Deadlocked Conventions

By Beacon Staff

There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
‘Til except for their nails, and the tips of their tails
Instead of two cats there weren’t any.

Thus, according to the old Irish rhyme, the Kilkenny cats devoured each other. One wonders if today they might be named Mitt and Newt.

It is possible that both frontrunner Mitt Romney and his main rival, Newt Gingrich, will have so dismembered and discredited each other by the time of the Republican National Convention that neither will be able to secure their party’s presidential nomination.

Clearly Libertarian Republican Ron Paul is plotting for such a possibility as much as Christian Conservative Rick Santorum is praying for it. At the very least, they could be powerful bargainers for the beliefs of their devoted followers in a deadlocked convention.

The last time a national nominating convention went beyond the first ballot of voting was in 1952 and that is the beginning of a history lesson perhaps relevant to 2012.

Though General Dwight Eisenhower was far more popular with most Republicans, the Montana state Republican convention sent a slate of delegates to their national convention pledged to Eisenhower’s chief rival, Sen. Robert Taft. Ike prevailed on the second round of voting, but the Montanans pledged to Taft remained “bitter-enders” for him.

To avoid future unrepresentative convention delegations, for the 1956 presidential election Montana returned to a presidential primary election, as it had first done during the progressive era in the early 1900s when William Howard Taft, the father of Robert, was accused of stealing the Republican nomination from the more popular Theodore Roosevelt.

Eisenhower was a mortal cinch to be renominated in 1956. But there was a complication. In 1955 he had suffered a serious heart attack that had kept him bedridden for nine weeks. There was a possibility that he would have to withdraw before the convention for health reasons.

Lingering in the background was the “dump Nixon” factor. In some Republican circles there was no love for then Vice President Richard Nixon, and there was a quietly expanding movement to purge him from the ticket.

Perhaps because he appeared certain to be renominated, but still, rather mysteriously, Eisenhower’s name was not entered on the Republican ballot for Montana’s presidential primary in 1956. The only Republican candidate for president on the Montana ballot that year was S. C. Arnold. Never heard of him? Few people have. He had been a long-time state legislator and had been appointed secretary of state in 1955.

Long before preparing to write this column, S.C. (Steve) Arnold had been identified to me as one of the leading figures in the old Anaconda Company Montana political organization. The ACM was still a potent power in Montana politics in the 1950s, and its operatives missed few opportunities. If the unexpected were to happen, either with Eisenhower or Nixon, an independent Montana delegation might be in a unique bargaining position at the national convention. For the Company, Steve Arnold would have been the right guy to take care of business for whatever could be obtained for Montana in a brokered convention.

Whether or not my interpretation of the facts surrounding Montana’s role in the 1956 Republican convention is completely correct, Montana Republicans should be aware of the example. If our delegates go committed to any of the existing candidates, they could simply become locked in the catfight. If they go uncommitted they could be key to getting out of it.

Bob Brown is a former Republican Montana secretary of state and state Senate president. He lives in Whitefish.