Accusations of vote buying and using other dirty political tricks were flying the last time a Republican defeated a fellow Republican in Northeast Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District GOP primary.
This particular primary campaign — a classic case of hardball politics in a congressional district dominated by Republicans — happened more than 50 years ago.
Those accusations, made by incumbent U.S. Rep. Dayton Phillips after he lost the Aug. 3, 1950, 1st Congressional District GOP primary to political veteran B. Carroll Reece, didn’t stick.
The 2008 Republican primary battle shaping up in Northeast Tennessee between incumbent U.S. Rep. David Davis and Johnson City Mayor Phil Roe is expected to be contentious, but it probably won’t come close to matching what happened between Phillips and Reece.
With charges and countercharges happening almost daily, district newspapers had a field day covering the Reece and Phillips campaigns.
Those newspapers included the Kingsport Times-News, Johnson City Press-Chronicle, Bristol Herald-Courier and Elizabethton Star. Reece kept newspaper clippings of the primary battle in scrapbooks housed at the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University.
In the summer of 1950, Reece was seeking to regain the congressional seat he had held off and on for more than 20 years. The Butler native was chairman of the Republican National Committee between 1946 and 1948, and he had given his congressional seat up to run for a Tennessee U.S. Senate seat in 1948 — a campaign he lost.
Phillips, a Carter County lawyer, was seeking his third term in Congress but felt the Reece political machine was stacked against him.
Reece, while speaking to large crowds across the district, attacked Phillips for voting with a liberal New York congressman “13 out of 17 times ... when he was supposed to have his feet on the ground.”
Phillips charged that Reece was interested only in “personal treasures” and was part of a conspiracy with Guy L. Smith, then-editor of the Knoxville Journal. Phillips insisted that Smith, who was also chair of the state Republican Party, was biased against him.
Reece surrogates also attacked Phillips’ World War II service. A “lead pencil” was the only weapon Phillips ever carried during the war, one surrogate said in a speech. When Phillips got his military induction notice, he asked Reece to get him a “soft assignment,” the surrogate added.
Phillips labeled Reece as a “product of the reactionary wing” of the Republican Party and called him a “champion of the privileged.”
Phillips, meanwhile, cast himself as a “friend of the man who carries a dinner pail and who walks behind the plow.”
The political acrimony spilled over after Reece defeated Phillips by nearly 3,000 votes in the primary.
Two days after the primary, Phillips announced he was investigating what he described as “wholesale violations of the law” and “excessive use of money” in the election.
“Everyone could see that was one of the most orderly and well-conducted elections ever conducted in the district,” Reece countered.
After Phillips came to Blountville and looked on as the Sullivan County GOP Primary Board certified the county’s official returns, rumors flew “thick and fast” that Phillips would run against Reece as an independent in the November general election.
Reece attacked Phillips for deserting the Republican Party after filing to run as an independent.
“People now see him as he really is — a turncoat,” Reece said of Phillips.
Phillips released a lengthy statement saying that the congressional seat lies “in the clutches of a power-greedy band of selfish and cynical old men” — mainly Reece and Smith.
“The principle weapons in this 1950 model Axis are money and controlling the voting machinery of the Republican Party,” Phillips said in the statement. “When I entered the Republican primary this year, I was not aware of the crushing weight that would be brought to bear against me, but even I who has felt this poisonous pressure in two previous campaigns was hardly prepared to the lengths and depth it would go this time.”
Phillips charged there was a “pattern of vote buying, illegal marking of ballots of aged and illiterate people, inflation of tally sheets, voting by underage boys and girls, hauling of floating voters from one district to another and even from one county to another.”
A Kingsport Times-News editorial, headlined “Stick With Reece,” was unsympathetic toward Phillips.
“Of course Dayton Phillips has every right to run as an independent. He also has every right to butt his head against a stone wall,” the editorial said.
In the November general election, Reece easily outdistanced Phillips and Democratic nominee Kyle King. Reece had more than 30,500 votes compared to 18,297 for Phillips and 16,782 for King.
Reece retained his congressional seat until his death in Bethesda, Md., on March 19, 1961.
Phillips resumed his law practice and became chancellor of Tennessee’s 1st Chancery Court from 1952 until his death in Kingsport on October 23, 1980.
For more about the Archives of Appalachia at ETSU, go to www.etsu.edu/cass/Archives.