Miller Center

JFK, LBJ, & the Midterm Elections of 1962 and 1966

By David Coleman


As the 1966 election season got under way, Republicans hoped to use the occasion to undo some of the damage that had been done to the national party by the 1964 Democratic landslide. Part of the new strategy involved a move away from the kind of ultra-conservative Republicanism that had proved so disastrous at the polls in Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign and a move toward a more moderate brand of Republicanism.

The shift evidently resonated with voters, and on election day, Republican gains were impressive. They picked up 3 Senate seats, 47 House seats, and 8 governerships. Although the Democrats still held majorities in both houses, Republican gains signaled new opportunities to thwart many of the more liberal initiatives of Johnson's Great Society program. But the results did not yet reflect the kind of antiwar sentiment that would crystalize two years later--the general tenor of those elected in 1966 was still of support for the Johnson administration's Vietnam policies.

The 1966 election served as a launching pad for a number of 1968 presidential hopefuls and others who would come to prominence in the Republican party. Michigan Governor George Romney not only won his own election easily but also helped several Congressional candidates from the state win passage to Washington. Ronald Reagan won California's gubernatorial race in a landslide. Although he was not seeking office himself in 1966, Richard Nixon emerged during the campaign as one of the party's most vocal and visible critics of the Johnson White House. And the 7th district of Texas elected a new freshman congressman: George H.W. Bush.

Just five days before the election, LBJ and Humphrey touch base briefly. They criticize Richard Nixon's criticism of the Manila Conference on Vietnam and mention a few key gubernatorial races for which Humphrey gives optimistic assessments that would ultimately prove to be incorrect.

LBJ and Vice President try to put a positive spin on disappointing election results, in the process criticizing the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was one of the most powerful Democrats in the country. As head of a vastly influential political machine, he was responsible for the election of much of Illinois's Democratic congressmen.

The Democratic primaries in Illinois served as a test of political strength of Daley and the Illinois political machine he headed. A series of primary and other votes on June 15, 1966, reaffirmed Daley's continuing influence despite concerted attacks from critics leading up to the votes. Johnson called Daley to congratulate him and to ask him to feed him any information about anyone in the administration or Democrats in Congress that might be leaking to critics.

In Kansas, Robert Docking, the son of a former Kansas Democratic governor, defeated the incumbent Republican governor William H. Avery in a tight race. Johnson called to congratulate him and apologize for having to cancel his campaign appearance in the state due to health issues.

Almost a month before the elections, LBJ speaks with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley about the prospects for Democrats in Illinois, and Daley urges LBJ to make a campaign visit to the state.


As the 1962 election campaign started, early indications were that the year would be a good one for Republicans. Although Democrats held a strong majority in both houses, the Kennedy administration could not count on a working majority on many of the major domestic legislative issues it sought, ranging from Medicare to a farm bill and Civil Rights legislation. Southern Conservative Democrats--especially influential committee chairs in the House--could not be counted on to share and support the administration's agenda. Seeking a more reliable majority, Kennedy urged voters to give the Democrats just a few more seats, arguing that it could make the difference for passage of controversial legislation on social issues like Medicare, public works, and mass transit. Echoing arguments he had made forcefully during his own election campaign two years previously, at a July 23 press conference, Kennedy painted Congressional Republicans as negative and unimaginative on domestic issues. But as the campaign progressed, prospects for the Democrats were widely seen as improving, raising the prospect of bucking the traditional midterm Congressional losses for the party that held the White House.

Republicans sought to focus on national security issues, questioning the Kennedy administration's will and competence to stand up to the Communist threat. Sensing an opening on the issue of Cuba, a political vulnerability for Kennedy since the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, and seizing upon a growing flood of refugee reports that suggested that the Soviet Union was transforming Cuba into a offensive military base, potentially with long-range nuclear missiles, Republicans in Congress attempted to paint the President and his party as weak on national security. Some Republicans, such as California gubernatorial candidate and former Vice President Richard Nixon went so far as to call for a US invasion of Cuba to halt the military build up there. They were thwarted, however, in making political gain on the Cuba issue once the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis broke just weeks before the election. Even then, some Republicans charged that the White House had manufactured and manipulated the crisis for political ends. Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona accused the administration of playing politics with national security, and Representative Thomas Curtis of Missouri told voters that the missile crisis was "phony and contrived for political purposes."1

On election day (November 6), Democrats suffered only light losses of four seats in the House (from 263 to 259 while Republicans went from 174 to 176) and gained four seats in the Senate (from 64 to 68 while Republicans went from 36 to 32). The gubernatorial equation remained unchanged, with 34 Democrat and 16 Republican governors. Among the more notable gubernatorial races was that of California, where the incumbent, Pat Brown, defeated his high profile challenger, former Vice President Richard Nixon.

In this telephone call, the only two men to have ever beaten Richard Nixon in elections compared notes. The call took place the day after the November 6, 1962, mid-term elections. 

Pat Brown, a Democrat, had won re-election as Governor of California, beating Republican challenger and former Vice President, Richard M. Nixon. In publicly conceding on the morning of November 7, Nixon had blamed the press for his defeat, famously declaring to gathered reporters that "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference." Political commentators regarded Nixon's political career over.

  • 1. Quoted in Thomas G. Paterson and William J. Brody, "October Missiles and November Elections: The Cuban Missile Crisis and American Politics, 1962," Journal of American History, 73, 1 (June 1986), p.87.

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