Rubel Phillips - Switching To The GOP

Switching To The GOP

Though Phillips had endorsed Adlai E. Stevenson for president in 1956 against the Republican incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy over Nixon in 1960, he left the Democrats in 1963 to run for governor as the Republican nominee in a bid to succeed the term-limited Ross Barnett, who had fought the desegregation in 1962 of the University of Mississippi. Phillips faced the Democratic nominee Paul Johnson, nearly as outspoken in defense of conservative politics as his predecessor Barnett.

Bidwell Adam, a former lieutenant governor under Governor Theodore Gilmore Bilbo and the Democratic state chairman in Mississippi at the time, said that Phillips had contacted him in 1962 to seek backing for a potential Democratic campaign for governor. Paul Johnson then claimed that Phillips had become "an overnight Republican" after failure to acquire financial support in a primary with a large open field. Johnson said that Phillips had been "anointed by Squirt Yerger in a Jackson hotel room," a reference to Republican chairman Wirt Adams Yerger, Jr., who served from 1956 to 1966. the first such candidate since 1947, when a former governor of Nebraska, George L. Sheldon, polled 2.5 percent of the Mississippi gubernatorial general election vote.

Johnson and Adam questioned the new Republican's dedication to conservatism by noting that as the clerk of Alcorn County from 1952 to 1956 Phillips had supervised the registration of more black voters than had been permitted in most other Mississippi counties at that time. The pair stressed Phillips' support for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and Kennedy in 1960. They too had also backed Stevenson over Eisenhower but supported the unpledged electors which carried Mississippi (and half of Alabama) in 1960 over the Kennedy and Nixon electoral slates.

Johnson and Adam uncovered a 1956 memorandum in which Phillips declared that Adlai Stevenson was :

the only hope for the South. Although he is considered by many a moderate, that is at least a step in the right direction by us. It is my view that those of us who are taking a moderate course in respect to all social legislation will be recognized ten years from now as having taken the only practical course for people who believe in progressive government. It is essential that intelligent and cool-thinking people remain in office even though it occasionally means that they have to give tacit support to measures they do not believe to be sound. There will be times that I, as chairman of the Public Service Commission, will have to take positions that I do not believe to be either sound or right, but if I sacrifice whatever opportunities I may have to do something important in the future for a point of minor significance, then I will have been of benefit to no one. That is a painful admission for anyone in public office. ... nevertheless, if we are ambitious, we have to make it."

Chairman Adam warned Democratic officeholders prophetically that a strong GOP showing in 1963 would encourage Republicans to contest future races on a regular basis and could in time threaten the state's solidly Democratic congressional delegation. Adam also accused Phillips and his running-mate for lieutenant governor, State Senator Stanford E. Morse, Jr., of Gulfport, another Democrat-turned-Republican, of having confused voters by omitting the word "Republican" from their campaign materials.

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