Harry Truman wins re-election but Arthur Langlie ousts Governor Mon C. Wallgren in tight election on November 2, 1948.

  • By Walt Crowley and Kate Kershner
  • Posted 10/30/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5598

On November 2, 1948, President Harry Truman (1884-1972) overcomes a strong challenge by New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, negative polls, third party candidates on the left and right, and national press criticism to win a full term.  Truman's coattails do not save incumbent Democratic Governor Mon C. Wallgren (1891-1961), who is ousted by former governor Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) in a re-match of the race that Wallgren won four years ago.  Washington's six U.S. House of Representatives seats are split evenly between the two parties. State voters approve constitutional amendments eliminating term limits for county officials and authorizing counties to adopt Home Rule charters, and pass initiative measures permitting the sale of liquor by the glass and providing special pensions for veterans, the blind, and the elderly. Seattle voters affirm Daylight Savings Time.

Modest Coattails

In Washington state, Truman's victory buoyed several Democrats, including First District Congressman and former U.S. Senator Hugh Mitchell, Second District Congressman and future Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983), and Sixth District Congressman Jack E. Knudson. His coattails were not long enough, however, to save incumbent Governor Mon C. Wallgren from defeat by Republican Arthur Langlie, whom Wallgren had unseated four years earlier.  Republicans also won the state's other three U.S. House of Representatives seats:  Russell V. Mack (1891-1960) in the Third District, Hal Holmes (1902-1977) in the Fourth, and Walt Horan (1898-1966) in the Fifth.

Truman carried the state by 53.3 percent to Dewey's 43.2 percent. Former U.S. Vice President Henry A Wallace, candidate for the left-wing Progressive Party, drew 3.5 percent of the vote. States Rights Party candidate, "Dixiecrat" Strom Thurmond did not qualify for the Washington ballot.

Amendments and Initiatives

Washington voters approved four amendments to the state's constitution.  The two most significant were Amendment 23, which repealed a provision, in existence since the constitution was ratified in 1889, that limited county officials to two terms, and Amendment 21, which authorized counties to adopt Home Rule charters.  Such charters, essentially county constitutions, were promoted by the Municipal League of Seattle and King County and other reformers as a means to modernize King County's Territorial-era governmental structure.  (The first effort to adopt a Home Rule charter for King County, in 1952, fell short; the County eventually did so in 1968.)

Voters overwhelmingly defeated an initiative that would have prohibited retail sale of wine and beer by anyone except the state, but approved three other initiative measures.  Initiative 169 provided bonus payments to World War II veterans. Initiative 171 authorized the sale of liquor by the drink in restaurants, hotels, clubs, trains, ships, and airplanes. 

Initiative 172, a measure to increase social security payments sponsored by the Washington Pension Union, passed by 58,000 votes. That initiative rose out of the legislature's 1947 cancellation of pensions, which had been set in 1940 by Initiative 140. A base benefit of $60 a month was established for senior citizens and for the blind, with cost-of-living adjustments.

Canwell Unseated 

Initiative 172 failed in Seattle, though, where voters may have been influenced by hearings held by the state House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee -- generally called the "Canwell Committee" after its chair, Albert Canwell (1907-2002) -- which labeled the Washington Pension Union a Communist front. But Canwell lost his own election bid, as did two of his committee colleagues.

A first-term representative from Spokane, Canwell decided to run for the state Senate but was defeated by Democrat Donald B. Miller, a former state senator who had been committed to Eastern State Hospital. Fearing a more legitimate candidate being called out as a Communist by Canwell's committee, Spokane-area Democrats convinced Miller to run. Miller barely campaigned, but still managed to defeat the extremely unpopular Canwell. However, on January 18, 1949 -- only a few days after inauguration -- Miller was committed to "protective custody" after a "disturbance" in an Olympia hotel (Chronicle, "Spokane Senator"). Although there was some worry of Canwell going back to fill the vacant seat, a Democrat was eventually appointed. Miller was later re-committed to Eastern State Hospital.

Statewide vote totals in the presidential race were:

  • Harry S. Truman (D) - 476,165
  • Thomas E. Dewey (R) - 386,315
  • Henry Wallace (P) - 31,692

Sources: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 4, 1948, p. 7; The Seattle Times, November 4, 1948, p. 4; Richard C. Berner, Seattle Transformed: World War II to Cold War (Seattle: Charles Press, 1999), 234-235; interview with Bart Haggin, October 1, 2011, Seattle, audio in possession of Kate Kershner, Seattle; "Personalities are a big issue in talk of Miller's Senate seat," The Spokane Chronicle, February 2, 1951, p. 2; "Spokane Senator Held in Olympia," The Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 18, 1949, p. 1; "Past Election Results," Washington Secretary of State website accessed October 11, 2011 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/results_search.aspx).
Note: This essay was revised and expanded on October 12, 2011.

Related Topics:   Government & Politics

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You