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Rednecks for Kennedy: How an Urban Democrat Could Build Bridges to Rural America

President John F. Kennedy visits the Poteau, Oklahoma ranch of Senator Robert Kerr (standing), October 29, 1961.

Photo Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Rural white voters are the heart and soul of Donald Trump’s GOP. To be sure, rural America is racially, religiously, and ethnically diverse, but it is less so than urban America. Whites comprise 78.2% of the non-urban population. In contrast, urban America is only 57.3.% white. The GOP’s command of the white rural vote makes them dominant in rural America and is the linchpin of GOP power at the national level.

Ruling the rural vote enables the GOP to control the White House and Congress with a bare majority (and sometimes a minority) of the vote. Since 1988, Republicans have won a majority of the presidential vote exactly once, in 2004. Averaging 45.3% of the vote over the last 8 presidential elections, the GOP has, nevertheless, captured the White House 3 times due to the Electoral College’s rural tilt. But the rural tilt does not stop at the White House. Every political observer acknowledges the obvious Republican advantage in the Senate. Indeed, the GOP’s 50 senators represent only 43.5% of the nation’s total population. But GOP dominance over rural state legislatures also leads to favorable House redistricting maps.

In 2010, the Republicans took power over both statehouse chambers in 25 states, which gave the GOP total control of redistricting in those states. In 2017, these maps enabled Republicans to translate a 49.1% to 48% victory in the overall House vote into a 241-194 House majority. By way of contrast, Democrats won the overall 2020 House vote 50.8% to 47.7%, which gave them a narrow 222-213 majority. The key to the Democratic disadvantage is GOP dominance of the rural vote. In 2022, Republicans controlled 23 of the 25 state legislatures with the highest percentage of rural voters.  

This reality did not emerge overnight. Throughout much of the twentieth century, rural America was a political battleground. As recently as 1992 and 1996, Democrats took a bit over half of the rural vote. But since the 1950s, rural America has slowly shifted away from the Democrats and toward the GOP. From 1952-2004, the percentage of the Republican vote in rural America has grown from 34.9% to 51.1%. That process has accelerated since the 2000 election when George W. Bush took 53% of the rural vote. In 2016 and 2020, Trump took 62% and 64% of the rural vote respectively. The source of Trump’s strength in rural America is white voters. In 2020, 71% of rural white voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump—a 9 point increase over 2016.

Until the 1970s, vast swaths of rural America largely followed the American political pendulum. Voting Democratic in some elections and casting ballots for the GOP in others, rural America did not permanently lie in either political camp. Starting in the early 1970s, however, vast swaths of rural America have voted GOP in election after election, after election, for more than a generation. In the post-1968 era, race, divisive social issues, and the Democrats’ increasing urban tilt pushed rural whites to the GOP. The latter meant that urban Democrats, who increasingly controlled the party, abandoned the urban-rural partnership that had made them into the nation’s clear majority party.

A long time in the making, the sudden swing of the rural white vote is also tied to this demographic’s economic and cultural marginalization. Economically, commodity gluts and farm crises have all but decimated the backbone of rural America’s middle class—the small and medium farmer.  Adding to this were the very same economic forces sweeping across urban America, globalization, automation, deindustrialization, & stagnant wages, which devastated the rural economy that much more. 

As a result, “deaths of despair” are especially endemic in rural America.  A February 2022 U.S. Academy of Sciences report indicates that mortality for American adults is “steepest for white adults in rural areas who tend to be the least educated and have the lowest income.”  Our political divide is partially based upon an economy that rewards knowledge workers and metropolitan elites but leaves rural America behind. The 2020 electoral map demonstrates this reality. Joe Biden won 551 mostly urban counties which boast 71% of the nation’s economic activity. Trump took the other 2,588 counties in which 29% of the economy resides.

With neither party willing, nor able, to stem rural America’s economic malaise, cultural war issues have moved to the forefront. Fueled by the potent combination of economic maladies and culture war zeal, a new populism, emanating from rural white America, has engulfed the GOP and helped sweep Donald Trump into the White House and almost into a second term.  A representative state of this reality is Oklahoma. A one-time solidly Democratic state that elected legions of moderate liberals and conservative Democrats is now wholly in the Trumpist GOP column. In presidential races, Democrats have not won the state since 1964. More shocking, Democrats have not won a single Oklahoma county in a presidential race since 2000.

From the vantage point of 2022, observers could easily assume that this political outcome was inevitable. The logic of identity politics dictates that an overwhelmingly white (65%), evangelical Protestant state (49%) with a large rural population (33%) would naturally reject an increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-confessional city-based party.  But our current rural-urban divide was not inevitable. An obscure John F. Kennedy Memorial in LeFlore County, Oklahoma demonstrates this reality. In 1960, Oklahoma, a state in which Democrats outnumbered Republicans, 4-1, went heavily for Nixon. In a state dominated by Baptists in which Prohibition-era restrictions predominated well into the 1980s, Kennedy struggled mightily due to his Catholicism and urbane style.

But the Memorial, and the story behind it, reveal a relatively recent political past in which rural and urban America were intimately joined in the Democratic Party. If not evidence of a political love affair, the Memorial demonstrates an era in which the rural-urban divide was, at least, partially bridged. The Memorial, located in the southeastern corner of the state in LeFlore County, is rural and sparsely populated even by Oklahoma standards. The multi-tiered granite monument features a modest bronze plaque and a tall center pillar. Inscribed with Kennedy’s bust and quotations, the 13-by-20-foot memorial would be unremarkable if not for its locale, history, and political significance.

To be sure, hundreds of streets, parks and schools were named for JFK following his 1963 assassination. But the LeFlore County Memorial was no simple re-naming of a pre-existing entity. A citizen-led effort, the Memorial commemorated Kennedy’s October 1961 visit to a crossroads near the site. To show their appreciation and honor the deceased president, in 1966, LeFlore County inhabitants donated the land, an area stonecutter prepared the monument, and civic leaders organized a ceremony that culminated in a 3,000-person caravan of state dignitaries and citizens who traveled to LeFlore for the occasion of dedicating the monument.

On October 29, 1961, Kennedy traveled to Big Cedar, Oklahoma. Years away from a reelection campaign and in a state that he lost by twenty points, the president’s visit might seem incongruous.  But in 1961, Oklahoma counted the uncrowned “King of the Senate” Robert Kerr and House Majority Whip Carl Albert as favorite sons. Leflore County was home to Kerr’s second abode, a famous cattle ranch. In addition to this, LeFlore was also located in Albert’s congressional district. JFK visited an utterly obscure country crossroad to win support for his legislative agenda. His visit also played a crucial role in Albert’s promotion to Majority Leader and ascension to the Speakership. In a very real sense, the JFK Memorial marks the location where urban liberals, represented by Kennedy, reconfirmed the rural populists’ seat at the political table.

For decades Democratic majorities in the House, and the national Democratic Party in general, were built upon the Austin-Boston foundation. Representing the rural populist and urban liberal wings of the party, a team of Congressmen from Texas/Oklahoma and Boston held the Speaker, Majority Leader, and Whip positions. Through this, House Democrats achieved relative party unity, enough to elect 5 Democratic presidents and enact an extraordinary array of liberal reforms.

Rural populists, like Albert, were political descendants of early twentieth century Populists who blamed their economic grievances upon urban-industrial America. Rural populists largely associated New Deal-style reforms as responding to their economic grievances and interests.  In the same party and House chamber were urban liberals who hailed from cities and a more pluralist, cosmopolitan milieu. Separated by a cultural gulf, urban liberals and rural populists maintained a political coalition through a common desire for federal largesse.

For Kennedy to arrive at the rural crossroad and sleep at Kerr’s LeFlore County ranch was no small feat of logistics. Air Force One left Washington early in the morning for Fort Smith, Arkansas. Arriving at Fort Smith in the early afternoon, Kennedy offered brief remarks to an anticipated crowd of 40,000 before a 20-minute helicopter ride took him the 70-miles to Big Cedar. Following a one-hour ribbon cutting ceremony, the president would helicopter 30-miles to Kerr’s Cattle Ranch for an overnight visit.

Officially, JFK’s trip was to ceremonially open the Ouachita National Forest Road. The thirty-five-mile road ran from Big Cedar, population 2, through an unpopulated national forest. One writer aptly called it a “mountain road that starts nowhere in particular and goes to the suburb of the same place.” The main event, a ribbon cutting ceremony at the crossing of Oklahoma highways 103 and 63, occurred at Big Cedar, which consisted of a barn, four houses, and filling station so remote that it lacked phone service.

In reality, JFK was there, in his own words, “to kiss Bob Kerr’s ass.”  But Kerr also used the visit to win the president’s support for his massively expensive Arkansas River Navigation Project. But this did not fully cover the trip’s political ramifications.  Oklahoma’s Governor, J. Howard Edmondson, a Kennedy ally, hungered for the number two slot should Kennedy drop Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But he surely heard the rumors that it was Kerr, who was also on the president’s shortlist. Such was the importance of Oklahoma to Kennedy in 1961.

In addition to the vice presidency, Kerr and Kennedy shared another political aspiration, victory in 1962 and 1964 in Oklahoma.  In 1960, Kennedy lost Oklahoma. Looking to the midterms and Kennedy’s reelection, Kerr and Carl Albert well understood that Democratic hopes in the state were pinned on a strong, vigorous turnout from Albert’s southeastern Oklahoma constituents. A Kennedy visit would help with midterm turnout and his 1964 reelection.

Despite its tiny population, poor roads, and a rainy forecast, more than 25,000 turned out for the event, which was no small feat in a county of 29,000 that was hundreds of miles from population centers. Such a crowd seemingly vindicated Albert’s belief that an “upswing in the economy” and administration programs made Kennedy “much more popular” in his district than in 1960. But Kennedy also had arrived at a momentous and somber moment that had nothing to do with 1964.  Speaker Sam Rayburn lay in the hospital stricken with cancer and with only weeks to live. Consequently, rumors over House leadership succession abounded.

With Rayburn’s passing imminent, Albert, as the Majority Whip, found himself in the middle of national political intrigue.  Tom Wicker of the New York Times reported how Oklahoma Democrats took every opportunity to “promote Albert for Speaker of the House.”  But maneuvering to leapfrog the current Majority Leader, John McCormack, was not Albert’s nature. Oklahoma Congressmen engineered Albert’s “package deal” with the president whereby McCormack and Albert would both advance one slot. The move kept Rayburn’s leadership team intact and maintained the Austin-Boston alliance. With McCormack in his seventies, Albert’s move to Majority Leader made his quick ascension to the Speaker’s office all but certain.

The Big Cedar event momentarily gave Albert the national limelight. Serving as the master of ceremonies, he heaped praise upon the president, his Democratic colleagues, and even the press.  When it was the president’s turn to speak, Kennedy praised Albert for always being in the front leading “in the fight for New Frontier development projects.” Albert estimated that Kennedy devoted two-thirds of his address to praise for him. Such a tribute “made it appear” that the president had endorsed the Whip for Majority Leader. Kerr later said of Kennedy’s words that they “reverberated not only through the mountains of Southeast Oklahoma and the third congressional district, but reached the halls of Congress.”  In January, Albert easily defeated the press corps darling, the urban liberal Dick Bolling, for the Majority Leader spot.

Kennedy’s political trip most surely redounded to Albert’s benefit. But Albert claimed the president’s visit, in combination with a strong economy and tangible federal benefits, boosted the president with southeast Oklahoma voters.  Indeed, in the 1962 midterms, Oklahoma Democrats held serve on every high-profile race, except the governorship, which the GOP won due to an extraordinary degree of Democratic infighting. Even more telling was the reaction of Albert’s constituents when Kennedy was assassinated. Throughout southeastern Oklahoma, life ground to a halt. Schools closed and most every business shut its doors on the day of the assassination and after. One week after Kennedy’s death, an area bank president noted, “There has been next to no business transactions since last Friday.” Clearly, Kennedy’s foray to the district and political relationship with Albert had made some mark.

Partially fueled by Kennedy’s memory, and a strong economy, in 1964, LBJ, who was a well-known quantity in the state, took Oklahoma easily. In that election, Kerr, who had died of a heart attack in early 1963, was replaced by a Democrat, a little-known state senator named Fred Harris. Harris defeated his GOP opponent Bud Wilkinson, the legendary three-time national championship coach of the Oklahoma University football team. In the 2022 multiverse, how many times does an earnest, unknown state senator defeat a celebrity football coach? in a football mad state? for a senate seat? 

JFK’s rise reveals the political maturity of urban America and power of the educated middle class in the Democratic Party. Those were political realities whose time had arrived. Kennedy’s forays to Oklahoma boosted rural Democrats in 1962. In this way, Kennedy was not necessarily trying to win the Sooner state for himself so much as he was helping to elect Oklahoma Democrats who were key in maintaining control of the Congress and passing his agenda.  Indeed, as Majority Leader, Albert was decisive in passing the New Frontier and later Great Society legislation. In 1970, he finally rose to the Speaker’s Office.

At root, JFK and Albert’s political relationship was transactional. Urban liberals sent federal largesse to rural states and gave their representatives powerful political posts in return for support from rural voters and powerful senate and congressional barons. But transactional is not tantamount to buying support. An LBJ supporter in 1960, Albert, and other Oklahoma Democratic elites, came to hold Kennedy in very high personal regard. They did so in no small part because, Kennedy was careful to not so transgress rural political norms and cultural sensibilities that he would become a political albatross for rural Democrats.

In 2022, promising rural broadband and a plethora of federal spending won’t do the trick for Democrats in rural, white America. To compete and, at least, slim the margins of defeat, Democrats, like Kennedy, must first simply show up in rural America. Second, they must recruit candidates with authentic rural cultural sensibilities (see Albert, Carl). More than that, urban Democrats should realize in an era of social media and cable news every backbench Democratic House member, statewide officeholder, or even your favorite keyboard warrior is a potential Fox News bête noir. In 2022, we are all “influencers.” To win rural whites, or simply be competitive, Democrats need to revive their image as the party of main street rather than the bougie avenues of farm-to-table restaurants of the educated middle class. Democrats cannot do that when officeholders and activists, alike, are more interested in winning Twitter as opposed to rebuilding the party’s image as one in sync with the cultural sensibilities of mainstream America.

The Albert-Kennedy episode reveals a relatively recent political past in which rural and urban America were intimately joined in the Democratic Party. Kennedy gave Albert’s ascension to the Majority Leader and Speaker’s post his political blessing. In a very real sense, an urbane, big city Catholic Democrat gave rural Oklahomans a seat at the political table. Five years later, rural Oklahomans built a monument to a slain president, such gestures seem almost alien in our current rural-urban divide. That divide, however, is one that not only can be bridged, but the survival of our democracy may also very well depend upon it.