The Most Conservative Democrats in History

On Tuesday, the voters sent House Republicans packing, giving Democrats a majority in the chamber. Because a number of traditionally GOP seats had enough voters antagonistic to Donald Trump, there is some speculation about how ideologically these incumbents will be. We probably can expect at least a moderate record, for instance, from former Republican Harley Rouda in the Orange County district he will represent after trouncing Dana Rohrabacher if he has any interest in winning another term. The same likely goes for Lizzie Fletcher of the Houston suburbs and Colin Allred of Dallas, who trounced John Culberson and Pete Sessions. However, none of these people or any of the Democratic newcomers are likely to match my list of most conservative federal Democratic officeholders in history.

  1. James B. Allen (1912-1978)

A staunch ally of Governor George Wallace and supporter of segregation, James B. Allen of Alabama was elected to the Senate in 1968 to succeed the retiring Lister Hill. Unlike Hill, who had up until the 1960s a history of being a staunch supporter of progressive legislation, Allen had no such past nor such future. Senator Allen quickly proved one of the most able legislators, mastering parliamentary procedure to further conservative causes. As a senator, he was a staunch opponent of the use of busing to achieve desegregation, opposed high federal spending, and was a leader of the opposition forces to the Panama Canal Treaty. He was also strictly ethical, giving up his directorships in numerous corporations upon his election and choosing only to earn his yearly salary as a senator.

Allen proved popular enough among conservatives for him to earn a vote at the 1976 Republican National Convention for Vice President. His life was cut short when he died instantly of a heart attack while on vacation with his wife, Maryon, on June 1, 1978. Whatever you thought of his views, Allen was undoubtedly an extraordinarily competent politician, and unfortunately the same cannot be said for the next person on this list.

  1. Pappy O’Daniel (1890-1969)

Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel was a Texas flour salesman and radio show host before making a foray into politics. His story was one that probably could only happen in America: in 1938 his devoted fans started floating the idea of him running for governor. Although he hadn’t been politically active until then, O’Daniel decided to run with the idea…all the way to victory on a platform of low taxes and a $30-a-month pension for every Texan over 65. He continued to broadcast his show from the governor’s mansion and maintained personal popularity, but proved quite incompetent at governance. Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson’s historian, wrote of O’Daniel, “Almost totally ignorant of the mechanics of government, O’Daniel proved unwilling to make even a pretense of learning, passing off the most serious problems with a quip…he offered few significant programs in any area, preferring to submit legislation that he knew could not possibly pass and then blame the legislature for not passing it” (Carlson, 2017).  The legislation he promoted was often not passed as it wasn’t realistic…his pension plan, for instance, could not be paid for without a raise in taxes.

In 1940, O’Daniel was elected to another term, but found himself wanting to go elsewhere. This opportunity came in 1941: aging progressive Senator Morris Sheppard died at 75. O’Daniel needed an interim senator who was popular yet wouldn’t compete with him for the Senate seat. The answer? Andrew Jackson Houston. Houston was the senile 87-year old son of Texas hero Sam Houston who O’Daniel hoped would survive until the election, but it was not to be: he appeared in the Senate only thrice and lived for two months. This was, however, ultimately sufficient for O’Daniel’s purposes, as he won the special election as well as the general election for the Senate seat. As a senator, he quickly drifted into the conservative wing of the Senate Democrats, and opposed FDR seeking another term. By the end of World War II, his voting record had become practically identical to that of the staunchest non-interventionist conservative Republicans. He also carried absolutely no influence in the Senate and was unable to get his colleagues to take him seriously. In the 80th Congress, O’Daniel managed to earn two zeroes from the liberal lobbying group Americans for Democratic Action, one of only three senators to do so that session. These factors finally taxed his popularity in Texas, and his approval rating was in the single digits. O’Daniel knew he was done and chose not to run for reelection in 1948. In 1958, he changed his mind about political retirement, and tried his hand again at running for governor on an anti-communist and pro-segregation platform, but found himself a hopeless has-been, with one old cowboy remarking upon his introduction, “Pappy O’Daniel? I thought he was dead” (Carlson, 2017). Eleven years later, the cowboy’s belief became a reality. Despite O’Daniel’s shortcomings in governance, he achieved one thing no one else in politics can lay claim to: defeating Lyndon B. Johnson in an election. He is also a partial inspiration for the character of Pappy O’Daniel in the film O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

  1. Rush Dew Holt (1905-1955)

In 1934, Rush Holt was elected to the Senate at the age of 29, a starry-eyed follower of FDR’s New Deal. He was not seated until his 30th birthday to fit the constitutional requirement for his seating. However, after the 1936 election, Holt had second thoughts about the New Deal and additionally was a staunch opponent of FDR’s foreign policy. He voted against the minimum wage and work relief while opposing the repeal of neutrality legislation.

As a consequence of Holt’s turn, Democratic Party patronage was exclusively funneled to West Virginia’s other senator, Matthew Neely, an Administration loyalist. His stances weren’t popular with the people of his state either. In 1940, he lost the Democratic primary, placing third. In 1942, he was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates and attempted to further his career there. In 1949, realizing he had no future in the Democratic Party, became a Republican and in 1952 he narrowly lost his bid to be governor. Although he was elected once again to the House of Delegates in 1954, Holt was terminally ill and the next year, only 49 years old. His son, Rush D. Holt Jr., served in Congress from New Jersey as a Democrat and did not follow in his father’s ideological footsteps.

  1. John O. Marsh Jr. (1926- )

Elected to Congress from Virginia’s 7th district in 1962 as a supporter of the Byrd Machine, John Marsh was a staunch conservative. In his eight years in the House he was an unrelenting opponent of the Great Society and civil rights. His antagonism towards civil rights seemed to die down after Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, as evidenced by his vote to fund the civil rights commission in 1970, the first time he had ever voted to fund the entity. After his time in Congress, Marsh switched his party affiliation to Republican and served as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Army for the entirety of his presidency. As of this writing, Marsh is still alive at 92.

  1. Strom Thurmond (1902-2003)

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The most famous person on this list, although Strom Thurmond is known as a Republican, he was once a Democrat, and what a conservative Democrat he was! Even absent the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was a possibility given his staunch conservatism that he would have flipped. As a Democrat, Thurmond was known for his tenure as South Carolina’s governor, his 1948 Dixiecrat campaign for the presidency on a segregationist platform, as well as his record-breaking 24-hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as a senator. He was also an uncompromising opponent of both JFK’s New Frontier and LBJ’s Great Society, which earned him a lot of praise from conservative politicians, activists, and publications. In 1964, he switched to the Republican Party after the nomination of Barry Goldwater for president. This was both an ideological and a survival move. The Voting Rights Act passed in the following year would have likely found him in a tough renomination battle the next time he was up for reelection. In 1968, Thurmond actively campaigned for Richard Nixon in South Carolina, which was a significant factor in the state voting for Nixon instead of Wallace. This accorded him the highest level of influence he would wield in his political career, and Nixon paid him back by unsuccessfully attempting to pass legislation to apply the Voting Rights Act nationwide, which would reduce some of the pressure on the South.

Ultimately, Thurmond moved along with the times. He hired a black staffer in 1971, voted to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1982, and voted for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1983. Such votes along with providing pork barrel projects to black constituencies and political appointments for key black community leaders helped stave off any serious political challenges. Thurmond remained in office until he retired in 2003, aged 100, and died later that year.

  1. Harry Byrd (1887-1966)

Although Virginia’s political machine leader, Governor Harry Byrd, initially had some sympathies with the New Deal when he was first elected to the Senate in 1932, he was always at heart a conservative and within two years in the Senate he proved one of the Roosevelt Administration’s most ardent Democratic Senate foes. He opposed work relief legislation, Social Security, various New Deal agencies, and the federal minimum wage. Despite having supported most of FDR’s foreign policy, Byrd opposed the Marshall Plan on spending grounds, an unusual vote even for a conservative Democrat.

Given his record, even in the 1940s he was attracting fans from the conservative wing of the Republican Party, some of whom entertained the idea of him being Secretary of the Treasury in a Republican administration. Byrd himself maintained a “golden silence” on presidential candidates, a compromise between his unbreakable affiliation with the Democratic Party yet his views on most major issues being with the Republican Party. For dissatisfied liberal Democrats in the state, Byrd was unfortunately an institution and politically unbeatable. Though even he tested some of his supporters when he instituted “massive resistance”, a policy against court ordered desegregation that meant the shutdown of public schools so white children could go to private schools.

Although passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 may very well have made him beatable (the law broke his machine’s hold on the state), it was brain cancer that defeated him, forcing his retirement in 1965 and causing his death the following year.

  1. Phil Gramm (1942- )

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Elected to Congress in 1978 as a conservative Democrat from Texas’s 6th district, Phil Gramm is one of the more famous people on this list. In 1981, he crossed the aisle to sponsor President Reagan’s economic program with Rep. Del Latta (R-Ohio), which cut the domestic budget, increased military spending, and mandated tax cuts. This resulted in the majority Democrats kicking him off the House Budget Committee shortly after being reelected. He resigned on January 5, 1983, and ran for the vacant seat as a Republican, easily winning the election the following month. In 1984, he ran for the Senate and won. He went to work in cutting the federal budget with a plan sponsored with Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), which instituted automatic spending cuts if deficit reduction targets weren’t met. Some of the provisions of this law were ruled unconstitutional, and much of the law was ultimately supplanted by other budget control measures.

In 1996, Gramm ran for the GOP nomination for president, but didn’t gain enough traction. In 1999, he sponsored a law that would become quite famous in the late 2000s economic downturn: the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, which had mandated branch banking. This act was a formalization of what in fact was already occurring in practice, as the rules surrounding the Glass-Steagall Banking Act had already been quite weakened. In 2002, he opted to retire from the Senate.

  1. Bob Stump (1927-2003)

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Elected to Congress in 1976 as a conservative Democrat from Arizona’s 3rd district, this man from the very beginning was rather out of place in his party. Stump regularly voted like a staunchly conservative Republican, but at the time of his election there was still a significant faction of Democrats like him. However, there was one Republican who won him over to the other side of the aisle: Ronald Reagan. Stump had been one of the staunchest Democratic backers of the Reagan economic program, and in 1982 he ran for reelection as a Republican.

As a Republican, Stump would serve on the House Armed Services Committee and eventually become its chair, being a leading advocate for military spending and veterans. He was also on most other issues a naysayer. Stump was easily one of the most conservative Republicans, opposing even the most popular social legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In 2002, Stump, in failing health, chose to retire from Congress and died the following year.

  1. John Rarick (1924-2009)

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Elected in 1966 in an anti-Johnson wave, Louisiana’s Rarick toppled a Democratic incumbent in the primary, James Morrison, who was a racial moderate. Not the case for Rarick, a judge who regularly railed against the civil rights movement and integration. In Congress, his record proved staunchly conservative and easily the most in his state’s delegation, which itself had more than its fair share of conservative Democrats. Rarick fought for such causes as restoring the gold standard, requiring a public referendum for war (a cause that ironically found him allied with black radicals), and opposing expansion of the federal government. He regularly associated himself with fringe causes and groups and was a regular speaker at far-right events, such as the New England Rally for God, Family, and Country. Although not a member of the John Birch Society himself, he was a sympathizer. Rarick’s career for all intents and purposes came to an end in 1974 when the Democrats nominated a more liberal talk show host, Jeff LaCaze, to oust him in the primary. Although he ran as the American Independent Party candidate in 1980 for president, his bid attracted little conservative attention. The staunch segregationist Rarick lived long enough to see the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.

  1. Larry McDonald (1935-1983)

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There was no doubt in my mind about this choice for most conservative Democrat. While in Congress from Georgia’s 7th district, Larry McDonald voted very much like another politician people from this generation know very well: Ron Paul. He stood for the gold standard, he voted more conservative than almost every other Republican, and Paul praised him as “the most principled man in Congress”. McDonald almost never failed to achieve a 100% score from the American Conservative Union and was so divorced from his party that the Democratic Party in his region issued a statement that he didn’t represent their views. In 1983, McDonald was chosen by the anti-communist John Birch Society’s aging founder, Robert W. Welch, to be its chair. That year he boarded Korean Air Lines Flight 007, on the way to Seoul to attend a celebration of the United States-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty. This flight would never make it to Seoul, as it flew through Soviet airspace and after being given warning shots the pilots likely didn’t detect, it was shot down by the Soviet fighters, killing all 269 passengers and crew aboard. As it turned out, McDonald had good reason to fear communism, just not quite in the way he thought.



Carlson, P. (2017, June). Texas radio showman talked his way into the U.S. Senate. HistoryNet.

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“To Suspend the Rules and Pass S. 2455 to Authorize Appropriations for the Civil Rights Commission”. Govtrack.

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Watson, E.L. (2010, November 9). James Allen. Encyclopedia of Alabama.

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