The 1966 Governor’s Race

On this week’s Florida History Podcast we discuss the 1966 Governor’s Race.

In 1966 Governor Haydon Burns was denied renomination by the Democrats who opted for liberal Miami Mayor Robert King High instead of the conservative Burns. This led to a mass exodus of Democrats from their ancestral party in the fall election, where they backed Republican Claude Kirk. With his win, Kirk became the first GOP Governor in 90 years and ushered in an apparent realignment in Florida politics.

You can listen to the Florida History Podcast on Anchor (which hosts our show), SpotifyGoogleApple PodcastsRadio PublicBreakerOvercastCastro or Pocket Casts. Overcast, Castro, Spotify, Radio Public and Breaker have App Store apps for free which enable you to subscribe and listen on your iPhone if you do not use the Apple Podcast app. We release a new episode weekly.

All the episodes can be found here

One comment

  1. Steve Schneider · ·

    Boy, this post makes me feel young again.


    It reminds me that my family moved from NYC to South Florida in 1966. I was too young to grasp much, but I remember that my “liberal” mother supported Robert King High.

    And, if my aging brain isn’t too frail, I think we were riding past North Miami Beach City Hall when we learned on the radio that our neighbor mayor had lost.

    Here’s a Wikipedia link on RKH:

    Here is some interesting detail:

    High first entered the race for governor in 1964. He announced that he would refuse to accept large campaign donations, and traveled the state in a DC-3. The Miami News was the only newspaper in the state to endorse High.[21] Until his candidacy, Democratic candidates for governor of Florida had supported segregation, some more strongly than others. The Democratic-dominated legislature at the turn of the century had passed a new constitution that disenfranchised most blacks, a status that was enforced until after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    High broke with the Democratic tradition, publicly supporting the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and promising to promote racial equality. He said that equal treatment of all Americans was the “most sensible issue of our times”.[22] High came in second out of five contenders in the Democratic primary, but lost the run-off to Jacksonville mayor Haydon Burns, who was elected as governor. (Florida had not elected a Republican governor since the end of Reconstruction, due to disenfranchisement of the black (and Republican) vote.)[23][24]

    In June 1965, High helped convince the American Football League to place an expansion franchise in Miami, which was named the Miami Dolphins.[25] Also in 1965, Governor Burns proposed a large highway construction bond issue for Florida. High campaigned vigorously against the road bond measure, and it was defeated. The same year High was re-elected to his fifth term as mayor of Miami.[26]

    1966 election
    High ran for governor again in 1966 under the slogan, “Integrity is the issue”. Governor Burns charged that Robert F. Kennedy was behind High’s campaign, pointing to three High campaign aides who had previously worked for Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy ally. Kennedy denied taking sides. High had been close to the late President John F. Kennedy; he was the first elected official in Florida to support Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. Burns claimed to have the support of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but the White House denied taking sides.[27] Many conservative Democrats in Florida were alienated by High’s racial views and ties to the Kennedys.[28] High was from Miami, and people in the rest of Florida believed that urban Miami and Dade County represented high taxes and liberalism; the region was considered suspect.[29]

    During the 1966 primary campaign, a seat became vacant on the Miami city commission. High appointed M. Athalie Range, a black woman, to the seat. Range had led in the primary for a seat on the commission in the 1965 election, but lost to a white man in the run-off by a small margin after her race was made an issue in the election. Range was the first black person to serve on the Miami City Commission. She twice won reelection on her own. Later she was the first black person appointed to head a Florida state agency.[30][31]

    High opponents tried to arouse segregationist white sentiments against him as the ‘black’ candidate. ‘Throwaways’, handouts with no attributed source, were circulated. One showed a pregnant black woman in a rocker, with the caption, “I went all the way with Robert King High”. Another had pictures of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Robert King High, and was labeled, “A poker hand one joker and a pair of Kings.” A photograph of High playing pickup football with some black newsboys was widely circulated.[32]

    High came in second in the primary, behind Burns. Scott Kelly, a conservative politician from rural northern Florida, who came in third in the primary, agreed to endorse High for the runoff, but did not plan to actively campaign. Governor Burns, however, charged that Kelly had offered to sell his support to Burns for $500,000, and that High had bought Kelly’s support. The Miami News noted that High had raised only $140,000, while Burns had raised one million dollars for the campaign. Burns had spent $2.19 for each vote he had received, while Kelly had spent $1.40, and High had spent 38 cents per vote. Calling the Burns charge “The Big Lie”, Kelly actively campaigned for High in the runoff.[33][34]

    High won the run-off by a sizable margin, getting 43% of the vote in Burns’ hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Kelly continued to work for High in the general election campaign. The High and Kelly campaign staff and, after the run-off, that part of the Burns campaign staff who joined the campaign, did not mix very well.[35] Burns refused to support High, and several of his Florida Cabinet officers (who were elected) actively campaigned for Claude Kirk, the Republican candidate for governor.[28]

    Although not endorsing Kirk, Burns placed much of his campaign organization at Kirk’s disposal.[36] In September Don Petit, a moderate liberal and High’s campaign manager, quit over differences with Scott Kelly. The conservative Kelly took over as campaign manager. Kelly was later replaced by Don Poorbaugh, another moderate liberal. The campaign had scheduling problems, causing High to be late for or to miss a number of campaign events. The campaign was seen as faltering and in disarray. Both liberal and conservative Democrats became disaffected with High.[37]

    Claude Kirk, the Republican candidate for governor, attacked High repeatedly. Kirk charged that under High, Miami had become the number two crime or ‘sin city’ in the country. Kirk called High an “extreme-liberal”,[28] an ultra-liberal and “a rubber stamp for Washington, backed by the ultra-liberals”, linking High to the Johnson administration. Kirk started asking campaign crowds if they wanted “open housing”. A new handout from a “Committee for Integrity in Government” showed a cartoon of High with the caption, “Black power is with you 100 percent, Bob, let’s march.” Kirk portrayed himself as pro-business, and accused High of not understanding the free-enterprise system.[38]

    Just before the election, Kirk charged that the Dade County Grand Jury was withholding indictments and information detrimental to High, which would have a direct bearing on the election. But the grand jury foreman said there were no un-issued indictments.[39] Kirk won the general election by about 160,000 votes, the first Republican to be elected governor of Florida since the end of the Reconstruction Era.[38]


%d bloggers like this: