In this year’s midterms, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin narrowly won reelection. What this makes him, interestingly enough, is the greatest Republican vote-getter statewide for federal office from Wisconsin in this generation. The last Republican senator, Bob Kasten, served two terms before his defeat by Russ Feingold, and Joseph McCarthy’s second term was cut short by his death. The last Republican who pulled off more than two terms was McCarthy’s colleague, Alexander Wiley (1884-1967).
Wiley and the Republican Resurgence
The worst days for Republicans in terms of political power were the first six years of FDR’s presidency. However, by 1938 there was backlash to President Roosevelt’s “court packing plan” as well as to the “Roosevelt Recession”. There was a general sense that the New Deal hadn’t recovered the economy much, and that Roosevelt was getting too powerful. One of the victories the GOP had was attorney Alexander Wiley’s defeat of Democratic incumbent Senator F. Ryan Duffy in a three-way race. Wiley had previously run for governor in 1936 but lost to Progressive Philip La Follette, and his election along with those of other Republicans in Congress began the decline of the second incarnation of the Progressive Party. Wiley quickly won over his colleagues with his pleasant demeanor as well as hosting “Cheese Day” on April 28th, 1939 at the Senate restaurant and wheeled in what was called the world’s largest cheese and a bust of Vice President John Nance Garner…made of cheese (Wisconsin Alumni Association). Wiley was a foe of the New Deal who backed proposals to curb the power of organized labor, but not an absolutist. On foreign policy, he was a staunch non-interventionist, opposing ending the arms embargo in 1939, the peacetime draft in 1940, and Lend-Lease and arming merchant ships in 1941. In 1943, Wiley would vote to require that membership in any international organization be by treaty only.
In 1944, Wiley was challenged for renomination by U.S. Marine Captain Joseph R. McCarthy. However, he turned back this challenge and McCarthy would join Wiley in the Senate in 1947. That year, Wiley faced Congressmen Howard J. McMurray and Harry Sauthoff, a Democrat and Progressive respectively. Both men ran to his left, with McMurray being one of the most left-wing members of Congress. Wiley won with 50.5% of the vote.
The Vandenberg Switch
The most famous figure in the Senate to “switch” from non-interventionism to internationalism was Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who famously argued in March 1947 that we must “stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” (Curl). Many senators followed him, and one of them was Wiley. During the Truman Administration, he would be strongly supportive of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan and would even go further in his support of Part IV foreign aid (assisting poor countries rather than just war-torn countries) as well as his opposition to the Bricker Amendment. As Foreign Relations Committee chairman during the 83rd Congress, he was a crucial opponent of the Bricker Amendment, and this enraged Wisconsin Republicans, who voted to censure him for his opposition in 1953. Wiley held that the amendment was “the most dangerous thing that has ever been brought before Congress” (TIME, 1953). He voted against both the original Bricker Amendment and the compromise version sponsored by Senator Walter George (D-Ga.). Senator Wiley’s turn to such internationalism was not popular among fellow Republicans, but he believed that foreign aid would in the long run be to the nation’s, and by extension, Wisconsin’s benefit. Although an internationalist, Wiley as Judiciary Committee chairman in 1948 sponsored with Senator W. Chapman Revercomb (R-W.V.) a Displaced Persons Act designed to alleviate the European war refugee problem. This measure was accused of being overly restrictive and designed to limit the number of Jews. Wiley would, however, vote for a revision on April 5, 1950 that considerably expanded the number of displaced persons that could be taken in, including many Jews.
Wiley on the Issues
In 1947, Wiley’s ADA score had been a 20, but in 1957 it was an 83. While the issue of civil rights, a subject Wiley was strongly supportive of, took up three of the twelve votes counted for 1957 and took up zero for 1947, other subjects counted as liberal in 1957 included his votes against limiting foreign aid, his vote to authorize self-financing for the TVA, and his vote for the Hells Canyon Dam. His overall ADA score, which covered 1947 to 1962 and modified to exclude counting absences, was a 40, indicating a moderate record.
Senator Wiley was a consistent supporter of civil rights legislation throughout his career, and in 1957 he voted against striking the 14th Amendment implementation and against requiring jury trials for criminal contempt cases under the law in the Civil Rights Act of 1957. However, the weaker version prevailed. Wiley would also support the Civil Rights Act of 1960 and the 24th Amendment.
Wiley and the St. Lawrence Seaway
The greatest legislative achievement of Alexander Wiley is something that continues to benefit the United States and Canada today, the St. Lawrence Seaway. He sponsored the legislation authorizing its construction with Congressman George Dondero (R-Mich.). President Eisenhower signing the bill into law was the culmination of a twenty-year campaign to make the project a reality and received overwhelming support in the Great Lakes states. The Wiley-Dondero Canal is named in the legislators’ honor.
Ducking Joseph McCarthy and Maintaining Popularity
Although Wiley was of course an anti-communist, he kept his distance from his colleague Joseph McCarthy and successfully dodged controversy surrounding him. On the issue of censure, he scheduled attending a conference in South America to avoid the vote. His maneuvering was similar to that of Senator John F. Kennedy, who scheduled his back surgery on the day of the censure vote to avoid having to vote to censure a friend of the Kennedy family. The relationship between McCarthy and Wiley was best described by Wiley himself: “Joe and I have never had an altercation. He goes his way and I go mine” (TIME). In 1956, Wiley won reelection by over 17 points, a contrast to 1950, when he prevailed by over 7 points against the same candidate.
The 1962 Election – Temper, Temper
Senator Wiley maintained a moderate record during the Kennedy Administration, voting against Kennedy’s standby public works proposal and Medicare in 1962 while supporting his foreign policy positions and supporting federal aid to education. However, Senator Wiley was getting on in years; by 1962 he was 78 years old and faced a formidable challenger in Governor Gaylord Nelson (yes, that was his name).
Nelson had been elected in the Democratic wave of 1958 and proved popular enough to challenge the old senator. 1962 was a deeply unimpressive midterm for the GOP, as they lost four seats in the Senate. Nelson pursued a cheeky strategy against Wiley by campaigning across the state blasting him for when he voted conservative, such as on his opposition to Medicare. He counted on Wiley to lose his temper so Nelson could dismiss him as senile, and it worked like a charm. Wiley publicly called Nelson a “nitwit” and responded with hostility to questions from reporters; to one who asked about his stance on Medicare, he snapped, “You keep your damn nose out of my business and I’ll keep mine out of yours”, and to another’s question he shouted, “Shut up!” (TIME, 1962) Wiley was one of the four losses on Election Day. Nelson would remark after defeating him, “He performed on schedule” (TIME, 1962). He would go on to found Earth Day and serve three terms in the Senate before being defeated in the Reagan landslide by Bob Kasten. Wiley died of a stroke in a nursing home on October 26, 1967.
P.S.: I am waiting for the results to be in before I go over the midterms and what they mean.
Curl, J. (2018, July 18). Petty Partisan Politics No Longer Stops At The Water’s Edge. The Daily Wire.
Nation: Wisconsin: Right on Schedule. (1962, November 16). TIME.
National Affairs: The Bricker Amendment: A Cure Worse Than The Disease? (1953, July 13). TIME.
National Affairs: Wiley’s Wile. (1955, March 14). TIME.
The Big Cheese: Chippewa County. (2017, August 4). Wisconsin Alumni Association.
Wiley is Censured By Wisconsin G.O.P.; Senator Asked to Reconsider Opposition to Curbing of President on Treaties. (1953, June 14). The New York Times.
2 thoughts on “The Big Cheese of the Badger State GOP”
Interesting AND Timely Unlike This Election! Pokes N Packers… The BIG Cheese Today. Happy Sunday From Cowboy Country. Dave NO BETO. Average White Band.
Supposedly The Senate Mail Room Got Wiley Confused With A Very Different Senator During One Of Their Mailouts. IT May Have Been McCarthy! Can’t Remember The Source Now. Funny Story. Perhaps You Can Find This. Happy Thanksgiving From TEXAS… Dave.