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Remembering Ex-Rep. Jim Martin — The Man Who Put Alabama On Republican Path

Remembering Ex-Rep. Jim Martin — The Man Who Put Alabama On Republican Path
Representative James Martin, Republican of Alabama, in his office in Gadsden, Ala., in 1965. Associated Press.

Saturday, 16 December 2017 05:20 PM Current | Bio | Archive

During a recent discussion of Alabama’s upcoming “race of the year” for U.S. Senator with Rep. Robert Aderholt (R.-Ala), I observed how his state’s politics had changed so dramatically in 55 years.

In 1962, when Republican Jim Martin’s party was in the proverbial telephone booth, the Gadsden oil distributor made national headlines by nearly unseating a four-term Democratic U.S. Senator.  In 2017, controversial Republican Roy Moore’s main hope of staving off defeat for the Senate was that Alabama was so solidly Republican. 

“And Jim just died about a month ago [October 30],” Aderholt said, “He was from Gadsden, which is in my district. I went to the funeral and there was a big turnout of folks. Jim was 99. And he was quite a guy.”

He was. 

Although his only electoral win was one term in the House (1964-66) and his last race was nearly four decades ago, James Douglas Martin was mourned throughout the Yellowhammer State as if he had actually been governor or U.S. Senator. His role in transforming Alabama from “safe Democrat” to “safe Republican” made Martin a truly consequential figure in post-war Southern politics.

A self-employed oil distributor and U.S. Army veteran who served under Gen. George Patton in World War II, Martin was a lifelong Democrat whose only elected office was the presidency of his local Kiwanis Club. But in 1962, sensing change in the air, he declared himself a Republican and announced a challenge to Democratic Sen. Lister Hill.

Martin’s dark good looks and articulate speaking style commanded audiences, as did his appearances with wife Patricia (Miss Alabama of 1955). He ran hard on states’ rights, free enterprise, and slammed 24-year-incumbent Hill as a puppet of the Kennedy Administration. 

Although the Republican National Committee wrote off his chances, national conservative publications such as Human Events and National Review successfully solicited donations for Martin nationwide. Operation Dixie, a program headed by Virginia Republican I. Lee Potter to assist Republican candidates in the South, also pumped major dollars to the Martin coffers. 

Soon, the Republican raised enough money to put up billboards touting his candidacy and hire a country Western band for his rallies. 

In September, Republicans got an unexpected boost when the Kennedy Administration deployed troops to integrate the University of Mississippi. Martin hit that hard, denouncing what he called the “invasion of Mississippi”—but carefully avoiding the racist language that typified many Democratic politicians of the time such as gubernatorial nominee George Wallace.

In November, Martin stunned his state and the nation by drawing 49.1 percent of the vote to Hill’s 201,937—or a loss by 6,019 votes out of more than 360,000 cast.  Times were clearly beginning to change.

In 1964, as Martin’s political hero Barry Goldwater swept Alabama in the presidential race, Martin and four other Republicans became the first in their party to win election to the U.S. House since Reconstruction. The new congressman, who voted against the Voting Rights Act in ’65, did not have plans to stay around long.

A year later, Martin made what friends and admirers agree was his biggest tactical error. Rather than opt for the very winnable Senate race, he chose instead to run for governor—and wound up facing Lurleen Wallace, wife of termed-out Gov. George Wallace. Running under the slogan “Two Governors, One Fight,” the Wallaces made clear Lurleen would “mind the store” while George — then at the height of his popularity for fighting school desegregation — would run for President in two years.

Martin lost by a margin of nearly 2-to-1, and Lurleen Wallace even swept the black vote.

Jim Martin made two more races. In 1972, when Republicans had grown so much they held their first primary, he lost the nomination for U.S. Senator. Six years later, at age 60 with his black hair silver, Martin carried his party’s banner in the special election to fill the seat of the late Democratic Sen. James B. Allen.

With solid business backing against Democratic State Sen. Donald Stewart, a foe of utility companies and a labor-oriented liberal, Martin’s moment appeared to have arrived. But it wasn’t to be, as Stewart won by a margin of 55-to-43 percent. Noting that Alabama was changing and Martin’s championship of states’ right no longer packed the punch it did, the Birmingham News concluded: “[H]is failure to draw more black and labor support cost him the race.”

But the groundwork he laid had begun to yield results. In 1980, Jeremiah Denton became Alabama’s first Republican senator since Reconstruction and in ’86, the Republicans captured the governorship for the first time in a century with Guy Hunt, who got started in politics in Martin’s 1962 race (and who named Martin commissioner of natural resources and conservation). 

For several years, Alabama Republicans have held all statewide offices, nearly all of the U.S. House seats, and firm majorities in both houses of the legislature. Until Moore’s defeat by Democrat Doug Jones December 12, both Senate seats had been in GOP hands for twenty years.

“Alabama politics would not have been the same had Jim Martin not made that race back in 1962,” said Rep. Aderholt, “He was a man of consequence, all right, and quite a guy.” 

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

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During a recent discussion of Alabama's upcoming "race of the year" for U.S. Senator with Rep. Robert Aderholt (R.-Ala), I observed how his state's politics had changed so dramatically in 55 years.
jim martin, alabama, republican, roy moore, doug jones
Saturday, 16 December 2017 05:20 PM
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