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OPINION | REX NELSON: The great runoff

by Rex Nelson | June 5, 2022 at 1:52 a.m.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most heated political battles in Arkansas history: the two-week runoff campaign between U.S. Sen. John L. McClellan and a young challenger named David Pryor.

The day after the first primary, noted journalist Roy Reed (an Arkansas native) began his story this way in The New York Times: "Sen. John L. McClellan faces an uphill fight to retain his seat in a Democratic runoff contest June 13 after what he called a 'disappointing' showing in yesterday's preliminary primary. His runoff challenger, now the favorite to win, is David H. Pryor, a liberal 37-year-old representative who trailed the 76-year-old senator by only 4 percentage points in yesterday's four-man battle.

"Mr. McClellan was held to 45 percent of the vote by Mr. Pryor and two other opponents: Ted Boswell, a liberal lawyer, and Foster L. Johnson, a conservative businessman. Incumbents who are forced into runoffs are usually defeated in Arkansas. ...

"Mr. Pryor and Mr. Boswell subjected Mr. McClellan's conservative 30-year record in the Senate to its first serious attack since 1954, when another young liberal, former Gov. Sidney McMath, almost unseated the powerful senator.

"Mr. Pryor's strong showing yesterday was attributed to several factors, including enthusiastic support from labor leaders and many Black voters and probably a large turnout of 18- to 21-year-old voters who were permitted to vote for the first time in a statewide election."

Political analysts across the country wrote McClellan off, using the conventional wisdom that an incumbent is as good as defeated when forced into a runoff.

In her McClellan biography titled "Fearless," Sherry Laymon described Pryor as a "young and attractive congressman who hungered for higher office."

On Oct. 19, 1967, Pryor attended John L. McClellan Day festivities in Camden as a first-term congressman. McClellan told Pryor that day: "I want you to know that when I do leave the Senate, you're the type of young man I'd like to see succeed me."

Laymon writes of similarities between the early careers of Pryor and McClellan: "In 1934, McClellan quietly drove over the district to learn the intentions of possible candidates and to assess his chances of winning the congressional race. . . . In 1972, Pryor traveled outside his congressional district, talking to people and steadily building support. Many of Pryor's friends told him they would support him for re-election, but not in a race against McClellan; however, he toyed with the idea of challenging McClellan and pursuing his longtime dream of becoming a senator."

Pryor had to think about the political timing.

"A McClellan win in 1972 would handicap Pryor's chances of challenging J. William Fulbright in 1974 with the rest of the state since McClellan and Pryor both called south Arkansas home," Laymon wrote. "If Pryor stayed in the House until 1978, his seniority might not make the change worthwhile. Also, by 1978 he could lose some of the national momentum he had gained in the early 1970s when he crusaded for nursing home reforms."

McClellan announced on Feb. 11, 1972, that he would run for re-election. He emphasized the benefits of seniority with the campaign slogan "Strong Voice for Arkansas." Two days later, Boswell announced his intention to run against McClellan in the Democratic primary. Pryor's announcement came on Feb. 19 during a speech in his hometown of Camden.

"McClellan felt betrayed, disappointed and astonished when he learned that Pryor opted to challenge him," Laymon wrote. "McClellan thought highly of Pryor and considered Pryor a protege. Some of McClellan's staff believed that had Pryor first advised McClellan of his intentions, the senator would have stepped aside and endorsed Pryor for the office because of his friendship with Pryor's family.

"Also, by Pryor not first informing McClellan of his plans, McClellan felt that Pryor didn't acknowledge McClellan's prominence and status in Arkansas politics, which offended McClellan. Regardless, McClellan never backed down when challenged, so he campaigned just as hard against Pryor in 1972 as he had against D.D. Glover in 1934, Hattie Caraway in 1938, Jack Holt Sr. in 1942 and Sid McMath in 1954."

It had been 18 years since someone had seriously challenged McClellan. Rison native John Elrod was named campaign manager. Paul Berry was selected to drive McClellan to campaign stops across the state. Given McClellan's age, staff members left time in the campaign schedule for the senator's afternoon nap followed by time to prepare for evening appearances.

Televison ads and a 30-minute paid television program that showed McClellan fishing were intended to convey the message that the senator's age and health weren't issues.

Laymon said McClellan would hold the attention of audiences by interjecting stories from "his former campaigns or experiences as a lawyer and prosecutor. . . . He said the barbs from his 1972 opponents reminded him of advice he was given as a young lawyer -- when the law is on your side, argue the law; when the facts are on your side, argue the facts; when neither is on your side, find fault with the other lawyers."

In Mountain View, McClellan took the stage and performed a dance as musicians played their instruments.

Bill Wilson, now a federal judge, was asked to speak on behalf of an opposing candidate during a rally attended by McClellan at Antioch in White County. Wilson won a coin toss and could have gone last. McClellan said, "You go ahead and go first." Wilson did, and it was a mistake.

"That taught me a lesson," Wilson later said. "I never did that again. After I got through, he wore me out."

At one event, McClellan grabbed Pryor by the arm and said, "Pour it on me, son."

"His grueling weekly schedule that began early Monday morning and extended until late Saturday night exhausted him physically, emotionally and mentally," Laymon wrote. "He rested on Sundays before repeating the cycle."

Those were the "tantamount to" days of Arkansas politics when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election. Whoever won the Democratic runoff would have little problem dispatching Republican Wayne Babbitt in the fall.

Forced into a runoff, McClellan informed his staff that he couldn't continue at the current pace for another two weeks. More than 150 supporters from across the state attended a meeting in Little Rock. They committed an additional $280,000 and promised to hit the trail on the senator's behalf.

"While the Pryor camp exploded with enthusiasm, the people in McClellan's headquarters became disheartened and dejected, as though all the air had been let out of the campaign tires," Laymon wrote. "Patrick Hays, who worked in McClellan's campaign, compared the senator's headquarters to a ship without a rudder. After a couple of days, the old steam engine began to sputter and then got a little traction."

Every favor was called in as McClellan worked the phones from early in the morning until late at night. Boswell endorsed Pryor, and Pryor challenged McClellan to a debate. KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock agreed to air the debate in prime time the Sunday night before the Tuesday runoff election. McClellan accepted the debate challenge on June 6 under the condition that he would speak last.

Aide Emon Mahony prepared McClellan a chart of Pryor's contributions from organized labor. McClellan hit hard in what would be remembered as the "cookie jar debate."

"We talk about 50-cent donations out of overall pockets and out of cookie jars," McClellan said while glaring at Pryor. "Listen, this is no overall pocket money. This is no cookie jar nickels and dimes. Take a look at this. Big, out-of-state contributions to Pryor. They total $79,877.16. . . . Yes, that's a cookie jar -- quite a cookie jar indeed."

It was a turning point. McClellan won the runoff with 52 percent of the vote, carrying 52 of the state's 75 counties.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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