Tags: Presidential History | don totten | obituary | ronald reagan | barry goldwater | illinois

Don Totten: A Reaganite 'for All the Right Reasons'

ronald reagan tilts his head slightly to the left and smiles
The late Don Totten was Illinois campaign chairman of Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in 1976. (AP)

Monday, 08 April 2019 06:27 AM Current | Bio | Archive

For historians and political "junkies," 1976 is not too far in the past to recall it as a time when people still actually volunteered for campaigns.

The term "paid consultant" was years away from joining the lexicon, and few folks got rich managing candidates for office or handling their press work.

A campaign headquarters was located in an accessible storefront rather than an office building. People, for the most part, got involved with candidates because they had strong feelings about issues.

It was in that atmosphere that state Sen. Don Totten signed on as Illinois campaign chairman of Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign and as political director of the Reagan effort in the Midwest. 

Whether one was a seasoned conservative from the Goldwater campaign of 1964 or just coming of age at the time of Reagan ’76, Totten's death April 4 at age 86 brought back rich memories of a time when political activism was motivated by cause and candidate.

Totten was a Notre Dame graduate and mechanical engineer who had served in the both houses of the Illinois State legislature. His reading about the ancient Greeks and his early involvement with Goldwater's presidential bid cemented his conservatism.

It was an easy decision for him to side with the right-of-center Republicans who felt their party had grown too fond of big government and too soft on the Soviet Union under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

With Gerald Ford an incumbent President (albeit one who succeeded to office after being appointed vice president and had never won votes outside his former U.S. House district in Grand Rapids, Michigan), GOP office-holders were reluctant to embrace the insurgent Reagan.

As incredible as it now seems, only a handful of office-holders supported the former California governor for president in 1976: six U.S. Senators, 10 U.S. Representatives, one governor, and a handful of party and local state officials — people like Totten.

"I met him in Chicago six weeks before the '76 Illinois primary where I had come from my home state of New Jersey to help on the grassroots campaign there along with other Reagan youth staffers from around the country," former Reagan campaign aide and Reagan administration official Gary Hoitsma recalled to Newsmax. "Don gave us a pep talk and sent us on our way. He assigned me to help in Rock Island County where I would end up managing phone banks, organizing volunteers and helping advance several Reagan visits to the state."

Hoitsma pointed out "like other Reagan state chairmen I met that year, Totten was not some big household name on the make to advance himself in the Republican hierarchy. Rather, he was in it for all the right reasons to help Reagan and at great risk to himself politically by bucking the establishment."  

After heartbreakingly narrow losses to Ford in New Hampshire and Florida primaries, Reagan went down in Illinois 3-2. It was not until April in North Carolina the Californian finally defeated Ford in a primary. He then began to sweep primaries and state conventions.  Reagan came within 100 votes of denying nomination at the national convention to President Ford, who went on to lose in the fall to Jimmy Carter.

When Reagan coasted to nomination and election in 1980, Totten was again on his team. He was also working to secure Illinois' ratification of the Balanced Budget Amendment and other conservative causes.

In 1982, Totten sought nomination for lieutenant governor. Moderate Republican Gov. Jim Thompson was a sworn enemy, and gave his full backing to close ally and House Speaker George Ryan.

"And you must remember that Reagan's conservatism was still viewed as an insurgency in 1982," said Terry Campo, former national chairman of the Young Republicans, who was recruited at age 17 by Totten to attract youth into the party. "The Tax and Budget Acts did not kick in until Jan. 1 and thus had no impact on roaring double-digit inflation and unemployment by the time of the Republican primary in March."

Totten placed third in the lieutenant governor, behind the triumphant Ryan and State Sen. Susan Catania (a liberal Republican who ran a one-issue campaign based on her support of the Equal Rights Amendment).

Totten never held elective office after 1982. But his passion for politics never dimmed. He later served as Cook County Republican Chairman and continued to encourage young people to get into politics no matter what the odds seemed against their winning.

"Don Totten was a key figure in Ronald Reagan's election and in such conservative causes as the Balanced Budget Amendment," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who knew Totten since the 1970's. "The big question for conservatives now is where are we going to find the next Don Tottens?"

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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Don Totten's death April 4 at age 86 brought back rich memories of a time when political activism was motivated by cause and candidate, according to Newsmax's John Gizzi.
don totten, obituary, ronald reagan, barry goldwater, illinois
Monday, 08 April 2019 06:27 AM
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