The California Primary That Changed the Republican Party

The California Primary That Changed the Republican Party
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Why you should care

Because some personal decisions have huge political consequences.

With three days to go until the critical Republican presidential primary in California in June 1964, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls. California represented a crucial contest for the moderate Republican and his side of a divided party hoping to put down an insurgent run by conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who had won most of the contests to date and was looking to clinch a first ballot nomination.

The Friday before the Tuesday primary, however, Rockefeller, 55, promptly left the campaign trail in the Golden State to return home to New York. The reason? His wife, Margaretta, nicknamed Happy, was about to give birth to the couple’s first child. “I have a show opening on both sides of the continent the same weekend,” the wealthy scion, grandson of tycoon John D. Rockefeller, effused. That Saturday, May 30, Nelson Rockefeller Jr. entered the world, and his father proudly informed the media that Happy is “doing wonderfully.” His campaign, however, was not.

Rockefeller’s unexpected primary defeat would mark the beginning of a new political era, both for the Republican Party and California.

More than half a century later, and as California voters prepare to vote on Tuesday, it is a good time to reflect on perhaps the most consequential presidential primary in that state’s history. What should have been an unmitigated triumph for Rockefeller turned into a political disaster as Goldwater’s campaign moved quickly among party conservatives to capitalize on the fact that Nelson Jr. was the product of his father’s hasty second marriage to a much younger woman. The death of one politician’s political dreams so soon after his son’s birth, however, was not the only story to emerge from California: Rockefeller’s unexpected primary defeat would mark the beginning of a new political era, both for the Republican Party and California.

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A Goldwater girl campaigning for Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for the presidential election, in Sherman Oaks, California.

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Rockefeller first lit the lengthy fuse on his campaign’s demise in the early 1950s when he sold James and Margaretta “Happy” Murphy 13 acres of land adjoining his family’s Pocantico Hills estate outside of New York City. Happy, 22, and her first husband became regulars at the Rockefellers’ home, and in 1958 the socialite volunteered for her neighbor’s victorious gubernatorial campaign, eventually departing with him for Albany as his secretary.

Rockefeller had little true political talent but had a knack for helming large enterprises, and would be re-elected governor three times. In 1962, he divorced his wife of 31 years, and a year later, Happy followed suit, signing away custody of her four children. And before the ink on her divorce was dry, she and “Rocky,” 18 years her senior, were married in May 1963.

A divorced man had never won the presidency, and divorce was still kryptonite for a presidential candidate. “Have we come to the point where a governor can desert his wife and children,” former Sen. Prescott Bush (grandfather of a future president and father of another) wondered, “and persuade a young woman to abandon her four children and husband?”

Early polls that showed Rockefeller was the man to beat in 1964 started to turn against the governor after his remarriage — in part because the party’s tectonic plates were shifting underneath him. Goldwater’s states’ rights, small-government rhetoric had awakened a sleeping conservative giant — one that increasingly despised Rockefeller and his fellow East Coast moderates for supporting the New Deal and civil rights. Rocky was still the establishment’s guy, but as the 1964 campaign progressed and Goldwater won primaries across the South and Midwest, it became clear that nothing less than the heart and soul of the party was at stake.

Both candidates knew the June 2 California primary would be pivotal. As Rick Perlstein chronicles in Before the Storm, Rockefeller spent millions targeting voters with phone calls and ads, portraying the Arizona senator as dangerous. “Who do you want in the room with the H-bomb button?” read one pamphlet. But Californians were not particularly taken with the New York millionaire. At a Berkeley rally in front of 5,000 students, Rockefeller managed only a single applause line — his praise for “this great educational institution.”

By contrast, Goldwater’s events were closer to conservative rock festivals where vendors sold everything from cologne to crayons with the senator’s face on it. An unprecedented 50,000 volunteers canvassed the state, and in a Memorial Day finale at Knott’s Berry Farm, John Wayne and Ronald Reagan stumped passionately for Goldwater. And in a rapid response to Rockefeller’s baby boasting, his campaign mounted a barrage of ads over the final weekend, including radio ads and newspaper spreads, touting his unimpeachable family background and values.

The election went down to the wire, but in the end, Goldwater won by 3 percent, gaining the state’s critical 86 delegates. How impactful was the fateful arrival of Nelson Jr.? “That was a very complex primary, and you can’t reduce it to one factor,” says Perlstein, “but the birth — or, more accurately, Rockefeller’s pushing it to the public foreground … couldn’t have helped.”

Goldwater would get slaughtered in the general election by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and California’s Republican Party would swing further to the right in the years following his primary victory — led by a man who had campaigned hard for Goldwater, delivering his famous “A Time for Choosing” speech that electrified a generation of conservatives. The Goldwater revolution was coming to an end, but Reagan’s own was just beginning.

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