The West Virginia Primary Election 60 years ago this month was one for the ages.
John Kennedy, the young Senator from Massachusetts, started his presidential campaign as a long shot against more experienced Democratic rivals, including Senator Hubert Humphrey.
Kennedy, who faced an anti-Catholic bias, decided to use the heavily-Protestant state of West Virginia as a proving ground for his candidacy. He and Humphrey spent nearly five weeks traveling the hills and hollows of the Mountain State in the Spring of 1960.
West Virginia Wesleyan Political Science Professor Robert Rupp is the author of The Primary That Made a President: John F. Kennedy and West Virginia. Rupp said retail politics were important, but Kennedy also made valuable use of television.
Kennedy had a dozen TV ads while Humphrey had none. Also, the two participated in a televised debate which, according to Rupp, was only the second such event in American politics.
And Kennedy spent lots of money—Rupp estimates as much as $1 million dollars—for an extensive statewide organization, advertising, a private plane and, of course, cash handouts to voters.
At the time, Southern West Virginia politics were dominated by political bosses who created slates of candidates. Candidates paid to be on the slate and then the political bosses handed out cash to voters to follow the slate.
One of the more infamous bosses was Raymond Chafin of Logan County. In his autobiography, Just Good Politics: The Life of Raymond Chafin, he describes how Kennedy operatives gave him $35,000 in cash to deliver votes. That amount would equal about $300,000 today.
“I’ll tell you what we did with it,” Chafin wrote. “We bought votes with it.”
Kennedy won big in Southern West Virginia, but also carried most of the rest of the state where vote buying was not as prevalent. He won 50 of the 55 counties. Rupp says that victory was a seminal moment of the campaign.
“By demonstrating that he could win Protestant support in a state with four percent Catholic population, the primary win propelled Kennedy to the Democratic presidential nomination,” Rupp said.
Rupp writes that Kennedy was deeply moved by the wrenching poverty he witnessed during the campaign here. Two of his legacies were the federal Food Stamp Program and the construction of Interstate 79.
Also, Kennedy never forgot the importance of his West Virginia victory. When he returned to Charleston in 1963 to participate in the state’s centennial celebration, he told the crowd, “I would not be where I am, I would not have some of the responsibilities which I now bear, if it had not been for the people of West Virginia.”
Rupp said it was also during that short speech on that rain-soaked day where Kennedy famously said, “The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do.”
Professor Rupp will be my guest on Talkline later this morning and we will revisit that historic Primary Election 60 years ago this month.