1952 was a great year for the Republican Party: they won the presidency and won control of both chambers of Congress. Senator Richard Nixon (R-Calif.) was now vice president, and in his place Governor Earl Warren, himself a presidential contender, picked his protege, Thomas Kuchel (1910-1994), to succeed Nixon. One might think of Kuchel as something of an avatar for Earl Warren were he in Congress rather than on the Supreme Court, as he had served as controller under him. Kuchel displayed conservatism in his first two years in Congress, scoring an 80% on the MC-Index, including a vote against censuring Joseph McCarthy. He justified this vote despite expressing distaste for McCarthy in a 1980 interview as consistent with his vote on the Dennis Chavez election case, in which he was one of only three Republicans to vote for his seating over the Republican who contested the election (Gillette, 10). After the 1954 election, Kuchel would build up his reputation as a moderate Republican and gained a lot of support from the Rockefeller Republicans. Indeed, he sided with Eisenhower on almost every significant issue. In 1958, Kuchel supported the California GOP’s effort to swap moderate Governor Goodwin Knight and moderate conservative Senator William F. Knowland, which failed on both fronts; Pat Brown (Jerry’s father) won the gubernatorial race and Congressman Clair Engle won the Senate race.
In 1959, the senator’s profile rose considerably with the leadership election in the GOP. Although the conservatives won the leader position with the election of Illinois’ delightful and politically shrewd ham Everett Dirksen, the Rockefeller wing won the whip position with Thomas Kuchel. Kuchel’s record during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations was highly conciliatory, with him scoring at lowest a 26% and at highest a 50%. He played a key role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and considered this one of his proudest achievements. Kuchel was also a staunch internationalist (albeit an anti-communist one) and helped Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) to get support for President Kennedy’s Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, which banned above-ground nuclear testing. For California, he was instrumental in the establishment of Redwood National Park.
Kuchel vs. Conservatives
Thomas Kuchel had, to put it charitably, a testy relationship with conservatives and more extreme characters on the right in the GOP, and partly it was his voting record. He had supported numerous key planks of the Great Society, including the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964, Medicare in 1965, and the failed effort to repeal the “right to work” section of the Taft-Hartley Act. He was also one of only three Republicans to vote against a school prayer amendment in 1966. Kuchel did, however, oppose rent subsidies, federal dictation of unemployment benefits, and in a notable disagreement with his mentor voted for an amendment to permit state legislative apportionment to take into account factors other than population. His underwhelming record from a conservative perspective in truth wasn’t enough to do him in.
Despite being party whip, he did not endorse Richard Nixon’s bid for governor in 1962, Barry Goldwater’s and George Murphy’s campaigns for the White House and the Senate respectively in 1964 over ideological disagreements, and Ronald Reagan’s campaign for governor in 1966. He did not endorse Nixon in 1962 because he opted to endorse no one else in his bid for governor in a failed effort to appear independent and please both moderates and conservatives. In 1966, he did not endorse Reagan because he conditioned his endorsement on him publicly repudiating the John Birch Society, which he didn’t do. Kuchel didn’t endorse him despite the Reagan campaign promising that there would be no primary challenge to him in 1968. He even went as far as to accuse the conservative movement in 1966 of being “a fanatical neo-fascist political cult in the GOP, driven by a strange mixture of corrosive hatred and sickening fear, who are recklessly determined to either control our party, or destroy it” (Kabaservice, 169). It is only fair to note that Kuchel’s harsh antagonism to this wing did not come out of a vacuum. He had received a string of letters from John Birch Society members warning of an invasion of the United States from Mexico. As Kuchel stated, “I got thousands of letters telling me that Chinese communists were in Mexico preparing to invade California” and after investigating he wrote a letter stating, “We have no evidence of communists gathering in Mexico, Chinese or otherwise” (Reich). The Birchers subsequently labeled him a “comsymp” (communist sympathizer). Worse yet, Kuchel, a man who was married and had a daughter, was maliciously libeled by an accusation that he was a homosexual based on a claim that he was arrested for such behavior in 1949 (the man arrested was not Senator Kuchel). The perpetrators, which included a Los Angeles police officer, were successfully prosecuted for libel.
Kuchel seemed to be under the impression that given his leadership position in the GOP that he could burn bridges with the conservative wing based on the actions of certain extremists. His antagonistic relationship with the party’s conservative wing in addition to a self-admittedly anemic campaign narrowly cost him renomination in 1968 to the superintendent of public instruction Max Rafferty, a staunch conservative. Kuchel stated on his loss in his final Senate speech, “Some of the votes I have cast I know have been very costly to me politically. I think it is…vital that the Senate of the United States lead political opinion instead of following it” (U.S. Senate). It could be argued Kuchel got the last laugh when Rafferty lost to staunchly liberal Democrat Alan Cranston, the product of a campaign that started by alienating more moderate Republicans and an accusation that Rafferty had been a draft-dodger during World War II. Kuchel’s MC-Index score was a 48%, indicating an overall moderate record even though his words for conservatives were immoderate. Despite his loss, he had no regrets about his position, stating “Progressive Republicans brought to politics the philosophy of governing for the many. What comes particularly to my mind is Medicare. If it weren’t for Medicare today, there would be tens of thousands of Americans living in the poorhouse, with no care. It was a baker’s dozen progressive Republicans in the Senate who agreed we would vote for Medicare….I was their spokesman, and we provided the necessary margin for passage.” and said of conservatives that their theme “was militant anti-communism…They seemed convinced we were about to be invaded by the communists” (Reich).
Kuchel was a combative party moderate and although some of his decisions surrounding the conservative wing of the party are understandable and his 1962 refusal to endorse Nixon certainly didn’t cost him (he won his reelection handily that year), his 1966 refusal to endorse Reagan despite being offered an olive branch as well as his calling the conservative movement a “fanatical neo-fascist political cult” set him on his course to defeat. Kuchel is, like his mentor Earl Warren, without doubt a figure who could not be elected, much less become whip, in the modern Republican Party given not just their disagreements but outright antagonism to the conservatives.
Gillette M.L. (1980, May 15). Interview of Thomas H. Kuchel. Lyndon Baines Johnson Library Oral History Collection.
Kabaservice, G. (2012). Rule & ruin: the downfall of moderate and the destruction of the Republican party, from Eisenhower to the tea party – studies in post war US political development. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Reich, K. (1994, November 23). O.C. Politician and Ex-Senator Kuchel, 84, Dies. The Los Angeles Times.
Thomas H. Kuchel: A Featured Biography. United States Senate.
2 thoughts on “Thomas Kuchel: An Immoderate Moderate”
This entry suddenly reminds me of a naive and boring neoconservative sentiment style nowadays alleging that past Republican icons were moderates who would reject GOP politics today. I recall an ad by the anti-Trump “Lincoln” Project in 2020 bashing Martha McSally as too partisan and calling Barry Goldwater a person of courage by comparison. Of course, Goldwater received the same type of smears in 1964 by the likes of Kuchel who viewed him as too extreme and would destroy the GOP. A similar historical example was when Harold Stassen and George Aiken in the 1940s opposed the “reactionary Old Guard” Taft faction led by B. Carroll Reece when the latter was RNC chair.
Also, thanks for mentioning more details about Kuchel’s vote against censuring McCarthy.
You’re welcome, I was curious about that vote myself when researching this as it stuck out like a sore thumb.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that collection of has-beens took their cues on this one from the staunchly left-wing Americans for Democratic Action, which gave McSally a 3% lifetime score. ACU and DW-Nominate on the other hand give her a 74% and a 0.345 respectively, which is demonstrative of how utterly awful ADA is at distinguishing conservatism among Republicans. Also, the historical smearing reminds me of Thomas Brackett Reed’s classic line: “A statesman is a politician who is dead.”