Chapter XX of Part One of Political Reform in Wisconsin (1910) by Emanuel L. Philipp (see Introduction and Contents)
Three times since it was enacted into law and put in force in 1904 by approval of the voters at the polls, has the primary statute been repudiated by the men who were responsible for its adoption as the law of Wisconsin. In 1906 Francis McGovern was a candidate for renomination for the office of district attorney of Milwaukee county, and he was defeated by Frank X. Boden by a vote of 13,605 to 12,906. This was the result of a direct primary where the voters used the ordinary ballot, the nearest approach to an Australian ballot known in this state, and signified their choice of candidates under a system designed to give "the people the absolute power to say who their candidates for office should be--of insuring to each man an equal voice in the selection of candidates."
The day following the primary Mr. McGovern, who was one of the original primary law advocates and a leader in the fight for its enactment, was quoted by a newspaper as saying that he was defeated fairly, or words to that effect. Later, he changed his mind and filed a newspaper indictment against the citizens who voted for Mr. Boden, charging that they were all grafters or friends of grafters. He was subsequently elected by a vote of 15,510, an increase over his primary vote of 2,604, while Mr. Boden polled but 13,783, an increase of but 178 above his primary vote. It is a significant fact that Mr. Thiel, the social democratic candidate for district attorney, ran 2,213 votes behind the highest vote polled for a candidate on his ticket. But that was an election matter and ought not to appear in the account against the primary law experiment.
Again, in 1908, H. L. Ekern, former speaker of the assembly, another leader in the campaign for the enactment of the primary law, was a candidate for renomination in Trempealeau county, and he was opposed and defeated by H. L. Twesme by a vote of 2,157 to 2,013. Nothing occurred at this election that might not be expected at any Wisconsin primary. The total vote of the two republican candidates was 4,170. In 1902 the total vote for assemblyman in that county, democratic and republican, was 2,623; in 1904 it was 4,510 of which 1,201 were cast for the democratic candidate, leaving 3,309 as the largest republican vote ever cast for assembly in that county previous to 19Q8; in 1906 the total vote of both parties was 2,345. These figures indicate the extent to which democrats participated in republican primaries in 1908.
As in the case of Mr. McGovern two years before, Mr. Ekern refused to abide by the decision of the primary and came out as an independent candidate by petition. He was defeated at the election in November, being less fortunate than the first primary election bolter.
Mr. Ekern's cause was supported in the campaign for the election by a majority of the persistent La Follette men. The word "persistent" is used in this connection to distinguish the men who have continued to be loyal to the senator since the numerous cracks and splits in the so-called "halfbreed" faction appeared, breaking it up into warring tribes that have nothing in common but their dislike of the stalwarts. Senator La Follette went into Trempealeau county and delivered public addresses in support of Mr. Ekern, thereby giving his personal approval to the bolters and their leader. On the other hand, Gov. James 0. Davidson took the stump for Mr. Twesme, arguing that consistency demanded of all men who had supported the primary election movement a loyal support of the candidates nominated by the party at the primaries now held under the provisions of the law they had caused to be enacted.
The third instance of repudiation of the primary election law by the men who were instrumental in forcing the law upon the people of the state was one that attracted some attention even beyond the borders of the state. Senator Isaac Stephenson, nominated at the primary held in September, 1908, over S. A. Cook, Francis McGovern, and W. H. Hatton, appeared before the legislature for election as the regularly nominated republican candidate. But the cordial sentiments of mutual esteem that formerly had bound Senators La Follette and Stephenson together in the closest bonds of interest and purpose had changed. The followers of the senior senator refused to abide by the decision of the primary and demanded an investigation into the amount of money expended by the junior senator in securing the nomination. They also wanted to know who got the money. Mr. Stephenson was re-elected after a time. It has been said that the investigators are still dissatisfied with results and are determined to pile up still more testimony indicative of the blessings that are inseparable from the operations of this most perfect law-—this law that puts up the party nomination at auction to be knocked down to the highest bidder.
Fair minded, clean handed citizens will not file objections to an investigation designed to expose corruption and punish offenders against the corrupt practices act, but they might have expected--and many of them did--just such a campaign as the one waged in 1908 for the seat in the United States senate. The expense statements on file in the office of the secretary of state show that the contest for that nomination cost the candidates $192,977.59. It is not reasonable to suppose these statements are accurate to a cent. In point of fact, supplemental statements were subsequently filed that do not appear in this total. By adding to the sworn statements of the candidates for the United States senate the $96,788.36 expended in Milwaukee city and county the same year, the $23,013.19 spent by candidates for state offices, and the $50,417.79 spent by candidates for congress the tidy sum of $363,196.93 is obtained, it would be interesting to know what the candidates in the seventy counties not mentioned expended and what the total for the entire state amounted to.
The story of the contest for the election in the legislature last winter that resulted in the return of Mr. Stephenson to the United States senate is written in the volumes of testimony taken before the investigation committees. It is a story of lavish expenditure of money by all four candidates in perfecting state organizations and in making a state canvass for votes. But this result was anticipated and pointed out in advance by the opponents of the primary election law. "The certain effect of the law in operation," about which Gov. La Follette was so eloquent in his message to the legislature in 1901, embraced, among other things, the expenditure of large sums of money by candidates seeking nominations.
The real significance of that investigation is found in the fact that the La Follette contingent, or branch, of the halfbreed faction repudiated their own law when they refused to support Senator Stephenson. Senator Stephenson spent money liberally in securing the nomination, and in doing this he merely followed his uniform practice. He spent money liberally in the interests of Senator La Follette when that gentleman was building up his faction in this state and it was to be expected that he wou1d be no less liberal when he was himself a candidate for office. The other candidates were as free in the use of money as Mr. Stephenson when "their ability to pay" is considered. Mr. McGovern, who says he is a poor man comparatively, having spent more than $16,000 two years before in running for the office of district attorney of Milwaukee county, found it necessary to dispose of more than $11,000 in the senatorial campaign. When men of Mr. McGovern's moderate means can find approximately $28,000 in two years to invest in office-seeking, it is not surprising that Mr. Stephenson should take from his many millions a paltry $107,000 to be used in the same manner.
Without any disposition to defend Mr. Stephenson's large expenditures of money, it may be well to consider some of the necessities in the case of a man who seeks a United States senatorship under the conditions under which Mr. Stephenson was a candidate. He announced his candidacy less than seven weeks before the primary. There was no party organization that he could avail himself of. The fact is the contest was within the so-called republican party of Wisconsin. There are seventy-one counties in this state and in order to feel reasonably certain of success, it must have been necessary to build an organization in each county. Every man who has had anything to do with political work knows that organizations of that character can not be created without money. The necessary advertising for meetings, hall rent, messenger service, and many other expenditures, all perfectly proper, amount to large sums. It may be argued that such an organization is unnecessary or objectionable, and that people know whom to vote for without being dragged into political mass meetings. It must, however, be clear to every one that some effort is required. The voter must at least know who the candidate is. There are in round numbers 700,000 voters in the state of Wisconsin. The least and most inoffensive thing that a candidate for United States senator or state office can do is to write each voter a letter. That alone will cost $25,000. If Mr. Stephenson had addressed five letters to each voter in the state, which certainly would not be unreasonable, his expenses would have exceeded the amount which he has reported. It may be argued that his efforts should have been directed to republicans only. How is a man without a party list to know who is a republican or who is a democrat? Tue very best he can do, if he wishes to reach the voters by letter, is to take the entire polling list and address his communications to all voters regardless of their political persuasion.