21. John W. Bricker and the Slow Death of Old Guard Republicanism
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21 ROM THE time John William Bricker first appeared on the Ohio political scene in the mid-1920s, his future seemed especially promising. He came equipped with the requisite credentials. Born and raised on a small farm in Madison County, he became a popular student leader and athlete during his undergraduate days at The Ohio State University, from which he received a baccalaureate degree in 1916. After graduating from OSU School of Law in 1920, he established himself professionally in Columbus and participated in local Republican organizations while developing a wide network of friends and supporters. Extraordinarily popular with voters, he easily led the Republican ticket in four consecutive statewide elections during the 1930s. He also looked the part of a political leader. Ruggedly handsome, he carried two hundred pounds on a solid 6’2” frame topped by a mop of prematurely gray hair that provided an aura of maturity beyond his years. When he decisively won the governorship in 1938, Bricker was widely identified as a rising political star with the potential of becoming Ohio’s eighth president of the United States. That Bricker’s ascending political stardom did not propel him to the White House resulted from a rapidly changing political environment that left him stranded on the far right of the political spectrum, a problem he exacerbated with a series of strategic miscalculations. However, as Ohio’s attorney general, governor, and U.S. senator he placed his conservative stamp upon Ohio at a critical juncture of its history. His political career is especially instructive because it spanned three pivotal decades that saw Ohio buffeted by the pressure of severe depression, war, and unprecedented growth. 269 John W. Bricker and the Slow Death of Old Guard Republicanism F RICHARD O. DAVIES  vantne_3rd_chap21.qxd 11/10/2003 3:35 PM Page 269 270 BUILDERS OF OHIO At the start of Bricker’s career, the political power in the state resided in the overwhelmingly Republican rural counties. However, by the time of his surprising defeat for reelection for a third term as U.S. senator in 1958, Ohio’s urban areas had reached a position of dominance. The enormous expansion of heavy industry between 1940 and 1945 made Ohio a vital link in the nation’s defense program, and during the postwar years those industries responded to the challenges of economic reconversion as Ohio established itself as a leading manufacturing state. As Ohio’s steel mills, automobile-related manufacturers , petroleum refineries, coal mines, machine tool factories, and chemical plants expanded during World War II, they stimulated a heavy migration into Ohio’s industrial centers. African Americans and white Appalachians moved out of the rural South and into the urban North in huge numbers. They were joined in the cities by hundreds of thousands of native Buckeyes who left their farms and small towns in quest of greater economic opportunity. Between 1920 and 1960, FIG. 17 John W. Bricker. Courtesy of The Ohio State University Archives. vantne_3rd_chap21.qxd 11/10/2003 3:35 PM Page 270 271 JOHN W. BRICKER Ohio’s population increased by 80 percent, with two-thirds of Ohio’s 9,700,000 residents living in the rapidly expanding metropolitan areas. The political implications of this demographic transformation were enormous. New and complex issues defied easy resolution. Merely maintaining and expanding highways, public utilities, public school and university systems, and providing essential social services constituted a daunting challenge. Traditional ways of conducting the business of local and state government had to be revisited and new, more ambitious strategies adopted. Not surprisingly, the state’s political structure found itself in a period of vast change, producing a period of political instability and intense partisanship. Statewide elections were no longer relative simple battles between urban and rural factions, as they had been during the days when James Cox and Warren Harding bestrode the state’s political stage. New power blocs— in particular organized labor—emerged during this period and wielded enormous clout in statewide elections that made the fate of Republicans increasingly precarious. The two major political parties and their candidates now were faced by a much more complex set of issues and variables, including an increased racially and ethnically diverse electorate. Ohio became truly a two-party state with elections often turning on issues of the moment as well as the quality of candidates . The successful candidates were those who were capable of adapting to the new realities of Ohio. John Bricker did not prove to be one of...


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