The Special Senatorial Election of 1937 and Its Legacy for Arkansas Politics

By Ledbetter, Calvin R., Jr. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Special Senatorial Election of 1937 and Its Legacy for Arkansas Politics


Ledbetter, Calvin R., Jr., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


ON OCTOBER 18, 1937, Arkansas governor Carl Bailey, the Democratic nominee, and Congressman John E. Miller, running as an independent, opposed each other in a special general election to fill a seat in the U.S. Senate left vacant by the sudden death of Sen. Joe T. Robinson. This contest and its aftermath forced changes in the way elections were conducted in Arkansas, shattered some myths about one-party dominance in the state, and enhanced the power of the governor-something that had not often been done since Reconstruction ended. It also marked another chapter in the bitter feud between Bailey and Homer Adkins that divided the state for ten years. Coming almost one year before the famous and unsuccessful "purge" of southern senators by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, it foreshadowed this defeat in the sense that one senatorial candidate, the loser, campaigned as a 1OO percent New Dealer, while the other, though not repudiating the New Deal, kept some distance from Roosevelt and stressed his independent judgment.

Arkansas in 1936-37 was slowly emerging from the Depression, but the state government was still almost totally dependent on the federal government to finance its major activities. In 1935 alone, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) had provided direct relief to almost 700,000 people in Arkansas.1 Even in 1936, only assistance from the Works Progress Administration during that spring had enabled the state's public schools to complete their normal terms.2 Arkansas historian Michael Dougan has calculated that "Federal funds accounted for 95.6 percent of all public money spent in Arkansas during the Depression."3

By contrast, the Arkansas state government had done little to alleviate the misery of the Depression. Gov. J. M. Futrell in his first term (1933-35) had instead emphasized retrenchment, cutting state spending by over 50 percent, lowering taxes, and having the constitution amended to make it more difficult for the state to raise money in the future.4 Finally, Harry Hopkins, director of the FERA, threatened a cutoff of federal funds in 1935 if Arkansas did not assume more of the financial burden of relief programs. This warning prompted enactment that year of a 2 percent sales tax, most of which was designated for education.5 This lessened somewhat the pressure on the public schools of the state and helped Arkansas to begin to escape its almost total reliance on the federal government.

Joe T. Robinson dominated Arkansas's political scene at this point. He exercised overwhelming influence as the state's senior senator, majority leader of the U.S. Senate, and the person through whom much of the federal money flowed into Arkansas. Robinson and Homer Adkins, a Robinson protege and the collector of internal revenue in Arkansas, controlled a powerful "federal faction" made up of federal jobholders in the state dependent on the two men for employment and other favors.6

People generally assumed that Roosevelt would appoint Robinson to the next vacant U.S. Supreme Court position or to his cabinet. Robinson had earned this promotion by using his legislative skills and his position as majority leader to pass New Deal legislation. he was particularly energetic in his support of Roosevelt's unpopular "court-packing" proposal to enlarge the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 18, 1937, justice Willis Van Devanter resigned from the court effective june 1, and, after some initial hesitation, Roosevelt decided to appoint Robinson to fill the vacancy. Even before this, Roosevelt had hinted at a Robinson appointment to the Supreme Court.7

Robinson's sudden death that summer lent added significance to a series of changes made over the preceding five years in the procedure for filling unanticipated vacancies in elected offices. Carl Bailey, who became governor at the beginning of 1937, had taken a clear position in debates over these changes. In 1932, at the suggestion of Brooks Hays, National Democratic Committeeman from Arkansas, the state Democratic convention had adopted Rule 46, which changed the way in which officials who had died or resigned would be replaced. …

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