By Victoria Myers, Byrd Center Student Intern
The election of 1958 was only the third time in a century that both of West Virginia's Senate seats were open. Two years earlier, Senator Harley M. Kilgore died in office. A special election was held in which Republican Senator Chapman Revercomb was elected to serve the remaining two years of Senator Kilgore's term. In early-1958, the death of Senator Matthew Mansfield Neely, a veteran of the Spanish American War who spent thirty-three years in Congress, left a vacancy with two years remaining in his unexpired term. Charleston lawyer John D. Hoblitzell, Jr., was appointed to fill Senator Neely's seat until that fall's election. By mid-1958, two prominent Democratic candidates announced their intentions to run for the seats: former West Virginia Representative Jennings Randolph, and then-serving Congressman Robert C. Byrd.
In an oral history with Senate Historian Richard Baker, Senator Byrd talked about this unusual circumstance: “We [Byrd and Randolph] teamed up since we were not running against each other, and we were running for two separate seats. We ran as a team. In those days campaigning consisted mainly of traveling around the state, speaking in courthouses--at courthouse rallies, speaking in union halls and before rallies of coal miners, and speaking at the chamber of commerce meetings and meetings of civic organizations, and going to things of that nature.”
West Virginia in the United States Senate''. Byrd having established his name in southern West Virginia and Randolph being well-known across the state, Byrd’s campaign strategies focused particular attention on the state's southwestern counties where the economic and social issues aligned closely with those counties he had already represented in the House of Representatives for the past six years.
Early in the campaign while traveling between public appearances on March 17, 1958, Jennings Randolph was driving on State Route 2 near New Martinsville when he fell asleep at the wheel and veered into oncoming traffic, killing Ricardo Cortez. Randolph suffered a broken rib, bruises, and cuts while Byrd, who was a passenger in the car, only received a cut lip. After an investigation, no charges were filed against Randolph and Byrd's insurance provided payment to Cortez's family. The incident was reported across the state, leading one of Randolph and Byrd's opponents to declare "West Virginia doesn't want a sleeping senator." Despite the tragedy, the campaign continued on.
As the pair started their campaign for the August primary for the democratic election, Senator Byrd decided to take time away from his studies at the American University Washington College of Law to pursue the race. After Bryd applied for the senate seat, Charles C. Morris announced that he would run for Byrd’s current seat as the democratic candidate for Congress. The kick-off to their campaign started at Hotel Conrad in Glenville for the “Democrats for Victory'' dinner on March 15, 1958, where Randolph and Byrd spoke together. The dinner served as a formal political launch for the Senate race and showcased what the former Congressmen Randolph and current 6th district Representative Byrd wanted to bring to the position. Byrd spoke sternly about bringing an end to the present economic recession which caused a lower standard of living, rising unemployment, and greater inflation across Appalachia. He declared that night: “We must have forthright enlightened and strong leadership in the United States; determination at all levels and in all branches of government to work for an end to this recession and cut away the diseased roots of the domestic economy and government policy which caused it- and with the least possible delay”. He then listed nine actions the United States should take to combat this recession. Randolph introduced seven major policies to improve domestic and foreign affairs, insisting that “the time is now to do things, not wait.” Billboards, interviews, along with advertisements in newspapers, radio, and even a few broadcast on television, were key ways that Byrd and Randolph shared their visions. The campaign was ran on a combined fund of $50,000 with one of their key endorsements coming from Lois Lilly Kilgore, the wife of the late Senator Kilgore.
On August 5, 1958, West Virginian's went to the primary polls to choose their party nominations. The candidates for the two-year term left by Senator Neely were Jennings Randolph, West Virginia Governor William C. Marland, Attorney Arnold M. Vickers and W.R. Wilson. In addition to Robert C. Byrd, Charleston Attorney Fleming N. Alderson and Jack R. Delligatti of Fairmont vied for the full senate term. Randolph and Byrd emerged victorious from the primary and began their campaign against their respective Republican opponents: John D Hoblitzell, Jr., and Chapman Revercomb.
A month before election day, Byrd urged "all voters to be sure they are properly registered for the general election" in a newspaper advertisement. Polls and surveys across the state projected a victory for Byrd and Randolph. On November 4, 1958, the voters cast their ballots, with Byrd receiving 118,573 votes or 58.26 % of the total electorate over Revercomb. Randoph received 117,657 or 59.32% in his race against Hoblitzell, Jr. The next day, newspaper headlines declared “Byrd and Randolph Elected to the Senate in a Landslide Victory”. On January 3, 1959, Senators Jennings Randolph and Robert C. Byrd were sworn into the U.S. Senate by Vice President Richard M. Nixon. The unusual circumstances of the 1958 election in West Virginia cemented the campaigns of Senators Randolph and Byrd in the history books.
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