The close convention upset that history mostly forgot

For political junkies, it’s the 1968 Indiana Republican Convention that best exemplifies a sort of golden era of state convention floor fights. The gubernatorial battle on the GOP side that year is well-remembered because it was a hotly contested race between the sitting Secretary of State (Edgar Whitcomb) and the sitting Speaker of the Indiana House (Otis Bowen), both of whom would eventually become beloved governors (less well-remembered is that future U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz was a third candidate in that race).

It’s also remembered because it marked a sort of statewide coming out party for Keith Bulen, who helped engineer a coalition of large-county delegations that backed a successful slate of candidates that was led by Whitcomb. Bulen had made a name for himself in Indianapolis after winning election as a state representative in 1960, wresting control of the Marion County party from the iron grip of Dale Brown in 1966, and orchestrating a mayoral victory for an untested young candidate named Dick Lugar in 1967, but his sights were set much higher. The 1968 convention would end with Bulen being named the Republican National Committeeman from Indiana, which in turn would build his profile nationally and place him in the orbit of Presidents Nixon and Reagan. The 1968 Republican race for Governor stands out as much for its place in the significant Bulen mythology that would be built up over the following three decades as it does for the candidates involved.

But while most people might best recall the Republican convention, it wasn’t as dramatic as most think: Whitcomb won on the first ballot with 1,260 votes, with Bowen and Butz finishing well off in the distance with 527 and 429 votes respectively. In truth, it was actually the 1968 Indiana Democratic Party convention that produced a floor fight to be remembered, both because it featured a colossal upset and because it ended with what’s probably the narrowest margin of victory ever seen in a state convention.

That race featured a matchup between heavy favorite Dick Bodine–who was then Minority Leader in the Indiana House and had been Speaker just two years prior—and sitting Lt. Governor Robert Rock. While serving as Speaker in 1965, Bodine had attracted the support of Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Gordon St. Angelo, who deemed Bodine a better successor to popular Democratic governor Roger Branigin than Rock, Branigin’s Lt. Governor. For the next three years, St. Angelo and other Democratic officials effectively put the full weight of the state committee behind Bodine, even go so far as to endorse a slate of candidates headed by Bodine in the days leading up to the convention.

Given this longstanding establishment support, coupled with Bodine’s high profile as a House Speaker, it was easy to see Rock’s candidacy as the Quixotic efforts of a jilted Lt. Governor. But what was expected to be a relatively easy victory for Bodine at the June 21 convention ended up shocking the Hoosier political world when Rock narrowly edged Bodine 953-951 for a two-vote victory. Adding insult to injury, twenty-eight delegates failed to vote at all, with most of them coming from the Lake County delegation that favored Bodine.

In one apocryphal accounting of how such an upset could occur (oft-repeated amongst Democrats and published in a 2002 edition of Howey Politics Indiana) twenty-three Lake County delegates were so confident in Bodine’s victory that they skipped out on the convention to hang out at the hotel pool. While such a version of events makes for a good story, it’s tough to verify: Newspaper coverage of the convention noted the missing delegates but didn’t speak to where they might have been. Additionally, neither campaign pointed to the missing delegates at all in their post-race analysis.

More importantly, though, the “swimmin’ delegates” theory fails to address why such a presumptive favorite ended up in such a close contest to begin with. Fortunately, that’s an answer that is easier to verify: According to Lt. Governor-nominee James Beatty at a press conference after the event, “It was obviously more of a vote against Gordon than against Dick.” Many delegates were apparently bothered that the state chairman would endorse a slate of candidates and try to force his will on the convention, and so they turned the gubernatorial race into a bit of a protest vote.

As if the slate by itself wasn’t enough, news reports surfaced in the days just prior to the convention that alleged St. Angelo had cut a deal with the Marion County party: In exchange for getting the Marion County delegates to vote as a bloc for the slate, the state party would forgive tens of thousands of dollars in outstanding assessment fees the local party owed them. Just for good measure, St. Angelo also put the Marion County chairman—Beatty—on the slate for Lt. Governor. While St. Angelo and Beatty both denied any such deal existed, the reports created backlash in two ways: First, out-state delegates resented Marion County getting a special deal on paying hefty assessments; and second, after Beatty failed in his attempt to cast the Marion County votes as a bloc, many of his delegates revolted against being told how to vote. The Marion County impact hit especially hard: While Bodine was expected to carry most of the delegation, the final tally showed more than a third of the 262 votes going for Rock.

But as much as the delegates bristled against St. Angelo’s heavy-handedness on the state races, it was his handling of the Presidential race that caused the most backlash. St. Angelo was close to Lyndon Johnson’s White House, and after Johnson dropped out he hoped to play a critical role in nominating Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the national convention. But Humphrey wasn’t yet an announced candidate when Robert Kennedy entered the race and made Indiana the first state in which he would be on the primary ballot. In an effort both to deny Indiana’s delegates to Kennedy, and to promote Branigin as a potential Vice Presidential pick, St. Angelo convinced Branigin to run for president in the Indiana primary.

While this plan failed when Kennedy won the primary and Branigin—widely seen as a Humphrey stand-in—only garnered about 3% of the vote, RFK’s assassination a month later essentially freed the Kennedy delegates. Two weeks later, supporters of Eugene McCarthy–who came in second and was the only other serious candidate in the Indiana primary–flooded into Indianapolis to demand the convention send McCarthy-aligned delegates to the national convention in Chicago instead of Humphrey-aligned delegates. Despite the demonstrations and protests both inside and outside of the convention hall that would foreshadow the riots to come in Chicago that August—at one point, a group of McCarthy supporters violently stormed the stage in an attempt to take control of the convention—St. Angelo manipulated the convention to ensure the vast majority of delegates would be Humphrey loyalists. While St. Angelo would make a point of saying he would give the McCarthy forces four or five delegates, that gesture was seen as hollow and the McCarthyites were set on making him pay. They would exact their revenge on Bodine, with McCarthy’s Indiana spokesman taking credit for Rock’s victory when the convention ended.

Though bruised, neither St. Angelo nor Bodine were beaten. St. Angelo would spend the rest of the year as co-campaign manager for Humphrey’s campaign and help him secure the nomination. He continued to serve as the state chair until 1974 and ended his ten-year tenure as the longest serving chair in state history. Bodine wasn’t a candidate for the state legislature in 1968 because of his gubernatorial bid, but he would win his seat back in 1970 and was immediately re-installed as Minority Leader.

Rock would lose to Whitcomb in November, Bowen would succeed Whitcomb, and Bulen would help ensure that Republicans would hold the Governor’s office for 20 years straight. As a result, popular history has mostly forgotten about the Democratic convention of that year and made the Republican convention more monumental in hindsight. But whether you prefer the hotel pool or the convention floor, if you’re a political junkie then the Democratic convention is where all the action was at.

Selected Bibliography

  • Howey, Brian. “A GOP Floor Fight” published in Howey Politics Indiana on June 12, 2002
  • Mooney, Robert P. “W For Whitcomb: Governor Choice Nominated On First Ballot In GOP Blitz”, published in The Indianapolis Star on June 19, 1968
  • Mooney, Robert P. “Favored Bodine Fails By 2 Votes In Governor Bid”, published in The Indianapolis Star on June 22, 1968
  • Myers, Hortense. “Feud strikes late in Democrat governor candidates’ contest”, published in The Greencastle Daily Banner on June 20, 1968
  • Quinn, Michael J. “No. 2 spot nomination bittersweet to Beatty”, published in The Indianapolis Star on June 22, 1968
  • Savage, Sean J. JFK, LBJ, and the Democratic Party. Published 2004. (Pages 295-298 discuss the role of St. Angelo and Branigin in the 1968 presidential primary).

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