In 1968, Alabama’s Democratic former Governor George Wallace who had become a national figure with his “stand in the schoolhouse door” ran for President on the ticket of the “American Independent Party.” The candidacy despite coded words like “crime,” “law breakers,” and “patriotism” was about one thing- race. Wallace had been a populist earlier in his career and had in fact been considered a liberal on race in Alabama. But after losing the 1958 Democratic Primary for Governor he vowed to never be beaten on the issue again.
As Governor of Alabama, Wallace became the leading national opponent of President Johnson’s Civil Rights program connecting with the public in a way the old Senate dinosaurs who fought to protect the “southern way of life” through dilatory legislative tactics had failed.
Wallace obviously should have had some cross-border appeal but his showing in Florida was deeply disturbing. Wallace won the majority of Florida counties and despite Richard Nixon’s victory in the state, he needed to run up big vote totals in urban centers, most importantly St Petersburg, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale to carry the state. Democratic nominee, liberal Hubert Humphrey carried Dade County, the most populated county in the southeast at the time by a very wide margin but otherwise only carried sparsely populated Monroe (the Keys) and college dominated Alachua, both by small margins. Still the big numbers in Dade were enough to give Humphrey more statewide votes than Wallace who had won 34 Florida counties, including every county north of Gainesville both to the east and west as well as Dixie oriented counties of Okeechobee, Glades, Hardee, DeSoto, Polk and Sumter in the state’s interior. At the time Dade has close to 1/4 of Florida’s voters, and Miami was at the time more like a northeastern city than a Southern or Midwestern one.
The same day the racial backlash claimed the political career of a great Floridian, Leroy Collins. Collins was defeated by Ed Gurney for US Senate, giving the state its first Republican Senator since the carpetbagger governments of the Reconstruction era. Collins had been a mild segregationist as Governor (every elected Florida Democrat at the time was a segregationist- it was a requirement to win the Democratic nomination for any office in the state) but had resisted attempts by the legislature to shut down Florida’s public schools rather than admitting black students and had been instrumental in trying to negotiate a settlement at Selma in 1965. Pictures of Collins with the recently murdered Martin Luther King Jr, circulated across the state leading to Gurney gaining an estimated half of the registered Democrats voting for him.
Gurney was a reactionary conservative from Brevard County (which became Republican during the space program boom of the early 1960s) and would later go onto great infamy with personal scandal and his pathetic defense of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate Scandal.
Collins efforts to make Florida a modern state were used against him by Gurney and the Republicans. The son of a Tallahassee grocer was beat badly in rural areas by a Maine born, Harvard educated carpetbagger. Half the state’s Democrats mostly native southerners voted for a carpetbagger Republican. The irony of ironies in an election where George Wallace carried 29% of the statewide vote carrying every county north of Gainesville, and in all of those counties Gurney won, becoming the first Republican ever to carry many of them for any office. Richard Nixon won Florida, just as he had in 1960, but this time the combined Wallace/Nixon (conservative) vote was close to 70% of Florida’s electorate. At the time registered Democrats still represented the vast majority of voters in the state.
Collins won (Miami) Dade by a nearly 2 to 1 margin and as noted above that was then nearly 1/4 of the state’s vote. But in the rest of the state, the former Governor whose legend would only grow in future years was beaten badly, carrying just Alachua, Monroe and Hillsborough counties.
Thankfully in 1970 the racial backlash would end and Florida would elect statewide for the first time two of the greatest men to ever hold public office in the state- Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles. However in 2016, Florida produced a candidate for President echoing many of Wallace’s themes in the former of US Senator and former Florida Speaker of the House Marco Rubio.
Rubio’s brand of racial and social conservatism is matched by equally right-wing ideas on economics unlike Wallace’s. I recently watched a Firing Line with William F. Buckley episode from 1968 and it was obvious that Wallace wanted to keep some of his credibility as a fiscal populist/liberal. Wallace challenged Buckley on public spending for hospitals, roads and schools. Rubio on the other hand has a clear vision of the world and the United States that mixes Wallace-esque race-baiting and cultural themes with supply-side economics. Rubio also is willing to associate openly with allies that use the N-word in a non-coded way and that no doubt is designed to maximize his appeal to Wallace voters.
The attempts to claim the sitting President is treasonous or has committed sedition by Senator Rubio fits in well with the Wallace and Nixon themes from 1968 regarding those who opposed the Vietnam War. But both Wallace and Nixon stopped claiming war critics who were elected officials such as Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas), Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Oregon) or Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-California) were “deliberately weakening America,” a claim Rubio has thrown out toward the current occupant of the White House who happens to be African-American.
It’s difficult to know what Rubio really believes, but his rhetoric and willingness to use colorful language to describe the matters of importance to this nation and the world no along with his anti-intellectualism doubt must classify him as an heir to both the Nixon and Wallace legacies.