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The Election of 1954

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During his second term as a state senator, Gaylord Nelson continued his efforts to revive Wisconsin's Democratic Party by running for a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1954. The previous year, the Party celebrated a big victory, sending Lester Johnson to the House of Representatives. However, Republican control of state politics remained firm. A groundswell of support in Madison, among political operatives and the intelligentsia, as well as Oscar Mayer's meat cutters union and the Madison Federation of Labor, urged Nelson to challenge incumbent Republican Glenn Davis. Nelson confessed to his biographer, Bill Christofferson, that he "didn't expect to win and didn't really want to [win]." He felt the party had better prospects elsewhere, as the district he would represent covered not only Madison and Dane County but also the farming counties and burgeoning Milwaukee suburbs that were home to staunch Republicans.

But Nelson used his congressional campaign to raise his own profile. This pamphlet portrays Nelson as protecting both farmers and workers from the profligate, "big business" Eisenhower administration. In one of his first public conservation battles, he chastised Rep. Davis for supporting the transfer of offshore oil reserves out of the federal domain and into the hands of a small handful of states. Nelson argued this had starved Wisconsin of millions that could have been used to fund public schools and social programs.

While Nelson and the five Democratic candidates running statewide pictured on this pamphlet would lose in 1954, the Party saw hopeful signs in the election. William Proxmire came within a whisker of unseating the reelection bid of Republican Governor Walter Kohler, while Henry Reuss followed Lester Johnson to Washington after unseating a Republican Congressman in Milwaukee. Within four years, the Wisconsin Democratic party had a governor (Nelson) and a U.S. senator (Proxmire), while the Republicans, after decades controlling Wisconsin politics, were on the defensive.

1948 campaign pamphlet Gaylord Nelson

1948 campaign pamphlet Gaylord Nelson

Source: Bill Christofferson, The Man from Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Senator Gaylord Nelson (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), p.72.