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The direct primary and the fight against party Bossism

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

Before Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, America had a system of "government by gentlemen." Only white men who held substantial property could vote, and they usually selected public officials from among their own ranks. Jackson changed all that: his supporters created the first party caucus system, which allowed a broader variety of people to have a direct say in government. This was the system Wisconsin adopted when it became a state in 1848.

As the 19th century went on, party caucuses were often controlled by small cliques. This was a particular problem in large cities, including Milwaukee. It was also a problem in the Republican party, which dominated Wisconsin politics and was controlled by a small group including such men as "Boss" E.W. Keyes of Madison and U.S. Senators Philetus Sawyer of Oshkosh and John Spooner of Hudson.

Robert LaFollette became famous for his fight to eliminate this system. But reform began before he took power. In 1891 the Legislature created the state's first primary, which applied to Milwaukee city elections.

In 1897, LaFollette's supporters in the Legislature tried to extend the primary system to the entire state. His opponents, known as the "Stalwarts," opposed this partly for political reasons but also because they were genuinely concerned that primaries would not be good for Wisconsin. Senator Spooner argued that the primaries "would destroy the party machinery ... and would build up a lot of personal machines, and would make every man a self-seeker, [and] would degrade politics by turning candidacies into bitter personal wrangles."

When LaFollette became governor in 1901, he tried to put a direct primary system -- one in which any voter could vote in either party's primary -- into place immediately. The Stalwarts recognized they could not prevent all change, but they argued for more gradual change. The fight resulted in deadlock and no reform was passed. The 1903 Legislature deadlocked again and LaFollette and the Stalwarts, both furious, declared all-out war on each other. The faction that controlled the 1904 Republican convention at the U.W. gymnasium in Madison would be the faction that controlled Wisconsin.

After a bitter struggle, LaFollette won. His supporters kept Stalwart delegates from gaining control of the convention, in some cases by sheer physical force. The Stalwarts then bolted, held their own convention and nominated Samuel Cook of Neenah as a rival candidate for governor. They then asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to certify Cook, not LaFollette, as the official Republican candidate on the ballot. But a month before the election, the Court rejected their bid in the case of State ex rel. Cook v. Houser. The Court made clear it would not interfere in internal party politics. It reasoned:

When doubt or dispute arises as to what the voice of the party really is, why is it not reasonable to let the party ... decide the dispute, rather than turn the question over the courts? Certainly, if rank injustice and wrong be committed, the great body of the electorate may ultimately be relied on to correct it, and to correct it thoroughly and energetically.

Cook then withdrew from the contest and LaFollette won easily. The party caucus system and the dominance of local bosses was gone for good and LaFollette, with his political base now secure, could turn his attention to the many reforms which he still wanted to make.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

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