When former Virginia Gov. Harry Byrd sought the Democratic nomination for President in 1932, all he really did was declare for the office and secure the support of his state’s delegation to the national party convention in Chicago that year. With at least three national contenders for the nomination, Byrd was one of a hoard of fellow “favorite sons” — candidates who had the backing of their states only, as well as optimism that lightning might strike. It almost did; according to Steve Neal’s gripping book on the ’32 Democratic convention, Happy Days Are Here Again, New York Gov. and Democratic front-runner Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign manager James A. Farley offered the Virginian second place on a ticket headed by FDR in order to break a convention deadlock. Byrd didn’t bite, still clearly hoping the delegates would turn to him. After the third ballot, one of the major candidates, House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas threw in the towel, urged his delegates to back Roosevelt. He did, and on the fourth ballot, FDR became the Democratic nominee. Garner became his runningmate. The rest, as they say, is history.
Last week, more than a year before the national party convention, another former Virginia governor became the first casualty of the ’08 Republican nomination battle. Jim Gilmore — U.S. Army veteran, former prosecutor and state attorney general and governor of the Old Dominion — never made it to the convention and, unlike Byrd, never got to ask his home state’s Republicans to make him their favorite son. (Would it have done any good? Under a party rule enacted at the 1972 convention, a candidate cannot be placed in nomination for President at a national convention unless he has a majority of delegates from at least five states). Since January, Gilmore had raised about $381,000 — compared to tens of millions of dollars raked in by leading rivals John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney.
In short, Gilmore lost the so-called “first primary” — the race for the money.
“We’ve reached a point where it is the people who can raise the big money — the Pioneers or Rangers [top level of Bush fund-raisers] or whatever — who are determining the nomination,” Gilmore told me last week, two days after he became the first of the ten announced GOP presidential hopefuls to withdraw from the race, “And it’s reducing the strength of the party — the party leaders and activists.”
Gilmore recalled how “it used to be:” when Republicans would meet in convention, sculpt a platform, and “select their own candidate. You couldn’t do it this time.”
The former governor pointed out that, given the new emphasis on major fund-raisers, candidates have to start out very early — “sometimes years in advance, as the front-running candidates have”– and, in Gilmore’s words, “We got in too late.” He added that the dollar-driven process has been “accentuated by state legislatures voting to move up primaries and by this media society of ours, with an insatiable desire for entertainment. This [early campaign] is wonderful entertainment to them.”
So what to do? Gilmore believes a total striking down of McCain Feingold and similar legislation that limit levels of donations to federal candidates is a critical necessity for candidates without vast personal wealth or high-powered nationwide contacts to have a chance at being nominated for President. He also has high hopes that the Internet and rapid spread of bloggers may breath new life into the party’s grass roots. The Bush-McCain backed comprehensive immigration bill collapsed, in Gilmore’s words, “because of the rebellion of the grass roots, and that was in large part due to the bloggers — they can rally massive support as individuals.”
I cited the fact that no less than eighteen states have elected new Republican chairmen since November — for the most part, younger and more conservative than their predecessors — and how I have heard them discuss a future movement to get out of taxpayer-funded presidential primaries and choosing national convention delegates through conventions and caucuses, as most states did up until the 1970’s. “I wish the young turks well in their effort to restore party control over the nomination process,” said Gilmore, but cautioned that legislatures wanting to mandate primaries and hold them when they desire would be a major obstacle.
As for the move to end the majority-of-five states rule and restoration of the one-state (favorite son) rule that many of the state chairmen are expected to push in Minneapolis next summer, Gilmore said “I’d support it.”
A FOOTNOTE: Unsuccessful at the national convention in 1932 and out of office, Byrd nonetheless got a new lease on his political life when President-elect Roosevelt tapped Sen. Claude Swanson (D-VA) as his secretary of the navy. In the special election to fill his seat, Byrd was the easy winner and went on to become a powerful conservative senator for the next thirty-two years. With rumors mounting that Sen. John Warner (R-VA) might step down next year, sources close to Gilmore told me he is “proceeding” with a Senate bid in the event there is an open seat.