I’m sorry, but I think people making these comments are ignorant of the state’s history, and how much of a hold Socialism really did have at one point. Trust me, it wasn’t much.
Nonetheless, I think many Montanans are unmindful of their Socialist-leaning past. Many of our grandparents no doubt voted the Socialist-ticket back in the day, and perhaps several times as our state was a hotbed of it. In this post we’ll explore how many votes Socialist candidates in Montana actually received. We won’t look at the underlying reasons so much, but if this post is popular, we might follow it up.
Woodrow Wilson swept into the White House that year with 6.2 million votes, or 41.8% of the vote compared to Teddy Roosevelt’s 4.1 million votes, or 27.4%. William Howard Taft, running on the Republican ticket, won 3.4 million votes, or 23.2%. What might surprise many today, however, is how well the Socialists did. Socialist Eugene V. Debs picked up 901,551 votes, or 6% of the ballots cast.
Wow, nearly a million people voted for a socialist…in America? What’s going on here?
Socialism had always been a popular idea in the Treasure State, mainly because there were so many workers. Miners were especially lured by the economic system’s call, and Coxey’s Army was an early example of Socialist ideas taking hold.
Montana Socialism in the 1910s
The mid-term election in 1914 wasn’t good for anyone other than Democrats. Future Montana political giant Wellington D. Rankin entered his first race that year, running for the U.S. House of Representatives on the Progressive ticket. He received just 6,694 votes, 20,000 votes fewer than the Republicans and 3,000 to 6,000 fewer than the two Socialists candidates.
In Montana the governor’s race that year came down to four candidates. That many candidates assured it’d be a tight race, and it was. In the end Samuel Stewart prevailed, winning 25,381 votes to the Republican’s 22,950, or 32% to 29%. The Progressive’s got 18,881 votes, or 24%, and Socialist Lewis Duncan picked up 12,566, or 16% of the vote. Montana, it seems, was quite split politically.
The presidential election year of 1916 wasn't much different. Wilson took the state with 101,063 votes, or 56%, compared with Republican Charles Hughes’ 66,750 votes, or 37%. Socialist Allan Benson managed to draw 9,564 votes in the election, or just over 5%, while 302 people decided that voting for the Progressive candidate even though there was no Progressive candidate was preferable to everything else on the ballot. Lewis Duncan ran for governor that year as well, but only managed 11,342 votes for the Socialists this time.
George H. Ambrose was a perennial-runner in the U.S. Senate races and in 1916 he picked up 1,068 votes, paltry in comparison to the 88,205 Democrat Burton K. Wheeler picked up to win. It’s good Wheeler was up that year and not the next, for the Speculator Mine disaster in Butte in June of 1917 drummed up support for the Socialists in the state, while also increasing calls to suppress them. That was the year Butte got its first Socialist mayor.
Montana Socialism in the 1920s and 1930s
Again, things got slow until the 1930s. In 1932 Joseph P. Monaghan prevailed in what would prove to be a terrible year for the Republican Party, and the start of a long downward trend. Monaghan won in a four-way race, picking up 51,159 votes to Republican Mark D. Fitzgerald’s 33,333 votes, or 58% to 38%. Socialist A.N. Brooks garnered 1,936 votes, or 2.2%, while Communist Roger Murray managed 297 votes, or 0.3%.
Despite the rising swell of Democratic fervor in the rest of the nation, Montana was evenly divided on what course that state should take. A large part of this no doubt came down to Governor Erickson’s decision to buck tradition and run for a third term. The election was close but Erickson again won, defeating Frank A. Hazelbaker 104,949 votes to 101,105 votes, or 49% to 47%. The Socialists had their best year in a gubernatorial race since 1914, picking up 6,317 votes, or nearly 3%. The Communist candidate picked up 2,008 votes while the Liberty candidate received 2,002, less than 1% for each. Without the third party competition Erickson very well could have been defeated. But he wasn’t and went on to become the only governor of the state to serve three terms. It wasn’t an enviable position to be in.
In the 1936 governor’s race, Montana voters chose Democrat Roy Ayers by 51% to Frank Hazelbaker’s 48%. Three third-party candidates had run – the Socialists, Union Party, and Communists – but none even made it to half a percent. The biggest decider was probably the nearly 10,000 more people that voted in 1936 than had in 1932. This portended well for Democrats, both in Montana and nationally.
Montana Socialism in the 1940s
That same year saw a three-way House race in the state’s First Congressional District. Mike Mansfield earned 42,754 votes to Haselbaker’s 28,603 votes, or 59% to 40%. Socialist Leverne Hamilton earned just over 1%.
In 1944 the GOP threw F.F Haynes at O’Connor again, and again O’Connor beat him, 54% to 45%, the Socialist taking barely more than half a percent. There was a governor’s race in 1944 as well, and Governor Ford was ready to serve a second term. He proved a shoe-in against raging anti-Semite Jacob Thorkelson in the primary. That November it was Leif Erickson, but the race wasn’t even close. Ford took 116,461 votes to Erickson’s 89,224 votes, or 56% to 43%. The Socialists and communists sat it out that year, allowing the Prohibition Party to pick up 960 votes, or just under half a percent.
From this point on Montana Republicans would use those war year populations losses and the subsequent filtering back of people – not necessarily the same that had gone away and not always coming back with the same political beliefs – to gain the toehold necessary to take the state back. Over time that toehold would turn into a firm perch, one that was used to chip away at all that had been accomplished with the New Deal.
The U.S. House race in 1946 was interesting and saw D’Ewart taking 58,307 votes to Holmes’s 48,564, or 54% to 45%, Socialist Edgar M. Spriggs taking just over three quarters of a percent. It would be the last year in Montana’s history that a socialist candidate appeared on a U.S. House ballot.
In the 1948 governor’s race, both the Republicans and the Democrats saw their turnout go up, but Democrats got the vote out more. Bonner took the race with 124,267 votes against Ford’s 97,792 votes, or 56% to 44%. The socialists had come back from their election off to take just under a thousand votes, or about their usual half a percent.
The End of Montana Socialism in the 1950s
It would prove to be Wellington Rankin’s last race. He never again ran for public office after what must have been another in a long string of bitter defeats. The Socialists must have felt the same, for they never again appeared on a Montana ballot.