INTRODUCTION TO VIRGINIA SMITH
Who was Virginia Smith? Even the most astute modern political analysts probably would not know the answer to that question. Generally, that lack of recognition would be indicative of bad lawmaking or a forgettable career. Despite clear anonymity, placing Mrs. Smith into this category would belie just how important her congressional tenure was for western Nebraskans of all backgrounds.
An erstwhile farmer from Chappel, Smith was a model of the effective legislator. Working out of the national public’s sight, with praise often unsung, she was able to accomplish parochial legislative goals no matter the opposition. This article is primarily an overview of the late Congresswoman’s electoral career, but it still highlights her most important personal value: delivering for every constituent regardless of the cost.
As one can read in more detail in Jack Hart’s excellent biography Virginia Smith: A Nebraska Treasure, Smith’s commitment to the voter governed her personal behavior and affected how her campaigns and congressional services were run. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, it is hard to deny the admirability of Smith’s devotion to constituent service in a modern world where politics has become so polarized and self-centered.
THE SEAT’S HISTORY – DISTRICT 4
Most of the territory that Congresswoman Smith dedicated her career to representing was originally part of the Cornhusker State’s 4th district. Until the 1962 census, Nebraska’s population was actually large enough to allow for two seats in its western half. Two of the compact 4th’s most hotly-contested, and important, electoral battles took place shortly before its dissolution.
The first race took place in 1958, a poor midterm for the Eisenhower Administration that witnessed Democrats post double-digit gains in both the House and Senate. Nebraska’s 4th was one of multiple Republican-held lower chamber seats that Democrats managed to flip amid a favorable national environment. Besides the optimal political conditions, Eisenhower’s opponents in western Nebraska benefitted from a good nominee and a certain degree of luck.
That exemplary Democratic standard-bearer was Ogallala state senator Donald McGinley. Virginia Smith: A Nebraska Treasure provides an informative account of McGinley’s uphill challenge to Congressman Arthur Miller, a doctor who had represented the district in the House since 1943. Given high incumbent reelection rates in the lower chamber and the 4th’s strongly-Republican presidential lean, it is still amazing that McGinley managed to win at all.
According to Hart, Congressman Miller’s biggest problem was with his image. After more than a decade in office, many Nebraskans perceived him as an absent lawmaker aloof from their interests. The book attributed Miller’s absenteeism to a hunting accident that relegated him to prosthetic legs for most of his life. Naturally, being crippled makes campaigning arduous.
But McGinley’s election also benefitted from some degree of comical luck. The state senator was related to a ranching family that was prominent throughout western Nebraska’s Sandhills. As Hart quotes Omaha newspaper publisher John Gottschalk, “the folks out there elected McGinley because they thought he was a cattleman; they didn’t know he was a Democrat.” Regardless of which particular factors impacted his election the most, the switch from Miller to McGinley was nothing short of a stunningly-unexpected generational change.
McGinley comfortably won, taking 52% of the vote and performing well across the entire district. He did best in his native Keith County (Ogallala) but also carried nearby Perkins and Lincoln. In the east, he won the district’s most Democratic counties: Greeley and Sherman. Most impressively, McGinley dominated the western-most part of the district around Scotts Bluff and Cheyenne counties. Perhaps his nominal connection to the Sandhills’ cattleman did make the difference in the end.
In 1960, Republicans were keen on plugging the holes in their local operation, starting fresh candidate-wise, and defeating McGinley. The party’s eventual nominee was Dave Martin, a member of the state and national GOP committees. While McGinley did have the advantages of incumbency this time around, he also faced the challenge of running for reelection to a solidly-Republican district in a presidential year.
Predictably, McGinley was unable to overcome Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon’s margins at the top of the ticket. Kennedy only carried Sherman and Greeley counties, losing the district in a blowout. Given the headwinds that he faced, the fact that McGinley’s reelection was close shows his strength as an incumbent capable of generating crossover support across the district. In terms of raw numbers, McGinley lost the most ground in the Sandhills. After 1962 redistricting, Martin faced little electoral trouble in the redrawn 3rd district.
1974 – AN INAUSPICIOUS START
At the beginning of the 1974 cycle, Congressman Martin decided to announce his retirement. The national environment at the time was quite terrible for Republicans following President Nixon’s Watergate scandal, so Martin probably left office to avoid a competitive race or potential loss. His decision created a once-in-a-lifetime congressional opportunity, leading nearly a dozen Republicans to run in the primary.
One of those hopefuls was Virginia Smith, an expert in agricultural and budgetary issues without any electoral experience. Described repeatedly in Hart’s book as “grandmotherly”, Smith made a name for herself as the only woman in a field of men running for a position that was traditionally closed off from female involvement. But Smith did not run on her gender. She focused instead on qualifications, arguing that she would be a better member of Congress than her opponents.
Most of the serious contenders besides Smith, who was always perceived as an underdog by the local papers, were either officeholders or local businessmen. In a rural district of small towns like the 3rd, every candidate had regional advantages. This reality would eventually help Smith because, as Hart notes, her Chappell residence made her the only candidate from the western part of the seat.
Large margins in and around the communities of Scottsbluff, Sidney, and Ogallala made Smith’s 141 vote (0.2%) primary victory possible. Dentist Don Blank finished second, running up the score in the southern section of the district that encompassed McCook and Imperial. All of Smith’s opponents, except one, endorsed her in the general election.
Fresh off of an unexpected primary victory, Smith turned her full attention to the general election against Kearney County (Wilcox) state senator Wayne Ziebarth. At the time, Ziebarth was seen as an excellent recruit in an otherwise-Republican seat that Democrats thought they could win in 1974 as a result of Congressman Martin’s retirement and the post-Watergate national environment.
Both candidates’ campaigns were predictably based on conservative values that permeated Nebraska politics then just as they do now. The horse race focused more on actual political philosophy and local issues than it did on the stained post-Nixon record of the national GOP. Hart puts particular emphasis on Smith’s platform, which foreshadowed future President Ronald Reagan’s commitment to a small government and traditional moral values.
Ziebarth also tried to align his political center with the district while pointing out his disagreements with Smith’s core principles. As Hart notes, the Wilcox state senator believed earnestly that Democrats could use federal authority to deliver help to farmers. Debate ensued between the candidates regarding Ziebarth’s connections to organized labor, which Smith thought would compromise his independent judgement in Washington.
By far the worst moment for Ziebarth’s campaign, according to the book’s account, was his gaffe regarding women in politics. Whether inadvertently or not, the Democratic nominee resorted to traditional stereotypes about women belonging in the home beholden to domestic virtues. This comment completely backfired, and, as Hart points out, Smith never accepted Ziebarth’s attempts at apology.
In the end, Smith defeated Ziebarth by just 0.4%, an incredibly-slim margin. She dominated in the Sandhills and the western-most section of the district, both of which McGinley had won in 1958. Ziebarth ran up the numbers in Lincoln County (North Platte) and in the eastern half of the 3rd, but was unable to secure a majority of the vote.
After months of interparty bickering and legal action on behalf of Democrats to have the party’s House majority overturn the Republican win, the book notes that Smith became one of the GOP’s few freshmen in the otherwise abysmal year that was 1974. Over the next 16 years, Smith would never face a truly-competitive general election again.
1990 – THE RETIREMENT OF A LEGEND
In 1990, Smith decided to bring her lengthy – albeit effective – congressional tenure to an end. She was, after all, always in the game of politics for her constituents, not personal aggrandizement. Her support went to Lexington County lawmaker Bill Barrett, who won a close Republican primary and proceeded to beat Democratic state senator Sandra Scofield by a slim margin.
1990’s close election solidified a new historical tradition: the 3rd district would be competitive whenever an incumbent retired. Excepting football coach-turned politician Tom Osborne, that axiom remained true. In 2006, incumbent Republican Congressman Adrian Smith got his start after defeating Democrat Scott Kleeb modestly in a seat that should not have been competitive at all.
It is very unlikely that the 3rd will be competitive in this day and age of polarization and derision, but Mrs. Smith’s legacy of cooperation and effectiveness should nevertheless be a lesson for anyone entering the political arena with good intentions.
Jack Hart’s “Virginia Smith: A Nebraska Treasure”