Frank Church

by Jim Farrar (1985)


I first met Frank Church some eighteen years ago, when I was eleven years old. My cousin from California, who is almost fifteen years older than me, was visiting my family late in the summer, right around the first week of September. She'd never been to a rural fair, so my mother suggested that she and her husband drive out to Filer and take a look at the Twin Falls County Fair, which was starting its run that weekend. I tagged along, to get out of cleaning my room more than anything else, though I was also hoping that I'd be the first kid in the neighborhood to check out the new rides on the midway that year.

It was an election year, and I come from a politically active – a better word would be rabid – family, a loyal clan of New Deal Democrats who vote a straight ticket regardless of whose names are on it. My political inclinations aren't nearly so extreme, though my cousin, unlike myself, has inherited the family passion.

I remember walking through the entrance and being greeted by a man in a dark suit and whose face, I thought at the time, vaguely resembled my father's, who had passed away some years before. He introduced himself to my cousin as Frank Church. He said he was running for reelection to the Senate and that he would appreciate her participation in the upcoming election, even if she didn't vote for him. And did she have any questions about anything?

Politicians, like some writers, tend to spout spurious aphorisms that are instantly forgettable, but I remember this particular meeting because, first of all, this stranger seemed genuinely kind, and secondly, he really listened to what my cousin had to say and, since Vietnam was becoming more and more an issue and because Frank Church was one of the first democrats to split with Lyndon Johnson and condemn our involvement in the war, my cousin had plenty to talk about. That she was from California and therefore could not vote in the Idaho election didn't seem to matter to either one of them. The year was 1968.

Looking back, it was one of those seemingly trivial moments that become more and more important as the years roll by. At any rate, both my cousin and I came away from that meeting with a lasting impression of Frank Church.

About two decades later, I married a woman whose father is the former chairman of the Idaho State Democratic Committee and who was a key figure in the Senator's presidential bid in 1976. It is he who inspired the writing of this paper.

The point I wish to make is that for over twenty years Frank Church has indirectly influenced my life, simply because he was so important to the people who are important to me. And yet, aside from being aware of the enormous respect that those who personally knew the man had for him, I found that when I started to do the research for this project, I really knew very little about him.

This profile, then, of the 1976 presidential campaign represents a personal attempt to fill that gap in my knowledge.

The Bow Is Drawn

Long before he'd made his official announcement on March 18, 1976, Frank Church had decided that he wanted to run for President of the United States. His boyhood idol, William Borah, a former senator from Idaho, had also made a bid for the presidency some forty years before.

For as long as he could remember, Frank Church had tried to follow in his hero's footsteps. The declaration of his candidacy in Idaho City, a town about forty miles northeast of Boise where his father had been born, was, more than anything else, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Church entered the race late, almost too late according to some. The field of democratic contenders was overcrowded and, more significantly, several important primaries had already been decided, with Jimmy Carter emerging as an early front-runner. By the time Church's campaign had become official, Carter had amassed 420 delegates, more than double that of his closest competitor, Henry Jackson of Washington, who had 190 and had stopped actively campaigning.

Prior to his announcement, there had been a great of speculation, mostly in the press, as to whether or not Church was going to run in the upcoming election or, instead, choose to wait until 1980 to try his luck.

Church's presidential wheels, however, had already been set in motion long before the candidate made it official in March. As far back as November 1975, the machinery had been assembled, and an early entry into the race was at least considered. The December 4th edition of The Idaho Statesman had in fact run an article in which then-governor Cecil Andrus predicted that Frank Church would enter the Massachusetts primary on March 2, quoting one of Church's spokesman as saying that Andrus "has really leaned on the senator to run." Articles such as this followed on a regular basis, but no announcement was forthcoming.

What was, in fact, delaying things was the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation of the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, a committee which Senator Church chaired. He steadfastly refused to consider a presidential bid until the committee was finished and had submitted its report.

Unfortunately for Church, the proceedings ran later than expected and work was not completed until March, by which time Jimmy Carter, buoyed by his early primary victories, was clearly established as the odds-on favorite to win the nomination.

According to Joe McCarter, a Church staffer who was testing the presidential waters in the midwest at the time, Church's actual decision to run was made well before the hearings were over. The real stumbling block, which would hinder the campaign from beginning to end, was a serious lack of preparation and organized planning. Everyone knew that the senator was interested in running, but there was no one in his organization who really knew or had any experience on how to run a presidential campaign.

With no precedent to guide them, the campaign staff's first order of business was to prove that Church had secured enough money in the required number of states to qualify for Federal Matching Funds. This money was eventually raised and by February, almost a month before any official announcement was made, Joe McCarter was at work in the first state that Church would contest, which was to be Nebraska. The bow was drawn, but would the arrow fly?


Frank Church's victory over Jimmy Carter in the Nebraska primary must certainly be considered a political miracle of sorts. Though it ultimately had no real effect on Carter's eventual nomination, credit must still be given to the candidate and those key people who helped pull it off.

Church began his campaign at a clear disadvantage. Aside from his late start, and probably because of it, he was not as well known in Nebraska as the other candidates. An April 23 poll conducted by the Omaha World-Herald showed Frank Church trailing Jimmy Carter by a seemingly insurmountable margin. In that poll Carter lead all other candidates with 29 per cent of the vote. Church had received 15 per cent, a vast improvement over an earlier poll in March in which he didn't even register, but still so far behind Carter that his candidacy was not, at that point, considered much of a threat.

To help offset this lack of familiarity among Nebraska voters, campaign staffers did several things, the first of which was to schedule a whirlwind series of appearances for the candidate. Church's first day of campaigning in the state started with an address to the student body of an Omaha high school, followed by a luncheon with the residents of a senior citizen's housing unit; a meeting with the editorial board of the Omaha World-Herald, the state's largest newspaper; an afternoon television appearance; and, to end the day, a speech at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Omaha.

Such an itinerary was typical of Church's campaign schedule in Nebraska. He was to spend more time in the state than any candidate from either party (Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford were also locked in a tight race among Republicans in the state). The overall goal was to make the primary a two-man contest and then somehow try to upset Carter. Church's basic strategy was to try and tap the vote of more liberal Nebraskans who had been supporting Kennedy, Humphrey, Bayh, Harris, and Udall, all of whom were on the ballot but had long since dropped out of the race.

Realistically, the Church camp was counting on a second-place finish which would, they hoped, at least get things moving and keep their candidate in the running. Church himself admitted that it would take a "political miracle" for him to win in Nebraska and that a "strong second" would be enough to keep him in the race as a contender for the nomination.

One thing that might complicate Church's chances of victory was the state's method of selecting delegates. There are essentially two primary elections in Nebraska. There is on the one hand popular vote, which is the one that receives the most press coverage. But by far the most important of the two is the delegate selection process. In addition to his own name, each candidate is required to run a slate of up to 23 delegates that are committed to his candidacy. Also on the ballot are uncommitted delegates. Though the entire process is somewhat complicated, what basically occurs is that voters, in addition to choosing a presidential candidate, must also decide which people are to represent the state as delegates to the national convention. If Nebraska voters were to elect a group of delegates who were committed to someone other than the winner of the popular vote, a candidate could conceivably win the popular election but still lose the primary.

In an attempt to avoid this problem, both Carter and Church ran ads in the Omaha and Lincoln newspapers prior to the election that listed the names on their delegate slates and asked voters to support these people as well as themselves.

Because of Nebraska's unique method of selecting delegates, Church's campaign had actually started in February, when Joe McCarter flew out to Nebraska from his ranch in Idaho, rented a Dodge Dart, and, with the help of Nebraskan Mack Backus, put 9,000 miles on it trying to find and then win the support of twenty three delegates who would be willing to commit themselves to Frank Church. Once secured, their names were submitted to state officials and placed on the ballot.

A welcome addition to the Church campaign was a man named Bob Kolos, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley's acting press secretary. Bradley had temporarily "released" him from his duties at the mayor's office to allow him to work for Senator Church in Nebraska. McCarter says that his contribution to Church's victory in this first outing was significant. He brought experience to the campaign and a good solid working relationship with the national news media that was desperately needed. According to McCarter, Kolos was, more often than not, able to open doors and obtain television and radio coverage simply because he had the connections and the professional standing to do so. As a result, Church found himself getting more media exposure than anyone on the staff had ever dreamed possible, and at a time when it was most needed.

Though he'd been consistently greeted by enthusiastic crowds (mainly for his stance on farm issues) from the outset, Church's first indication that he might indeed defeat Jimmy Carter in Nebraska came the Friday before the election. In Omaha, Local No. 22 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers publicly endorsed him, saying that "the voting record of Senator Church, his consistent support of labor, and the lack of positive stands by Governor Carter were the decisive factors in this endorsement, which was proposed and made by the rank-and-file."

On Sunday, The Lincoln Star endorsed his candidacy and, later that day in Hastings, Nebraska's Lt. Governor Jerry Whelan also announced his support for Church. Victory in Nebraska, which had seemed impossible only a month before, was now becoming more and more a possibility.

If the campaign seemed rigorous to the candidate, it seemed even more grueling to his staff. Compared to other candidates, Church's presidential effort was not only short of cash, but short of bodies as well. What these people lacked in resources, however, they more than made up for with passion, a belief in their candidate, and just plain hard work. Campaign coordinator Joe McCarter recalls how even high-ranking members of the organization, including himself, would spend hours constructing thousands of yard signs and then, after that, even more time distributing them. These volunteers, none of whom was getting rich in the process, drove all over the state, setting up chairs at rallies, making sure that people knew about the candidate's visit, canvassing neighborhoods, and handing out campaign literature. There were about sixty people with Church in Nebraska, working on the campaign. Given the realities of any political campaign, this was a relatively small number.

What's more, the odds makers still saw the senator as a long shot. But on May 11, 1976, about three month's worth of hard work finally paid off for Church and his staff. Frank Church beat Jimmy Carter by one percentage point in the popular election, in what was referred to by the candidates as the "beauty contest" part of the election. Of much greater importance was the election of 22 of the 23 delegates that had committed to Church. Church had thus won all fifteen of Nebraska's delegates to the national convention. In his first trip out of the gate he had been a winner, but could he repeat the performance in Oregon?

Idaho And Oregon: Bowing Out Gracefully

The Oregon primary on May 25 had actually been the first race that Frank Church had planned to actively contest. He had entered the Nebraska contest mainly at the urging of Joe McCarter, who felt that waiting until the final week of May would only serve to delay the campaign to a point of total ineffectiveness. As a result, the people directing the effort in Oregon were better prepared than those who had worked the trenches in Nebraska. Larry LaRocco, who was in charge of the campaign there, had been in Oregon laying the groundwork for the campaign long before McCarter had started to shop for delegates in Nebraska.

The candidate himself had sharpened his rhetorical skills during the course of the just-completed campaign, and, as a result, he started referring to Carter's fuzziness on the issues more often than he had in Nebraska. In his campaign ads, however, Church directed his criticisms at President Ford and the Republicans, which may have helped his image as a clean campaigner who was obstinately loyal to his own party.

As in Nebraska, the polls showed Church lagging far behind Jimmy Carter. In one poll taken by a Portland newspaper, Carter lead Church by a margin of 24 per cent. And, also like Nebraska, Church pulled off another miracle, winning both Oregon and his home state of Idaho rather handily.

But it was not Frank Church's destiny to become the President of the United States. There were other victories after Oregon and Idaho, in Montana and Utah, but, realistically, Church's campaign was doomed from the start, mainly because of his decision to postpone his candidacy until the completion of the Intelligence Committee's investigation, but also because of a lack of funds and the absence of a well organized national effort.

The final blow to the campaign was delivered on June 8, 1976, on "Super Tuesday." At stake were over 900 delegates, mostly in Ohio, California, and New Jersey. Church failed to carry a single state and the campaign was over. About a week later, on June 14, he announced his withdrawal from the race and threw his support behind Jimmy Carter, saying

He is truly a candidate whose time has come. Governor Carter has proved himself a candidate behind whom all Democrats can and should unite, thus ending the divisions that have plagued our party in the past two national elections.

The campaign had lasted 89 days.

After he had bowed out, there was some speculation that Carter might choose Church to be his running mate. Many observers of the campaign have said that Church's posture in the later stages of the race had seemed to be aimed more at securing the vice presidential slot rather than winning the actual nomination. Whether or not this is true will never be known, though it can be said that Church, although meeting with Carter to discuss the possibility of his inclusion on the ticket, never actively pursued it.

In the final analysis, Church's run at the presidency was both literally and symbolically a grass-roots operation, based not on personality but on the issues. To that end, Frank Church's campaign was indeed a success.

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