The Republican Party has long been a major political force within the Great Plains, just as major issues involving the Great Plains have long posed significant policy concerns for Republican leaders at various governmental levels, from local to national. Indeed, the very origins of the Republican Party can be traced to mid-nineteenth-century controversies prompted by settlement and statehood questions involving the Great Plains.
One of the most troublesome issues accompanying the westward expansion of the American frontier was the question of whether slavery would be permitted or excluded in newly settled areas. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, while also prohibiting slavery from any future states to be formed from remaining lands of the Louisiana Territory north of 36º30% north latitude. The uneasy balance was shattered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which partitioned off these eventual states from the larger Louisiana Territory and authorized residents of each of the two newly organized territories to decide for themselves whether to allow or disallow slavery. "Bloody Kansas" conflicts soon broke out between slaveholders and abolitionists.
Both the Democratic Party and the opposing Whig Party comprised coalitions that included advocates of both proslavery and antislavery positions. In March 1854 antislavery dissidents from these major parties met in Ripon, Wisconsin, along with other abolitionists who were just as outraged by congressional debate leading to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and formed the Republican Party.
The newly formed party became a formidable political force in the North and West almost immediately. In the election of 1856 the young Republican Party captured ninety seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and made a very credible run for the White House by nominating Gen. John C. Frémont, a hero of the Mexican War, as the party's presidential candidate. Frémont's total of 1.3 million popular votes easily bested the 870,000 votes received by Whig candidate Millard Fillmore, but it trailed Democratic candidate James Buchanan's 1.8 million popular votes. Texas, the only Great Plains state as yet formed, cast its electoral votes for Buchanan, who won the Electoral College ballot with 174 votes, compared with 114 for Fremont, and just 8 for Fillmore.
The Republican juggernaut emerged from the 1858 off-year elections with 116 out of 238 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans were just shy of an absolute majority and could easily outvote the eighty-three Democrats who comprised the next-largest voting bloc in the lower house of the U.S. Congress. But while all seats in the U.S. House are decided at each two-year election cycle, only one-third of Senate seats are decided at one time. So Democrats still held a thirty-eight-to twenty-six-seat lead in the U.S. Senate and could continue to block abolitionist proposals, at least temporarily.
The impasse led to an electoral showdown in 1860. As the outcomes of popular contests for seats in the U.S. House and for seats in state legislatures, which would in turn choose new members of the U.S. Senate, began to become known, it looked likely that Republicans might gain effective majorities in both houses of Congress. The presidential contest became crucial, since a moderate or proslavery president might be able to effectively veto abolitionist measures. The Democratic coalition had fractured into northern and southern wings, each of which nominated candidates for the presidency. The rival Constitutional Union Party, which carried the banner for former moderate or proslavery Whigs, also nominated its own presidential candidate. The Republican presidential nominee was Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. More than 1.8 million popular votes were cast for Lincoln, compared with 1.4 million for Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, 850,000 for Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, and 591,000 for Constitutional Union candidate John Bell. This gave Lincoln a nearly 40 percent plurality of the popular vote. More importantly, Lincoln's 180 out of 303 electoral votes were more than the absolute majority needed to settle the presidential contest.
Bullets soon followed ballots. Secessionist Southern states broke with the federal Union to form their own rival Confederate States of America. The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on the Union's Fort Sumter. The stronger Union eventually prevailed in four years of savage warfare, but at the cost of nearly 650,000 Union casualties, compared to about 134,000 Confederate casualties. Most of the major battles were fought on Southern soil, so wartime destruction and financial losses from the emancipation of slaves devastated the plantation economy of the South, including that of the Plains state of Texas.
Southern secession and the outcome of the Civil War were of major importance to the Great Plains. Beforehand, the rivalry over slavery had compounded many of the practical difficulties of settling the region. For example, congressional efforts to authorize the building of a transcontinental railroad were stymied on several occasions by Southerners, who were adamantly opposed to northern routes, or by Northerners, who were equally adamantly opposed to southern routes. The act that finally authorized construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, was passed in 1862, when there were no Southern voices in the halls of the U.S. Congress. Subsequently, railroads served as crucial transport links between Great Plains farms and ranches and the distant markets for their products.
Another important measure passed by mainly Republican proponents in the absence of Southern opposition was the Homestead Act of 1862, which laid the foundation for successive post–Civil War waves of settlement expansion across the Great Plains. The Homestead Act encouraged immigration by providing free government land to settlers who were willing to live upon and improve their properties. After the war, thousands of Union veterans joined many other settlers from the eastern United States and many other countries in obtaining free homestead land throughout the Central and Northern Plains. The Homestead Act specifically forbade Confederate veterans who had taken up arms against the United States from settling homestead lands. Because Union veterans tended to be Republicans and Confederate supporters tended to be Democrats, this ban reinforced the strongly Republican character of the Central and Northern Plains.
The Union Pacific Railroad Act, the Homestead Act, and other related measures endeared many of those who settled in the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century to the candidates of the "Grand Old Party" whose predecessors had pushed those measures through Congress at a time of great turmoil and opportunity. All of the Northern Plains states grew rapidly in population between 1865 and 1890, and by 1890 all had been admitted to the Union.
With increased population and settlement, however, came increasing discontent. In the East and the Great Lakes states, the Republican movement of the 1850s had been based on two key principles–abolition of slavery and support for industrialization. The Civil War settled the first question, and many Republican leaders in the 1870s and 1880s were linked increasingly with large industrial concerns. However, Great Plains farmers found themselves more and more at the mercy of easterndominated railroads, banks, and corporations. Many became disenchanted with the conservatism of the Republican Party in the East. By the 1890s the Populist movement, which was oriented to the interests of the small farmer against large corporate interests, had taken hold and was especially strong in the Plains. In 1896 William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska won the presidential nomination of both the Democrats and the Populists. Although he carried all of the Plains states except North Dakota, Bryan was defeated nationally by Republican William McKinley, and he lost again in 1900 and 1908.
Despite the fact that Bryan's three defeats signaled the end of the Populist movement nationally, populism continued to have considerable impact on the politics of the Plains states. Populist-oriented political factions contested statewide and local elections throughout the Central and Northern Plains. For example, the Nonpartisan League emerged as a major force in North Dakota politics before World War I, and it remained important until the 1950s. Throughout the twentieth century, politics in the Central and Northern Plains has generally been dominated by the Republicans, with Democrats making occasional inroads. In the Southern Plains the Democrats were the dominant party until the 1960s, when Republican influence began to increase.
This trend is illustrated in the distribution of governorships across the two parties in the two regions of the Plains. Republicans held 60 percent of the governorships of the Central and Northern Plains states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado) between 1900 and 1950, and 55 percent between 1950 and 2000. In the Southern Plains states of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, Republicans held only 9 percent of the governorships between 1900 and 1950 but 35 percent between 1950 and 2000. Similarly, Republicans held 67 percent of Central and Northern Plains House seats in 1900, 81 percent in 1950, and 81 percent again in 2000, while they held no seats in the Southern Plains in 1900, 6 percent in 1950, and 52 percent in 2000.
The Plains has produced many Republican leaders who have held national prominence throughout the past century. Some were strongly influenced by the progressive sentiments of the populist movement, while others have been more conservative. Several Plains politicians have been nominated by the Republican Party for national office. Interestingly, most have had connections to Kansas. In 1928 Republican Charles Curtis of Kansas was elected vice president, but he and his running mate, Herbert Hoover, were defeated in their reelection bid four years later by Franklin D. Roosevelt and his running mate, Texan John Nance Garner. In 1936 the Republicans nominated Gov. Alfred Landon of Kansas, who ran unsuccessfully against Roosevelt. Dwight D. Eisenhower, born in Denison, Texas, and raised in Abilene, Kansas, was elected president in 1952 and 1956. Sen. Robert Dole, who represented Kansas in the Senate for nearly twenty-eight years, was the unsuccessful Republican nominee for vice president in 1976 and for president in 1996. In 2000 two candidates with Great Plains connections– though not to Kansas–were nominated and elected under the Republican Party label. Thus, the first presidential contest of the twenty-first century was won by Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and his vice presidential running mate, former Wyoming U.S. representative Richard Cheney, whose birthplace was Lincoln, Nebraska.
No Plains Republican served as Speaker of the House of Representatives in the twentieth century. Two Republicans have served as their party's leader in the Senate: Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska was minority leader from 1949 to 1951, while Dole was majority leader from 1985 to 1987 and again from 1995 to 1996 and minority leader from 1987 to 1995. Many other Plains Republicans, however, have achieved notable records in Congress. George Norris of Nebraska served thirty-six years in the Senate and was recognized as one of the Senate's leading progressive Republicans throughout his career. Among his many legislative achievements was sponsorship of the bill creating the Tennessee Valley Authority during the New Deal era. Peter Norbeck of South Dakota was a strong supporter of progressive legislation as governor and senator, and his progressive attitudes forestalled the creation of an independent progressive movement in that state. Alan Simpson of Wyoming was prominent in his party's leadership in the 1980s and 1990s, and Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma served two terms in the Senate and two as governor. Among the more conservative long-time Republican members of the Senate were South Dakota's Karl Mundt and Nebraska's Roman Hruska and Carl Curtis.
Fred M. Shelley Southwest Texas State University J. Clark Archer University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Martis, Kenneth C. The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789–1989. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989.
Shelley, Fred M., J. Clark Archer, Fiona M. Davidson, and Stanley D. Brunn. Political Geography of the United States. New York: Guilford Press, 1996.
Witkoski, Michael. "The Republican Party." In International Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, edited by Frank N. Magill. Chicago: Salem Press, 1996: 1167–71.