Congressman Carroll Reece Goes Back To Congress

From the author’s personal collection. Carroll Reece (left) and Roy Acuff (right) campaigning together in 1948.
From the author’s personal collection.
Carroll Reece (left) and Roy Acuff (right) campaigning together in 1948.

By Ray Hill

For decades Tennessee was a one-party state, dominated by the Democrats. The exceptions were the First and Second Congressional districts in East Tennessee. Despite being the minority party, Republicans were perfectly capable of fighting amongst themselves and the Tennessee GOP was frequently highly factionalized. Fights in both the First and Second Congressional Districts highlighted the differences between Republicans.

Carroll Reece had represented the First Congressional district for twenty-four years from 1920 until he voluntarily retired in 1946, with one two-year exception when he had been upset in the 1930 election by an Independent, O. B. Lovette. Reece had retired because he had been elected Chairman of the Republican National Committee and had presided over the greatest GOP victory since 1928 and the coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Republicans captured both houses of Congress under Reece’s leadership. The Republican revival was so significant and the Democrats so divided it appeared there might be an opportunity for the GOP to win statewide in Tennessee. Carroll Reece ran for the United States Senate while country music entertainer Roy Acuff made a bid for governor. Incumbent senator Tom Stewart had been defeated in the Democratic primary by Chattanooga Congressman Estes Kefauver. Nationally, the Democrats were also deeply divided; Harry Truman had won the presidential nomination over the opposition of many Democrats and the party platform offended Southern Democrats, who bolted and formed the States’ Rights Party. Henry A. Wallace, former Secretary of Agriculture and vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, formed the Progressive Party, challenging Truman from the far left.

Even with Tennessee Democrats divided, they were not so divided as to allow the Republicans an opportunity to win statewide. Reece lost badly to Kefauver, running behind his ticket mate Roy Acuff, winning only roughly 34% of the vote. Still, Carroll Reece made the most credible race for the United States Senate in Tennessee by a Republican since 1916 until Howard Baker’s first campaign in 1964.

Sixty-one years old in 1950, Carroll Reece eyed a comeback inside his old First Congressional district. His successor in Congress was Dayton Phillips, who had been a local district attorney. Phillips had won a hotly contested multi-candidate primary in 1946 and was reelected in 1948.

From the moment it appeared Carroll Reece was contemplating yet another Congressional campaign, Dayton Phillips knew he was going to be hard pressed to win. Reece had been hailed as a hero during World War I and had been in Congress during the decade of the 1920s when he had fought bitterly with Second District Congressman J. Will Taylor over patronage and supremacy inside the Tennessee Republican Party. Reece had never quite bested the wily “Hillbilly Bill”, but once Taylor died in 1939, he had been ascendant inside his own party. Reece was well connected, not only inside his old Congressional district, but in Washington, D. C. where he had served for decades. He was married to the former Louise Goff, daughter of Guy Goff, who had served in the United States Senate from West Virginia. In fact, Mrs. Reece’s grandfather had been a congressman and senator from West Virginia as well. Goff had also been quite wealthy and Carroll Reece had become rich as well. Reece was involved in a number of businesses and published the Bristol Herald Courier.

Carroll Reece’s campaign was superbly well organized, down to the precinct level and it was well-funded. Reece also had the good will of many thousands of people inside the district, as he had perfumed countless favors for constituents during his years in Congress.

The two men were quite a contrast in personalities and appearance. Reece was silver-haired, looked like a congressman, and yet was a personable and an able campaigner. Dayton Phillips was frequently described as “lanky” and “rustic”. Bill Freehoff, who wrote a column called the “Political Pinwheel” for the Kingsport News noted Phillips was not a good “after dinner speaker”, but felt “on the stump he is hard to beat.”

According to Mr. Freehoff, Dayton Phillips came into his own while touring the rural courthouses of the district.

“His rustic, biting humor, his impassioned appeals to the likes and dislikes of his listeners; his apparent sense of self-righteous indignation when he is answering an opponent’s charge – – – all these and other forensic abilities serve Phillips well during a campaign.”

Freehoff noted a comparison Dayton Phillips likely enjoyed, comparing Phillips to Abraham Lincoln for like Lincoln, Phillips had been born in a log cabin and had split rails in his youth. Perhaps Dayton Phillips’ greatest political talent was his ability to connect with the average person, selling himself as the “common man”.

The lawyer from Shell Creek had not been Reece’s candidate in 1946 or 1948. Yet, Phillips would now face the most formidable candidate the Reece faction had to offer: Carroll Reece himself.

Reece had spent his time out of Congress mending his political fences and many important Republicans inside the First District who had been mad, miffed, or otherwise put out with the former Congressman now returned to the fold. Reece was also allied with Guy Smith, the editor of the Knoxville Journal as well as the Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. Smith was backing the candidacy of Howard Baker, Sr. against the sitting Congressman in the Second District, John J. Jennings. Both Congressmen Jennings and Phillips were facing serious challenges inside their own party in 1950.

Carroll Reece had initially decided he was never going to run for office again after having lost the Senate race in 1948. As Republican National Chairman, Reece had quietly supported the presidential candidacy of Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft. Reece had believed once elected, Taft would reward him with a cabinet post. Unfortunately for Reece, Taft was beaten in the GOP convention by New York governor Thomas E. Dewey.

Just as the primary campaign was beginning, Dayton Phillips received some unexpected and likely unwanted help from Pennsylvania Congressman Hugh Scott, who called out Carroll Reece in a radio interview. Scott had succeeded Reece as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, personally selected by the 1948 presidential nominee, Governor Thomas E. Dewey. The 1948 election in contrast to that of 1946, had been a disaster for the GOP. There very well may have been some ill feeling between Scott and Carroll Reece as the Tennessean had been involved in an attempt to remove the Pennsylvania congressman from his post, which he only narrowly survived.

Scott contended the Republican Party in Tennessee and much of the South was weak precisely because of Republicans like Carroll Reece who made “behind the door” arrangements. The behind the door arrangement in Tennessee, Scott said, was between Reece and E. H. Crump, leader of the Shelby County political machine. Congressman Scott pointed out Reece’s newspaper was a “Democratic paper” while Reece continued to serve as Republican National Committeeman for Tennessee.

Scott’s comments brought an angry retort from the Memphis Boss, who snarled, “It’s because of such ignorance the Republicans have been losing for years. We’ve never had a deal of any kind with Carroll Reece or any other Republican.”

Reece gave as well as he got, snapping that “Scott, who led the party to a political Waterloo in 1948…seems to want to impute to me the consequences of his own action.”

Scott obviously did not understand Tennessee politics and any arrangement with the Republicans in East Tennessee was not through Crump, but rather through Senator Kenneth D. McKellar, who was highly popular in East Tennessee. Nor did Senator McKellar much like Carroll Reece personally.

The contest between Dayton Phillips and Carroll Reece kicked off with the annual Lincoln Day Dinner in Johnson City. Held at the John Sevier Hotel in February, both men were present for the event and posed for pictures for photographers. Both men were wearing broad smiles, but those faded as the campaign dragged out to August. Reece had not officially announced his candidacy; that came in May when the former congressman noted there was almost “an unprecedented demand” that he run to reclaim his seat in the Congress.

Phillips received little press coverage from the event while Reece introduced the speaker for the evening, Congressman Clarence Brown of Ohio. Reece used his introduction to attack the Truman administration. Reece recalled during his tenure as Chairman of the Republican National Committee he had been asked to name one Communist in the government and he had simply replied, “Alger Hiss.” The Truman administration and possible Communist infiltration was a topic throughout Reece’s 1950 campaign.

Congressman Dayton Phillips knew that the odds favored Carroll Reece in the primary and he had little choice but to make an all out campaign. The contest grew increasingly shrill and bitter throughout the spring, into the summer. Phillips blasted Reece as a reactionary, while proclaiming himself as the friend of the common man. Reece was certainly more conservative than his successor and stressed the theme taxes were too high and denounced “radicals” in government. The former Congressman spoke darkly about “alien minded” people.

Phillips, in his effort to align himself with the average voter, tried to make an issue of Reece’s considerable wealth. Reece, speaking in Kingsport, his voice trembling with emotion, recalled how hard he had worked as a boy and told his audience he had slept on the floor of a school house in Mountain City to attend a function because he had no money to stay anywhere else. Reece also tried to deflect a charge made by Congressman Phillips that he had been weak on national defense prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire. Reece then criticized Phillips for having voted for huge sums for foreign aid, saying, “I wonder if it is advisable to spend millions abroad if there are veterans at home going without food or shelter.”

Congressman Phillips, frenetically moving throughout the First District, took the hide off Carroll Reece at every opportunity. He tried to drive home his point that Carroll Reece represented the special interests, while he looked after the common folk.

“He is interested now, like he has always been interested, in the welfare of the multimillionaires and big power trusts of this country from which he takes his dictation and instructions,” Phillips roared.

Once again, Dayton Phillips identified himself with the common man, modestly asserting, “On the other hand, I take my instructions from the people as a whole.” Quoting the old adage, “birds of a feather, flock together,” Congressman Phillips claimed he “flocked with the common people” while Reece “flocks with the privileged few.”

Phillips noted everywhere he went on the district, people told him privately the former congressman “had it long enough.”

In announcing his reelection campaign, Dayton Phillips had challenged Carroll Reece to appear with him on “every platform” in the district in joint debate, so the two could compare their respective records in Congress. Reece was not about to allow Dayton Phillips to set his agenda and ignored his opponent’s challenge.

Nor did Carroll Reece allow Dayton Phillips to make all the accusations during the primary campaign. Reece lambasted Phillips for not only having supported the administration of Harry Truman, but for having supposedly voted with Congressman Vito Marcantonio, an ultra-left leaning New Yorker who was thought, at the very least, of having Communistic sympathies. Reece accused Phillips of absenteeism while serving in Congress. Phillips replied that Reece had missed 341 roll call votes out of 612 during one term in Congress and in 1946 had missed 55 out of 66 votes as he was preparing to retire.

The two traded charges about foreign policy, with Phillips accusing Reece of having been an isolationist prior to World War II. According to Congressman Phillips, Carroll Reece had voted against vital national defense measures, which weakened the United States before American entry into World War II. Phillips bragged that he had voted for a “two ocean navy,” an atomic weapons program, as well as a 70-group Air Force, and stockpiling critical materials.

Reece said that Congressman Phillips lacked the necessary “understanding and responsibility during a period when the world is literally on fire.”

Congressman Phillips regularly reminded voters Reece refused to meet him in debate, while the former congressman reiterated to Republicans that he had repeatedly promised to support the Republican nominee, which Phillips had refused to do. Reece strongly suspected that if Phillips lost the GOP primary, he would promptly enter the general election as an Independent candidate. Phillips’ refusal to say he would support the winner of the Republican primary resonated with many Republicans.

Dayton Phillips was something of a maverick, while Carroll Reece was a traditional Republican. Appearing in Kingsport at an event sponsored by the local Young Republican Club, the former congressman attracted a sizable audience that filled the Civic Auditorium. Reece smoothly related he still believed in “sound and traditional Republican principles.” Yet again, Carroll Reece said he would abide by the decision of the Republican primary voters.

“I have never made a race as an independent and I shall not do so,” Reece told his audience.

Reece noted Dayton Phillips had once run for attorney general as an Independent candidate and his refusal to agree to support the Republican nominee in the general election “…indicates the same lack of loyalty that enabled him to desert the party and its principles in Washington and vote almost unerringly with Truman and his radical advisers on key issues.”

The former Congressman dismissed many of Phillips’ criticisms of his own record as the incumbent merely trying to “create confusion and stir up prejudice.”

Perhaps Dayton Phillips’ biggest mistake during the 1950 Republican primary in the First District had been openly charging Reece with having voted against several measures designed to benefit veterans, accusations that the former congressman quickly disproved.

Reece moved confidently through the crowd, shaking hands as the “Rainbow Valley Boys” provided musical entertainment.

If anything, Dayton Phillips picked up his attacks on the former congressman. Speaking in Lynn Garden before an audience of eighty people, he tore apart Reece’s voting record. One member of the press described Phillips’ remarks as surpassing the “bitterness and invective” of his 1948 campaign, which many had thought to be somewhat excessive. Phillips sarcastically went after “the multimillionaire” former congressman, even attacking Reece’s membership in the exclusive Chevy Chase Country Club.

Yet Carroll Reece continued to pile up endorsements. Some came from veteran’s groups, which rather put Congressman Phillips’ charges about Reece’s failure to support veterans in a bad light. Another endorsement was likely much more important; Ben W. Hooper, a resident of the First Congressional District and the last Republican to occupy the governor’s office, endorsed Carroll Reece. Hooper had endorsed Phillips in 1946 and many Republicans believed the former governor’s endorsement had been a critical factor in Phillips winning the primary.

The final vote between the two candidates was close; Reece won with 31,946 votes to 29,083 votes for Dayton Phillips. Carroll Reece won the Republican primary by a margin of 2,863 votes. Reece won ten of the fourteen counties inside the First Congressional District, losing only in Carter, Johnson, Unicoi, and Washington counties. Carter was Dayton Phillips’s home county, but he also won Johnson, which was Carroll Reece’s home county.

As Carroll Reece had predicted, Dayton Phillips did not accept the verdict of the Republican primary voters and announced he would run as an Independent in the general election. Reece also faced a young and inexperienced Democratic opponent in the general election, but neither was a real threat to the veteran former congressman. Carroll Reece easily won the election and remained in the House until his death from lung cancer in 1961. His widow, Louise, would be elected to finish out her late husband’s term and Dayton Phillips would try and return to Congress himself in 1962.

That year Dayton Phillips lost to another Republican, James H. “Jimmy” Quillen. Dayton Phillips’ Congressional career was over.

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