A new Governor, a new Party for Wisconsin
In 1958 Nelson, pledging to revive "the philosophy and the purpose of the Wisconsin Idea as Old Bob LaFollette envisioned it" ran successfully to be only the state's second Democratic governor of the century and its first governor ever from northern Wisconsin.
As Gaylord Nelson returned from the Pacific war theater, Wisconsin's political sands were shifting.
The Republican Party had enjoyed near-exclusive rule of the state since before the Civil War, with partisan battles taking place within the party or with ephemeral third parties. However, the Republican's progressive wing felt increasingly uncomfortable as the conservative stalwarts took control of the party platform. Philip and Robert "Young Bob" La Follette, sons of the legendary Progressive firebrand "Fighting Bob," had led their followers out of the party in 1934, but several stinging electoral defeats convinced them to return in 1946. The stalwarts' dominance became undeniable that November, when "Young Bob" lost his Senate seat in the family since 1906 to the conservative Appleton judge Joseph McCarthy.
Nelson, carrying the progressive Republican torch in his bid to represent Clear Lake in the state assembly, lost in 1946 alongside "Young Bob." Leaving behind his hometown and old party, Nelson returned to Madison, where he offered legal counsel to unions and spent time ruminating with law school friends about the prospects of a rebranded Democratic Party. They foresaw a new coalition, linking the party's base of Milwaukee workers with disaffected progressives among both the Madison intelligentsia and rural residents.
Running what the Capital Times called a "rip-snorting, hide-tearing kind of campaign," Nelson in 1948 won a seat in the state senate, where he championed government reform and civil rights. When not legislating, he worked tirelessly as party co-chair, seeking out supporters in all corners of the state. Those grassroots efforts paid off when, after making several state-wide races competitive throughout the 1950s, Democrats managed to replace the late Joe McCarthy with William Proxmire in 1957. The following year, Nelson, pledging to revive "the philosophy and the purpose of the Wisconsin Idea as Old Bob LaFollette envisioned it," ran a successful campaign to be only the state's second Democratic governor of the century and its first governor ever from northern Wisconsin.
Earth Day made Nelson's name synonymous with environmentalism, a connection he capitalized on in campaign material. This bumper sticker was used in his successful run for reelection to the Senate in 1974.
View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic
Video: Campaign advertisements for Nelson
A campaign pamphlet for the Wisconsin state races in 1954
1957 Democratic Convention pamphlet describing Nelson as a young State Senator
Image: 1958 election results for governor and lieutenant governor
State Senator Nelson at the Wisconsin State Capitol building, image from a campaign pamphlet
Governor Nelson's re-election campaign pamphlet
Gaylord Nelson's 1959 inaugural address as reprinted in a speech collection
During the debate to start a Wisconsin income tax withholding, the governor's office published this issue pamphlet
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Page updated: 20-Apr-2011