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The Election Case of Millard Tydings v. John M. Butler of Maryland (1951)

Image of John Butler

Campaign irregularities.

Complaint received by committee: Dec.1950
Committee report: Aug. 20, 1951
No Senate action

Result: Butler retained seat

In November 1950 incumbent Senator Millard Tydings (Democrat-MD), a veteran of twenty-four years in the Senate, had every expectation of chalking up yet another Maryland political victory. The conservative Democratic senator, however, had underestimated the bitter grudge held against him by his Senate colleague Joseph McCarthy (Republican-WI). Earlier that year, when Tydings had chaired a subcommittee investigating the Wisconsin senator's charges that Communists had infiltrated the State Department, his report described the allegations as "a fraud and a hoax." In retaliation, McCarthy entered the Maryland campaign on behalf of the Republican challenger, John Marshall Butler, and, after a vicious contest, Butler upset Tydings on November 7 by more than 43,000 votes.

Statement of the Case
In mid-December Millard Tydings complained to the Rules Committee's Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections that he believed unfair campaign practices, as well as violations of federal and state election laws, had affected the outcome of the November vote. On January 3, 1951, the Senate permitted John M. Butler to be seated "without prejudice," while authorizing the subcommittee to continue its inquiry into the Maryland campaign.

After a preliminary investigation, the subcommittee on February 3, 1951, agreed to hold public hearings on the Butler campaign. Although Tydings was not officially contesting the election, the subcommittee recognized that results of the investigation might lead to efforts to unseat John Butler. The complaints centered on reports of excessive campaign expenditures, massive out-of-state contributions unlisted in the required financial reports, and attempts to eradicate records of questionable expenses. A highly visible campaign activity involved the distribution of cheap tabloids, published under false statements of sponsorship and filled with half-truths and doctored photographs, that smeared the patriotism and loyalty of Millard Tydings.

Response of the Senate
From February 20 to April 11, 1951, a special bipartisan group of four senators conducted public hearings on behalf of the subcommittee. They accorded Butler every courtesy, allowing him to appear and make his own observations about the campaign.

Among the questionable aspects of the senator's campaign had been the role played by Jon M. Jonkel, a Chicago public relations director, whose reckless management of the financial records had resulted in his indictment and conviction in the Maryland courts. Testimony conclusively revealed that the strategy for the Butler campaign had been mapped out not only by Jonkel, but also with aggressive assistance from Joseph McCarthy and his staff. They organized a massive publicity crusade designed to convince the public that Tydings bore the responsibility for the Korean War and had generally undermined American defenses against foreign enemies. In one particularly egregious example, they created a composite photograph to make it appear that Tydings hobnobbed with former Communist party head Earl Browder and then circulated 300,000 copies of the tabloid containing the manufactured photo.

After the hearings ended, the subcommittee delayed for four months before issuing its report in August 1951. When the report finally appeared, it criticized McCarthy for his role in the Maryland election. Decrying the dual nature of the political race—Butler's dignified “front street” speeches contrasted with the despicable “back street” campaign conducted by outsiders—the report faulted Butler for failing adequately to oversee his campaign. Yet, despite the subcommittee's clear recognition that John Butler had willingly permitted McCarthy to infiltrate the Maryland election with illegal financial transactions and the use of falsehoods and smear tactics, the report found there was insufficient basis to urge that Butler be unseated. The subcommittee members believed that it would be unfair to take action against him in the absence of an existing specific standard of campaign conduct. Instead, they urged the Rules Committee to establish guidelines for the future that would make "acts of defamation, slander, and libel sufficient grounds" for "declaring a Senate seat vacant." The report also encouraged the national political parties to adopt a set of fair campaign standards.

Although the subcommittee had invited McCarthy to testify, he declined to appear. He did, however, ask for and receive permission to include as part of the committee's report a lengthy statement of his individual views about the Maryland election. His rhetoric attacking Tydings and the subcommittee's inquiry proved too much for William Benton (Democrat-CT) who, after reading the report, bravely introduced a resolution calling for McCarthy's expulsion from the Senate and in the meantime demanded that he should resign.

The full Rules and Administration Committee accepted the subcommittee's report. Since it did not call for measures against Butler, no Senate action was required.

That John Marshall Butler retained his Senate seat was in part a reflection of Joseph McCarthy's power at that stage in his career. Although the Butler and Tydings case came to an end, Senate concerns about McCarthy's conduct would continue for another three years.

Millard Tydings retained a keen desire to recapture the Senate seat he felt had been unjustly wrested from him. He came close in 1956, until illness forced him to step aside from the party's nomination. He died in 1961. John Marshall Butler served in the Senate until 1963. He died in 1978.

Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.

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