The Election of a Texas New Dealer: Lyndon Johnson's 1937 Race for Congress


Opportunity came knocking yet once again on Lyndon Johnson's door in early 1937. He knew the sound well for he had heard it several times before. When newly-appointed Congressman Richard Kleberg offered the young school teacher just barely out of Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos a position in 1931 as his executive assistant in Washington, D.C., the would-be politician had jumped at the chance. Throwing his limitless energy and talent into making the most of it, he served almost four years as South Texas' congressman-in-fact. As Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal, Johnson serviced Kleberg's constituents, advised his boss on how to vote, and learned the political ropes. In 1935, opportunity once again came knocking when President Roosevelt launched the National Youth Administration to provide employment for the nationís youth. Congressman Sam Rayburn - whom Johnson had been adroitly courting as a political "father figure" - arranged for Johnson's appointment by President Roosevelt as Texas State Director of the newly-created agency. For eighteen months thereafter he provided desperately-needed employment opportunities to the young people of Texas - dispersing federal funds, developing political contacts, building a cadre of committed staffers at the NYA, and waiting for the next opportunity.

It came on February 22, 1937. Word spread like a prairie wildfire through political circles that a fatal heart attack had just felled Congressman James P. "Buck" Buchannan, representative of Texas' Tenth Congressional District for the last twenty-four years and political guardian of the half-constructed Marshall Ford Dam west of Austin. Twenty-eight year old Johnson immediately began gauging his chances in an election to fill the vacated seat. Was this the chance to begin his climb to the highest of all elective offices in the United States?

The Opportunity?

Upon hearing of Buchannan's death, Johnson called his NYA staffers and other supporters, arranged a "skull session" for the next day to explore options, and headed for the office of Alvin Wirtz in the Littlefield Building on Congress Avenue. Wirtz, lawyer/lobbyist for the Magnolia Oil Company, Brown & Root Construction Company, and other large firms, had political connections that Johnson had already been cultivating for several years. The future president asked the elder Wirtz what Johnson's chances might be. Wirtz's evaluation both that day and at the larger "skull session" the following day was not particularly encouraging.

Johnson had significant weaknesses/liabilities. First, he was so young at twenty-eight. He could count on being assailed by opponents and voters as being too young and inexperienced. Texans liked 'em young but not that young. Secondly, he had only been back in Texas just over a year and hadn't served long enough in Austin not to be seen by some voters, perhaps many, as a "carpetbagger" from Washington, D.C. Thirdly, Lyndon, through no fault of his own, hailed from the least populated corner of the sprawling Tenth Congressional District. Blanco County, on the isolated fringe of this immense district larger than the states of Delaware and Connecticut combined, contained less than 2% of the Tenth's total population. He had no real natural base upon which to build. Additionally, Johnson was not well known to the voters of Central Texas. Four years of services as Mr. Kleberg's assistant might help him in South Texas but not in the Tenth. Eighteen months as head of the NYA in Texas hadn't brought him into intimate contact with the voters of Central Texas. He didn't have significant name identification among the voters who would count in this race.

Finally, Wirtz pointed out that the competition was likely to be strong. Likely aspirants were better known to Texas voters, and, in some cases, had been preparing for a long time for the day when Congressman Buchannan stepped aside and they could climb the next rung of the political ladder. Buchannan's widow could have the job for the asking if she wanted to serve out her departed husband's term. If not, C. N. Avery, Buchannan's longtime campaign manager, would be the clear favorite. Other probable candidates, all of them formidable, were: Austin attorney Polk Shelton, Williamson County Judge Sam Stone, State Senator Houghton Brownlee, as well as Assistant State Attorney-General Merton Harris.

Needless to say, Johnson's prospects weren't good and he would be a "longshot" if he chose to make the race. Nonetheless, Johnson, after extended discussions with Wirtz, his wife LadyBird, NYA staffers, etc., made the decision to respond to the knock at the door, take the risk, resign his position as NYA Director, and go for broke.

Why play such a "longshot"? Since Governor James V. Allred had announced that Buchannan's seat would be filled in a special election, Johnson knew he had only to win a plurality in what was likely to be a crowded field. Had this been a regular primary election, the winner would need a majority of the votes cast in order to avoid a runoff. This, however, was "sudden death" - all that was needed was a one vote edge regardless of percentage of the total vote. He might have a chance if a crowded field emerged to greatly split the vote.

Second, Johnson realized that whoever won the seat was likely to hold it for a long time. Texans were like other southern voters - they sought to take advantage of the seniority system in Congress by invariably reelecting representatives until years of continuous service gave them the power of committee chairmanships. Buchannan had served for twenty-four years. If Johnson didn't run and someone else won the position, it might be another quarter century before the position opened up again. Johnson couldn't or wouldn't wait that long.

Thirdly, Johnson had a committed cadre of staffers at the NYA who could serve as the "storm troopers" of a Johnson campaign if allowed to by their new boss if Johnson resigned to make the campaign. Furthermore, while his NYA position hadn't given him name identification with Central Texas voters, Johnson had nonetheless developed contacts with some Central Texas leaders and could represent himself as having successfully served FDR and the New Deal, having already helped a number of Central Texans cope with the Great Depression.

Fourth, everyone who participated in the decision on whether to run or not understood that Johnson himself was a great asset. He would give every effort, twenty-four hours a day, day after day, to work harder than any other candidate. According to associate Gene Latimer years later: "No matter what anybody said, we felt he had a chance, because we knew he would work harder than anybody else".

Finally, the decision was made to run because of Alvin Wirtz's advice. Wirtz had a problem. Federal funding for Marshall Ford Dam was threatened by Buchannan's death. The dam was being built on land the federal government didn't own. Funding was contingent upon Congressman Buchannan's power and influence - and now he was gone. If the federal government cut off funding, Wirtz's client, George Brown's construction company, would be bankrupted. Feeling he needed a new congressman with powerful connections to legislative powers such as Sam Rayburn and Joseph Mansfield, someone who knew the "ropes" already, someone who could force a funding bill through Congress in the scant weeks left in the current session after the election - he turned to LBJ despite his disadvantages/weaknesses because he seemed to be the only potential candidate who could deliver immediately.

Obtaining Wirtz's support gave Johnson instant access to money in the form of campaign contributions, political expertise, and "connections" to powerful and influential people. Most importantly, Wirtz provided the strategy that would prove crucial in the election.

The Environment and the Strategy

Texas in 1937 was as solidly Democratic in its party affiliation as any state in the union. While essentially conservative and content with a state government dominated by conservatives, Texas voters had, by and large, supported the Roosevelt administration's response to the Great Depression. In 1936 President Roosevelt had rolled to a reelection victory of record proportions, carrying all but two states in the country. The President received 61 percent of the popular vote nationally but won an astounding 87 percent of Texas voters! "Nowhere in the state was support for the President more firm than in the Tenth District" of Central Texas.

Franklin Roosevelt seemed unstoppable. Dominating Congress during his first term, he had refashioned American government with the First and Second New Deals. He engineered the realignment of 1934-36 which placed the Democrats in a dominant position for the first time since the 1850s. His landslide reelection of 1936 was interpreted as a mandate from the people to continue down the path charted the preceding four years. Now, he decided, was the time to deal with the Supreme Court, the last bastion of the ultra-conservative "Old Guard".

In its first one hundred and forty years of existence, the Supreme Court had invalidated only sixty laws. In just over a twelve month period in 1935-36, the Court majority ruled eleven important New Deal measures unconstitutional. As Roosevelt's second term began, legal challenges to the Second New Deal including the Wagner Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act were on the Court's docket. Fearing that the reactionary majority on the Court would prove a permanent obstacle, the President submitted a proposal to enlarge the Court to fifteen members. If enacted by Congress (which he simply took for granted), Roosevelt could appoint six additional justices and force the Court to accept the New Deal and the mandate of the electorate.

While the majority of the people in the country probably supported the Court reorganization bill, conservatives - both Republicans and Democrats - howled in opposition, charging that the measure was unconstitutional and that Roosevelt was attempting to gain "dictatorial" control of the federal government. Conservative Texas Democrats in Congress such as Representative Hatton Sumners and Senator Tom Connally immediately vowed to use their legislative positions to block the President. The Texas Senate, dominated by conservatives, almost immediately passed a resolution denouncing the proposal. Roosevelt appeared to be in deep trouble.

Though himself opposed to the bill, Wirtz counseled Johnson to support FDR's proposal. He "should, in fact, make support of the Supreme Court plan the main plank in his platform. He should support all Roosevelt's programs. His campaign should be based on an all-out, "one hundred percent" support for the President, for all the programs the President had instituted in the past - and for any program the President might decide to initiate in the future." According to Wirtz, Johnson's chances of victory, while still slim, would be greatly improved if he immediately, forcefully, and irrevocably made himself FDR's man in this campaign.

Such a strategy held a great deal of promise. First, Johnson - if he acted quickly enough and forcefully enough - could thus distinguish himself from the rest of the crowded field. Second, such a move would deal with one of his major liabilities - name identification. "Lyndon who?" would become "FDR's man". He would be easily recognized by voters. Third, Johnson could ride Rooseveltís "coattails" in Central Texas where the president was extraordinarily popular. Two weeks later the Austin American published a poll of Central Texans that revealed that for every respondent opposed to the Court bill, seven respondents sided with the President. Fourth, Johnson might be able to obtain the support - openly or covertly - of the Roosevelt administration if he made the special election to fill Buchannan's seat into a referendum on the Court bill. If Johnson won, Roosevelt could claim that the people were on his side in his fight with the Court. Finally, Johnson might be able to gain the endorsement and support of such important Texas New Dealers as Governor James V. Allred and Texas Secretary of State Ed Clark.

Congressman Buchannan's widow was scheduled to announce whether or not she would run on Monday, February 29th. All indications were that she would and Johnson understood that the position was hers for the asking. Taking a chance that he could convince her - as an older woman - not to run if she would have to run hard, Johnson announced on Sunday night, February 28th his candidacy for the vacated position - regardless of what Mrs. Buchannan did. Sure enough, Mrs. Buchannan announced the next afternoon that she had chosen not to run. Within hours, all of the other expected candidates declared and the race was on.

The Five Week Campaign

Armed with Wirtz's strategy and $10,000 provided by LadyBird (obtained as part of her inheritance from her father), Johnson entered the fray in late February determined to answer the knock of opportunity but at a decided disadvantage. In an article shortly after Buchannan's death speculating on who might run, the San Antonio Light didn't even identify Johnson as a possible candidate. When Governor Allred set the date of the election as April 10th and after Johnson had already resigned as NYA director and begun campaigning, the candidate clearly was a longshot. The favorite was obviously C. N. Avery, who had gained immensely from the endorsement of Tom Miller, the powerful mayor of Austin. Johnson rated no better than fifth or sixth in the nine-man field. Two weeks before the election, the San Antonio Express showed Johnson a distant third behind Avery and Merton Harris. On April 4th politicos were startled to find that the Austin American's newest polling showed that both Merton Harris and Lyndon Johnson had passed Avery. "Three days before the election, another American poll showed Harris and Johnson running "neck and neck" in as closely fought a political race as Central Texas had ever seen". On Sunday, April 11th Central Texans woke to headlines announcing that Lyndon Johnson was the Tenth District's new congressman, having won a plurality and besting his nearest opponent by more than 3,000 votes.

How had this seeming political miracle been accomplished?

Reasons For Success

The future president of the United States took his first major step up the political ladder by dominating "the issue" of the campaign - support for President Roosevelt and endorsement of FDR's court reorganization proposal. From the first day of his campaign, Johnson successfully made himself into "FDR's candidate". He seized the issue so quickly and forcefully, voters hardly ever realized that five of the other candidates - to one degree or another - supported the plan. As candidate Johnson put it on the hustings:

"They offer a one-sentence declaration of support. But there is one candidate - Lyndon Johnson - who declared from the first that he supported the President wholeheartedly, including the controversial Supreme Court issue. I didn't have to hold back. I support Franklin Roosevelt the full way, all the way, every day. That's what I intend to do when elected as your representative in Congress, and that includes enlarging the Supreme Court of the United States. When that comes up, I'm not going to be out in the woodshed practicing ways to duck". Just as Wirtz had predicted, this set Johnson apart from the rest of the field and gained him the support of other Texas New Dealers. While Governor Allred never openly endorsed any candidate, he worked behind the scenes for Johnson. He talked about what a good job he had done as state administrator of President Roosevelt's National Youth Administration, gave Lyndon his Stetson hat which the candidate brandished across the Tenth District as the symbol of endorsement, and made available Secretary of State Ed Clark for service in the Johnson campaign.

Johnson's conversion of the election into a plebiscite on FDR and his Court reorganization bill attracted nationwide media attention and behind-the-scenes support from the Roosevelt administration. Some of the support was even more overt. Featured prominently in all Johnson advertising was the following telegram from Elliot Roosevelt, the President's son:

"May I wish you every success and a glorious victory in your race for Congress. I feel sure that when you get to Congress the administration will have a young and vigorous and ardent supporter representing the Tenth District from Texas. Your past record as State Director of the National Youth Administration has demonstrated your organizing ability and high fitness for this office". This was clearly interpreted by Central Texas voters as the same as President Roosevelt's endorsement - only party propriety kept the President himself from campaigning for Lyndon.

Everything that was printed, everything that was broadcast, everything that was said - for the entire campaign - stressed the same theme. By election day, there was no question in voters' minds who FDR's man was.

Campaign finances were a second major reason Johnson was able to close the gap on and then surpass his rivals. LadyBird's $10,000 contribution was just the beginning. Johnson personally importuned successful businessmen he had dealt with as NYA director. Wirtz collected funds from many of his clients. Secretary of State Ed Clark solicited funds from state employees and those doing business with the State of Texas. In an era when financial record keeping and spending reports weren't mandatory for political campaigns, no one knows for certain how much was raised and spent. However, Ed Clark, an insider, estimates the costs at between $75,000 and $100,000 - "a figure that would make the campaign one of the most expensive congressional races in Texas history up to that time". Johnson's opponents simply couldn't keep up - "his expenditures dwarfed those of any of his opponents". And the money was spent wisely - concentrating on "the issue" - that Johnson was "FDR's man".

A third major reason for Johnson's longshot victory was how hard he worked for it. The young politician began campaigning the morning after he announced, several days before Governor Allred even set the election day, and campaigned day after day after day straight through until an emergency appendectomy hospitalized him forty-eight hours before the election. For forty straight days he worked like a man possessed from before sun-up till well after midnight. He raced by automobile across the 8,000 square miles of the Tenth District speaking at rallies, attending barbecues he paid to stage, consulting with political leaders, and talking with every single voter he could possibly find.

"He kept going back to towns, visiting repeatedly not just the six "big" towns in which the candidates campaigned but tiny villages which most of the other candidates never visited at all". Other candidates might cancel campaign swings or appearances because of a blue norther that brought blizzard conditions to Central Texas, but not Lyndon. Others tended to concentrate their efforts on Saturday when farmers came to town, Johnson campaigned every hour every day. Furthermore, he demanded that each and every person who worked for him - whether friends from school days at Southwest Texas State or staffers from the NYA office in the Littlefield Building - work just as long and as hard as he did.

"Ed Clark had seen a lot of campaigners. "I never saw anyone campaign as hard as that," he would recall thirty years later. "I never thought it was possible for anyone to work that hard". "His opponents - caught off guard by his fast start and used to a more leisurely pace, never caught up". For his opponents this was a campaign. For Lyndon Johnson, it was a life-or-death crusade.

Finally, Lyndon Johnson went to Congress in 1937 because he had concentrated his efforts in the rural areas of the Tenth District, particularly in the five Hill Country counties of the Edwards Plateau west of present-day Interstate-35. At the beginning of the campaign, he was convinced that Mayor Tom Miller would deliver the Austin vote to C. N. Avery and that other candidates, particularly Avery from Brenham, had an advantage in the eastern prairies section of the electoral district. Therefore, while he gave up on neither Austin nor the eastern counties, he concentrated his efforts on the rural vote and the Hill Country from which he hailed. This complicated the campaign. There was only one way to effectively reach the district's 176,000 rural residents, who other politicians usually ignored, and that was one by one. He drove to their individual farms and ranches, flattering them by his attention and appealing to their sense of political isolation.

The election results proved the wisdom of this strategic decision. While Johnson got only 28% of the votes cast and lost the eastern prairie counties, he carried four of the five Hill Country counties and won these counties by overwhelming margins. Robert Caro evaluates the election results this way in his study entitled The Path To Power:

"the deeper in the hills a precinct, the more isolated and remote - and poorer - its people, the stronger the showing that Lyndon Johnson made in it." "His 3,000 vote plurality came primarily from the farmers and the ranchers he had visited one by one, from the people in whom he had invested time that no other candidate for Congress had ever given them, from the people who had, on Election Day, repaid that investment in kind, giving up their own time - the time so valuable to them - to make the trip, sometimes quite a long trip, to the polling place to cast their votes for Lyndon Johnson." He "had visited these people. And they (now) sent him to Congress". Immediately upon his election to Congress, Lyndon Johnson began solidifying his hold upon the office. He reached out to the opponents he had just defeated, converting them into allies who would stay beside him till the end of his political career. He set up an incredible network across the Tenth District to service the needs of his constituents. No need was to small to address; in fact, Johnson inundated his constituents with letters asking them if there was anything he could help them with as their representative in Washington, D. C. Over the years, Lyndon Johnsonís constituency and power would grow but it all began with the unlikely victory in Central Texas in 1937 which was so linked to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.


All quotations are from Robert A. Caroís The Path To Power, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, 1982)

© L. Patrick Hughes, 1999