Carroll Reece: Tennessee’s ‘Mr. Republican’ Part 15

Carroll Reece: Tennessee’s ‘Mr. Republican’ Part 15

By Ray Hill

Carroll Reece had served in Congress for a decade before unexpectedly losing reelection in the 1930 general election. Reece had been upset by Oscar B. Lovette, who had held several local offices as a Republican, but who ran in 1930 as an Independent. Waging an intense campaign over a period of ten days, Lovette managed to squeak by Reece. Reece was determined to run again in 1932, intent to reclaim his seat in the House of Representatives and never stopped campaigning. Carroll Reece was helped along by the administration of President Herbert Hoover, which continuously ignored the patronage recommendations of Congressman O. B. Lovette and instead rewarded followers of the former congressman instead with federal offices. Lovette had run in the Republican primary in 1932 and Reece shrewdly instantly agreed to abide by the results of the election and vowed to support his opponent if the congressman was the winner. Oscar Lovette adamantly refused to say whether he would support Reece if the former congressman were the GOP nominee, nor would he agree to abide by the results of the election. Reece won the Republican primary and Congressman Lovette instantly cried fraud and bolted the Republican Party and once again ran as an Independent in the general election. O. B. Lovette was not as fortunate in 1932 as he had been two years earlier, as the Democrats had nominated a young attorney who was a respectable candidate and came from a good family. Carroll Reece won the general election, although Lovette ran a good race. Reece won just over 45% of the vote, while Lovette captured almost 42% of the vote and young Albert C. Tipton won less than 12% of the vote districtwide, which was fewer votes than he had received in the Democratic primary.

While Carroll Reece enjoyed deep and fervent support inside Tennessee’s First Congressional District, the congressman also had some bitter political enemies. There was talk Oscar Byrd Lovette might yet make another bid for Congress, but the former congressman was ailing. Apparently, Lovette suffered a heart attack and developed pneumonia, which carried him away on July 6, 1934. O. B. Lovette was likely the strongest prospective opponent Carroll Reece could have faced in 1934. Lovette was a resident of Greene County, one particular county inside the First Congressional District where Carroll Reece did not seem as personally popular as elsewhere.

Jess G. Smith, a former state senator from Jonesboro, made the motions to enter the GOP primary but there were strong rumors floating about the First District he would withdraw. That brought forth a fiery denial from Smith. “I am in the race for nomination to congress and I have entered it to win,” Smith cried. “I am definitely and decidedly in the race,” Jess Smith insisted. “I am in to the finish.” Smith pointed out he had selected a campaign manager, opened a campaign headquarters and was busily doing all he could to perfect his organization in the First District. “I shall meet the issues of the campaign squarely and will do all in my power to promote party harmony in the first district that the party may again regain the standing it once had,” Smith promised.

Carroll Reece won the GOP primary easily, carrying every county in the district but two; one being the obstreperous Greene County and the other Jefferson County. John Wesley Kilgo, a thirty-three year old attorney from Greeneville had announced he would run in the general election as an Independent candidate. The September 13, 1934 edition of the Greeneville Sun had emblazoned a banner across the frontpage of the newspaper, announcing, “John W. Kilgo Endorsed As Independent Candidate To Oppose Reece For Congress.” A gathering of “anti-Reece Republicans” had congregated in Greeneville and had called for a public meeting to ratify the committee’s draft of Kilgo to run for Congress. Kilgo did not seem an especially strong candidate as he had run in the May Republican primary for attorney general for Greene and a few surrounding counties and lost to W. R. Gray. Kilgo’s campaign lasted for all of three weeks. John W. Kilgo announced on October 8, 1934 he was withdrawing from the general election race against Congressman Carroll Reece. “I have definitely concluded that I will not be a candidate for congress in November,” Kilgo’s statement read. “I am alone responsible for this decision and feel that my friends would reach the same conclusion were they in my position. This in no wise changes my opinion that a change in our congressional representation is imperative if the best interest of the people of this district and of the Republican party are to be served.” Kilgo had been the principal of the high school in Hartsville, Tennessee and had only moved to Greeneville three years previously. Likely, Kilgo realized he had little or no chance of beating Reece in the general election. Kilgo would go on to represent Greene County in the Tennessee General Assembly and was the Republican nominee for governor in 1944, winning the largest number of votes for any GOP candidate to that point. Kilgo had run to succeed Carroll Reece when the congressman did not seek reelection in 1946 and ran a good race, but came in a distant second to the eventual nominee, Dayton E. Phillips. John Wesley Kilgo wrote a book, Campaigning In Dixie” about his gubernatorial campaign and the foreword was penned by none other than Congressman Carroll Reece. John W. Kilgo died tragically of leukemia on December 16, 1950; he was only fifty years old.

Another Independent entered the congressional race at the last minute, D. R. Smalling of Watauga, Tennessee. Smalling’s candidacy made the general election a three-cornered affair as W. A. S. Furlow, who was something of a perennial candidate, was the Democratic nominee for Congress that year. Nat G. Taylor of Johnson City made a bit of a stir when he declared he, too, might run as an Independent in the November general election. Taylor, described by the Bristol News Bulletin as “a well known Republican”, made his announcement on October 30, which seemed extraordinarily late to launch a candidacy. As to the rumor circulating he would withdraw, Democratic nominee W. A. S. Furlow snapped, “It is very exasperating to me that every time there is a movement to put an independent candidate for Congress in the field for the rumor to be circulated by irresponsible parties to the effect that I am going to withdraw from the race.” “It has been necessary for me to reiterate my determination to stay in this race to the finish, two or three times during the past month, and I am getting tired of it,” Furlow grumbled.

“I am the unquestioned nominee of the Democratic party in the First Congressional district, and as such I am in the race to win!” Furlow said. W. A. S. Furlow very well may have believed Taylor’s candidacy might split the Republican Party, thereby giving him a chance to win the election.

When Reece was apprised of Taylor’s possible candidacy, the congressman said it would be nothing less than an “injustice” to him as he had won the GOP nomination fairly. As it happened, Tennessee Attorney General Roy Beeler, who was also head of the state election board, issued an opinion that imperiled Nat Taylor’s name being omitted from the ballot in thirteen of the fourteen counties comprising the First Congressional District. As quickly as Nat Taylor’s candidacy had popped up, it had deflated just as fast.

The general election was anti-climactic. Carroll Reece handily defeated W. A. S. Furlow, winning almost 57% of the vote. Reece only lost two counties in the general election: Greene and ordinarily Democratic Sullivan County. The Kingsport Times attributed Greene County’s support for W. A. S. Furlow in the general election to antipathy built up against Reece after his bitter battles with the late Congressman Oscar Byrd Lovette, who had been popular in his home county.

A column in the Nashville Banner, “Political & Sundry”, written by Greenberry Williams carried an outrageous rumor that Carroll Reece would not be a candidate for reelection in 1936. Williams thought the report “seems to be authentic…” “Word comes down from the mountains that Congressman B. Carroll Reece, reelected from the First District, will not be a candidate in 1936,” Williams wrote. According to Williams “in order to persuade J. W. Kilgo of Greeneville to withdraw from the race as an Independent Republican, Reece pledged himself in writing to Kilgo that he would retire after the next term…” Greenberry Williams went on to speculate if Reece were to give up his seat in the House, the GOP primary would be a fight between John W. Kilgo and Nat Taylor. The rumor had indeed originated inside the First District and was the subject of an editorial in the Bristol Herald Courier. According to the Herald Courier, the rumor was first printed by the Newport Plain Talk. The story published in the Plain Talk stated Reece had already determined to retire from Congress following the expiration of his current term and made that fact known to John W. Kilgo. The Plain Talk revealed Reece did not wish to go to the trouble or expense of having to run an active race, nor did he wish his candidacy to suffer lest the people of the First District discover the congressman intended to quit in 1936. The Herald Courier thought the idea the factionalism inside the Republican Party in the First Congressional District existed because of Carroll Reece was hogwash. “There was factional strife among the Republicans of the First District when Mr. Reece was in swaddling clothes and the strife probably will continue after he has shifted ‘into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon.”

Former governor Ben W. Hooper, a resident of the First Congressional District, had been the GOP nominee for the U. S. Senate against Kenneth D. McKellar in 1934. Hooper had been elected governor of Tennessee in 1910 and reelected in 1912 due to internecine warfare in Tennessee’s Democratic Party. Lewis Pope had once again bolted the Democratic Party after losing the gubernatorial nomination to incumbent Hill McAlister and an attempt was made to revive the “fusionist” movement which had benefited Ben W. Hooper earlier. The fusionists had been a combine of Republicans and dissident Democrats, but the feat could not be repeated. Senator McKellar had crushed Hooper’s candidacy in the general election, although the former governor complained he had not gotten the usual Republican vote in East Tennessee. Evidently, the former governor ignored the fact Senator McKellar was quite popular in East Tennessee and had been for decades. Hooper seemed to feel he had been undercut by Congressmen J. Will Taylor and Carroll Reece. When Bailey Walsh, a Republican from Shelby County, introduced a resolution praising Taylor and Reece, Hooper was the only member of the GOP State Executive Committee to vote against it. Walsh’s wife Dorothy would later become one of Senator McKellar’s secretaries in his Washington office.

The earlier rumor about John W. Kilgo and Carroll Reece’s impending retirement from Congress was quoted by Kilgo’s announcement on November 27, 1935 he would oppose the congressman for the GOP nomination in 1936. “Mr. Reece, now, however, states to some of his friends that he does not consider himself bound by his promise he made to me,” Kilgo complained. The aggrieved Kilgo said Reece had “already informed his political leaders that he shall be a candidate for reelection.” “Under those circumstances,” Kilgo barked, “I shall oppose him in the Republican primary.”

It seems highly improbably Carroll Reece would have made any such promise to a 33 year-old attorney who had lived in the First District for a scant three years. It is even more unlikely Reece would have been fearful of a challenge in the general election from a candidate who had failed to win a local race in his own county. Carroll Reece was about to cement his hold on his congressional district.

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