With Donald Trump, the most extreme and unqualified candidate of a major party, in striking distance of winning the presidency, we stand on the edge of the abyss. This election shouldn't be this close. You can use the comments section as an open thread as the next few days unspool. For my contribution, here are a dozen of the most consequential elections, nationally and in Arizona. At the least, they show that elections do indeed matter.
1828: John Quincy Adams vs. Andrew Jackson. Adams, the sitting Whig president, was defeated by war hero Jackson. The Whigs stood for the "American System" of internal improvements (infrastructure), a national bank and limiting the spread of slavery. Jackson was just the opposite. Jackson's victory led to the breaking of solemn treaties with the Five Civilized Tribes and their brutal relocation west (denounced by Adams) to open land for slaveholders, among many other ills.
1844: James K. Polk vs. Henry Clay. The defeat of "Harry of the West" not only doomed the American System but eliminated the last chance that the Civil War might have been postponed or avoided. One reason was the familiar partisan circular firing squad. Clay lost votes in New York and Pennsylvania to the abolitionist Liberty Party. It was the death of the Whigs.
With Polk, the nation again had a Southerner determined to extend slavery, including by prosecuting the highly unpopular Mexican War. At one point, Polk considered demanding all the territory to Tampico, but didn't want so many Mexicans brought into the union (they automatically became U.S. citizens with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war). On the other hand, in settling the Oregon Country dispute with Great Britain, he would have settled for the Columbia River as the northern border (in other words, Seattle would be in British Columbia). With Polk, the Civil War became inevitable.
1860: Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas vs. John C. Breckenridge vs. John Bell. The new Republican Party was overtly anti-slavery, although its standard-bearer, the railroad lawyer Abe Lincoln, was more equivocal. It also adopted many American System positions and added new ones, including federal subsidies for a transcontinental railroad, land grant colleges, and the Homestead Act.
The Democrats fractured, allowing Lincoln to win with 40 percent of the vote. He won no electoral votes in the 10 states of the South. Only Lincoln would have fought for, and persevered, in holding together the union. The South's fatal mistake was firing the first shot. How did the nation bind up its historic division? Through the greatest bloodshed in the history of the republic, where most of the hotheads were killed.
1900: William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan. The play Inherit the Wind mischaracterized Bryan as a fool and buffoon in the Scopes case against the cosmopolitan and erudite (and my cousin) Clarence Darrow. In fact, Bryan was perhaps the most beloved politician of late 19th century, a great orator (e.g. his "Cross of Gold" speech), and the Bernie Sanders of his age.
Bryan ran against imperialism, big corporations, and the "tyranny" of the gold standard, which contributed to inequality. McKinley, a handsome Civil War combat veteran who presided (with misgivings) over the victorious Spanish American War, and backed by Gilded Age money, won. It was the last serious chance for pure populism to win an American presidential election. McKinley was assassinated in 1901, bringing his young vice president, detested for good reason by the Republican bosses, to the presidency. Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the Progressive Era.
1932: Herbert Hoover vs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hoover was the most activist president in American history up to that point in confronting an economic disaster. Many of FDR's most successful programs began under Hoover. But Hoover resisted aiding individuals and families, lacked FDR's mastery of the new medium of radio, and came off as out of touch. Roosevelt was the essential man for the moment, most of all willing to experiment at a time of the nation's great peril. Capitalism seemed done. Fascism appeared a viable path forward. Any ordinary Democrat or a Hoover re-election might have doomed the country — and the West.
2000: George W. Bush vs. Al Gore. Questions? The damage began when the Supreme Court arrogated powers in a clear constitutional issue, the outcome forever tarnishing Sandra Day O'Connor's legacy. And the revels were only getting started.
1952: Ernest McFarland vs. Barry Goldwater. "Mac" was one of Arizona's most popular politicians, majority leader of the U.S. Senate, and, among other accomplishments, the father of the G.I. Bill. A lawyer specializing in water, Mac, along with Sen. Carl Hayden, ensured Arizona punched above its weight in the long-running dispute with California, and helped bring plenty of federal funding home. He was dragged down by the unpopularity of Harry Truman. Goldwater, a good-looking young Phoenix City Councilman and department store owner, rode Ike's coattails to a narrow victory.
Yes, the race showed a changing Arizona, especially Maricopa County, both of which had been reliably Democratic since statehood. And Steve Shadegg, Goldwater's campaign manager, ran a masterful race. But the biggest problem for Mac was the general unpopularity of the Democrats under Truman, and especially the Korean War. McFarland would go on to serve as Arizona governor and chief justice.
1962: Carl Hayden vs. Evan Mecham. Hayden had represented Arizona in Congress since statehood and the Senate since 1927. His institutional knowledge, seniority, and political skills in serving a small state were essential to Arizona, particularly to winning the Central Arizona Project. Yet the state, and especially Phoenix, had added so many Republican Midwesterners since Hayden's last election, that he faced a serious threat from the John Bircher Glendale car dealer Mecham.
Hayden's chief of staff Roy Elson came up with a campaign to reintroduce the senator to the state, backed by appearances by President John Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson at the Hotel Westward Ho on "Carl Hayden Day." Hayden was re-elected by almost 55 percent. Mecham and Mechamism would continue to metastasize.
1976: Sam Steiger vs. John B. Conlan. Arguably the future trajectory of Arizona politics began with this bitter primary contest, which happened the same year Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was murdered. Steiger and Conlan were both Republican congressmen who hoped to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Paul Fannin. They were also both conservatives who believed in doing nothing to bring federal money to Arizona, with the exception of, perhaps, the CAP. This was a new phenomenon but it would go on to define the state GOP delegation after the retirement of Rep. John Rhodes in 1983.
But there the similarities ended. Steiger, from Yavapai County, was an old-time Western independent, individualistic conservative. He could be endearing, or alienating, with his blunt humor and eccentricity (during the campaign, Steiger shot two tame burros, claiming they were charging him). Conlan, a Harvard-trained lawyer from Illinois, was a precursor of Christian Coalition-style politics. According to historian Jack August, "His zealotry offended some, including Republican Party regulars, but his supporters were true believers. Conlan’s candidacy in 1976 symbolized the increasingly significant role of religion in 20th century American politics." Steiger and Conlan detested each other.
It was an ugly campaign, including anti-Semitic innuendo by the Conlan forces. Steiger was Jewish, as was Maricopa County GOP leader Harry Rosenzweig. Barry Goldwater (whose father was Jewish), was a national icon by then and never took sides in primaries. This time, he stood against Conlan — he also didn't like religion in politics as a general proposition, and became angrier with Conlan as the campaign unfolded. Many mainline Protestant ministers in Phoenix also denounced Conlan, when such liberal divines still carried weight in the city. Even Fannin, a model gentleman politician (and the subject of the new biography Tall Paul by Adam Schrager), let it be known that Conlan was hurting the party and the state.
Steiger narrowly defeated Conlan but lost in November to Pima County Attorney Dennis DeConcini. The GOP was wounded from the primary but the Democratic Party was still a force in Arizona. DeConcini was a law-and-order conservative. His candidacy was also boosted by being the son of Evo DeConcini, the widely respected former state Attorney General and an Arizona Supreme Court Justice. Conlan would neatly fit into today's GOP. Not Sam Steiger.
1986: Carolyn Warner vs. Evan Mecham vs. Bill Schultz. This snakebit race was one of the last chances to prevent Arizona's "lost decade" of the 1990s. It pitted Warner, the Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction, against the ever-insurgent Ev Mecham. But wait! There was developer Bill Schultz, first running as a Democrat in the primary, then dropping out because of his daughter's health, and then returning to the race as an independent. With turnout at the lowest in 40 years, Mecham was elected as Schultz peeled votes away from Warner.
The full implications for the state will have to wait for a column on the 1990s. But Mecham's win showed the rising power of the John Birchers, LDS, and new right. Also a changing GOP. He defeated the lionized state House Republican leader, the mostly pragmatic Burton Barr. All the state establishment, including the Pulliam press and Barry Goldwater, supported Barr — but here was a sign of how immigration of "Big Sort" conservatives and suburbanization were changing Arizona. Just a decade later, Conlan's brand of conservatism was ascendant.
1992: John McCain vs. Claire King Sargent. Another benchmark on the road to perdition. Maybe the time to stop wealthy Republican John Sidney McCain III — who has done nothing for Arizona — was in his initial run for the Senate in 1986. Then, he bulldozed former legislator Richard Kimball, winning more than 60 percent of the vote and every county. His real POW hero background was compelling and the dark sides not yet so evident.
Things were different in 1992, when McCain had been involved in the Keating Five scandal. Far from being an innocent rookie dragged along with the other four U.S. Senators, McCain was in the racket up to his eyeballs. He should have been vulnerable. But novice Claire King Sargent, although smart, witty, and armed with a Southern accent, didn't or couldn't exploit the scandal. She had little money, purchasing only one ad. The Pulliam press barely covered the race, especially McCain's Keating links.
McCain won by 56 percent with Mecham, running as an independent, carrying another 10 percent. Once again, McCain won every county, even the supposed Democratic bastion of Pima. His victory was a sign of the enormous "Big Sort" migration of the 1990s, as well as the withering of the Democratic Party in the state. Bill Clinton's 1996 victory here did nothing to change this fundamental reality.
2010: Jan Brewer vs. Terry Goddard. Brewer, who had been Secretary of State (and head of the state Bush campaign) became an accidental governor when St. Janet became President Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security. She was abrasive and not very bright. Her Democratic challenger was the successful former mayor of Phoenix and state Attorney General. Goddard represented a chance to reconstitute Napolitano's "sensible center" coalition.
Yet the anti-Hispanic hysteria, exemplified by SB 1070, swamped Goddard. Brewer became governor in her own right and presided over the state's full tilt into national-embarrassment crazy. Napolitano saw the future, and it was one where Democrats stood no chance.