This year’s Republican presidential campaign continues to have surprises, but it doesn’t compare with the party’s decision-making in 1920.
It is a story of a multi-ballot GOP convention and decision-making in a smoke-filled room in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. But it is also a story with a Wisconsin twist.
It took 10 ballots for the Republican nomination convention to select conservative Warren Harding as its nominee. He had gone to the convention with less than 10 percent of the delegates needed. The party’s power brokers opted for Harding as a compromise.
Then to balance the ticket with a candidate from a different part of the GOP political spectrum, the brokers offered the vice presidential nomination to U.S. Sen. Hiram Johnson of California, a leader in the Progressive movement. Johnson rejected the offer.
Then the brokers turned to U.S. Sen. Irvine Lenroot of Wisconsin, who also had a strong progressive record. He accepted the offer, but it would come unglued.
When his name was put in nomination, the delegates had spent a hot and humid week in Chicago and were ready for their own action. Air conditioning was far in the future.
With Lenroot’s name in nomination, a retired judge from Oregon stood up on a chair and began to shout “Coolidge, Coolidge, Coolidge!” The Massachusetts governor had broken a Boston police strike in 1919.
The judge would later say that having a Harding-Lenroot ticket would be too many senators. The convention selected Coolidge, a conservative, over Lenroot on the first ballot. The Wisconsin senator received just 146 delegate votes. So much for ticket- balancing.
Harding would die in 1923 and Coolidge would serve as president for five years after winning the 1924 presidential nomination.
How would American history have unfolded had Lenroot been the president?
Lenroot had been an early supporter of the Progressive Era politics of Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette. But the two split over the 1912 presidential election. Lenroot had tried to prevent the separate presidential bid by Teddy Roosevelt.
Lenroot served in the Wisconsin Assembly from 1901 to 1909, serving as speaker in 1903 and 1905. He would serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1909 until 1918. La Follette and Lenroot would reconcile, but split again over the draft and entry into World War I.
Unexpected things can transform politics. In 1914 Wisconsin elected Paul Husting of Mayville, a progressive Democrat, to the U.S. Senate. He defeated Francis McGovern, the two-term governor who is credited with signing key Progressive- sought laws such as the graduated state income tax and workers’ compensation.
But Husting died after being accidentally shot by his brother while duck hunting trip on Rush Lake in Winnebago County. Lenroot would win the special election called to fill Husting’s seat. It would give Republicans the majority in the U.S. Senate.
The Senate seat would provide national attention for Lenroot, whose home was in Superior.
Now, in 2016, Republicans could be headed to a national convention in which it will take multi ballots to select its nominees.
Donald Trump, a newcomer to elective politics, has had the party’s leaders scrambling to head off his brand of outspoken politics.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has joined the anti-Trump movement by endorsing U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. In turn that has produced speculation in corners that Walker might be the party’s vice presidential nominee.
Walker has said such talk is “pretty premature.”
Pommer, known as the “dean” of State Capitol correspondents, has covered government action in Madison for 36 years, including the actions of nine governors. The content in this column does not reflect the views or opinions of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association or its member newspapers.