For One Write-In Candidate, N.H. Primary Was an Easy Mountain to Climb

Sep 2, 2015

For a change, the big political furor of the week does not involve Donald Trump.

President Obama decided that Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, will be renamed Denali – as it was originally known before it was named to honor the 25th president nearly a century ago.

Ohio Republicans, seeing the move as disrespectful of one of their own, were livid.  Rep. Bob Gibbs called it another example of Obama’s “constitutional overreach.”

But Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior who ostensibly made the decision to change the name, noted that “President McKinley never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska.”

If it sounds odd for a mountain to be named after a president who never set foot in Alaska (at least George Washington visited New Hampshire, even if he didn’t climb the mountain bearing his name), could you imagine if a presidential candidate won the New Hampshire primary without ever setting foot in the state?  Actually, it happened -- in 1964.

The nation was still grieving over the assassination of John F. Kennedy as the 1964 presidential election got underway.  Democrats were solidly behind the new president, Lyndon Johnson.  But the Republicans were bitterly divided between their party’s two ideological wings – Barry Goldwater, representing the conservatives, and Nelson Rockefeller, the choice of the liberals and moderates.  (Yes, kids, there were liberal and moderate Republicans back then.)

The GOP right wing was frustrated after eight years of Dwight Eisenhower in the White House and the 1960 candidacy of Richard Nixon, who ran as a centrist.  It was “our turn,” conservatives insisted.  But liberals countered by saying that Goldwater was too far to the right to win, and only Rockefeller could prevail against LBJ.

The two camps split the New Hampshire Republican Party.  Goldwater had most of the key endorsements:  Sen. Norris Cotton, former Gov. Lane Dwinell, the widow of Sen. Styles Bridges, and William Loeb, the publisher of the Manchester Union-Leader.  But Rockefeller had his share of influential backers as well, such as former Gov. Hugh Gregg and ex-Rep. Perkins Bass (father of former Congressman Charlie Bass).

As the two sides fought it out, something else was going on in the Granite State, at first completely under the radar.  A group of Republicans, led by Richard Jackman of Concord, a printing executive, got together and decided to draft Henry Cabot Lodge for president.  The problem?  Lodge, a former senator from Massachusetts who was Nixon’s running mate in 1960, was thousands of miles away in Saigon, as the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam.  He repeatedly said he has “no intention of running for any office.”

Undeterred, the pro-Lodge Republicans kept up their efforts, making phone calls, walking the streets, distributing flyers.  And it paid off.  While Goldwater was insisting he wasn’t as far to the right as his opponents were claiming, and while Rockefeller was insisting that his divorce and remarriage should not matter to voters, Lodge won an astonishing victory:  35 percent of the vote, compared to Goldwater’s 23 percent and Rockefeller’s 21 percent.  His entire slate of delegates won over the well-known backers of the other candidates. 

Lodge, from Saigon, called the win “a great honor and a great compliment.”  But he said he had no plans to return to the U.S. to campaign.  And he didn’t.   

With all due respect to the Republicans from Ohio, naming a mountain in Alaska after a president with no connection to the state does sound unusual.  But so did the victory of a non-presidential candidate who was thousands of miles away from New Hampshire and yet managed to win the state’s first-in-the-nation primary.  On a write-in, no less.