by a member of his home-state Missouri delegation on the first roll call. “I hope you can see your way clear to vote for Adlai Stevenson when the nominations are in.”

When New Hampshire’s turn came, the delegation’s leader declared: “New Hampshire, not kowtowing to any phony drafts, casts its vote for Estes Kefauver, the people’s choice.”

The first roll call lasted four hours. Kefauver led with 340 votes to 273 for Stevenson, followed by Russell and Ambassador Averell Harriman of New York. Kefauver continued to lead on the second roll call with 362½ votes, but Stevenson moved up to 324½.

Kefauver remained hopeful. But the fix was in.

During the second roll call, Truman arrived in Chicago from Washington on his plane “The Independence” and went to the Blackstone Hotel. First, he sent a message to Harriman on the convention floor. Then during a dinner break before the third ballot, he huddled with party leaders near the arena at the Saddle and Sirloin Club.

The third roll call began late in the evening. One Tennessee delegate recalled Kefauver “sitting there with a drink in his hand and a happy, bemused smile on face, not even realizing that they had already cut his throat,” the biographer Charles L. Fontenay wrote later.

When the roll call came to the New York delegation, the state’s party chairman read a statement from Harriman. “I withdraw as a candidate and urge my supporters to cast their votes for my old friend, Adlai E. Stevenson.” Other delegations began switching to the governor.

Kefauver knew it was over. He entered the arena and walked toward the podium to speak. But the convention chairman, Rep. Sam Rayburn (Tex.), refused to interrupt the roll call. Two hours later, at nearly 12:30 a.m., Utah switched its 4½ votes to Stevenson, putting him over the top. Kefauver finally spoke and gave his support to Stevenson, saying, “We have nominated a very great man.”

With that, Kefauver walked out of the arena as a band played “Happy Birthday.” It was now the early morning of his 49th birthday. Tennessee reporter Charles Bartlett summed up the convention: “The city slickers took Estes Kefauver and a loyal band of Tennesseans into camp this week, tricked and tortured him and then sang ‘Happy Birthday to You’ within a half hour after they had cut his throat.”

A headline in a Tampa newspaper declared: “Kefauver Learns Primaries Are ‘Eyewash’ As Truman Said.” Stevenson went on to lose the election to World War II hero Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had defeated Sen. Robert Taft (Ohio) in the GOP primaries.

In 1956, both parties began changing primary rules to bind delegates to the winners of their state contests. Kefauver ran again and won nine of the 15 primaries. But Stevenson also ran and got more delegates. Kefauver conceded, saying, “I’ve got a lot of respect for a man who gets into the primaries and fights it out, as Adlai did.”

Kefauver twice won reelection to the Senate but never again ran for president. In 1963 he suffered a heart attack on the Senate floor and soon died at age 60. Since his battle at the 1952 convention, every presidential candidate of both major parties has been nominated on the first ballot.

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