Ralph Webster Yarborough (June 8, 1903- January 27, 1996) was a Texas politician who served in the United States Senate and was a leader of the progressive or liberal wing of the Democratic party in Texas in his many races for statewide office. As a U.S. senator, he was a staunch supporter of "Great Society" legislation that encompassed Medicare and Medicaid, the War on Poverty, federal support for higher education and veterans. He co-wrote the Endangered Species Act and was the only southern senator to vote for all civil rights bills from 1957 to 1970 (including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act). Yarborough was known as "Smilin' Ralph" Yarborough and used the slogan "Let's put the jam on the lower shelf so the little people can reach it" in his campaigns.
Yarborough was born in Chandler, Texas as the seventh of nine children. He was appointed to West Point in 1919 but dropped out and became a teacher. Yarborough took classes at Sam Houston State Teachers College and worked his way into the University of Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1927 and practiced law in El Paso, Texas until he was hired as an assistant Texas attorney general in 1931 by then Texas attorney general James V. Allred. Yarborough was an expert in Texas land law and specialized in prosecuting major oil companies violating production limits and not paying oil royalties to the Permanent School Fund for drilling on public lands. Yarborough became famous for a million dollar judgement against the Mid-Kansas Oil and Gas Company for oil royalties, the second largest judgement ever in Texas at the time. Allred appointed Yarborough 53rd District judge in Travis County Austin after being elected governor, and Yarborough was elected to that office that same year in 1936. Yarborough's first run for state office was coming in third in the Democratic primary for state attorney general in 1938 against the stting Lt. Governor. He served in World War II after 1943, ending service as a Lt. Colonel.
Historically, Texas has been a one party state of the Democratic Party. Democrats would win every statewide office, a majority of the congressional delegation, and large majorities in the state legislature. Thus, general elections were formalities, and the real battles took place in the Democratic party primaries. The Democratic primaries would be heated battles between the conservative wing (pre-presidency LBJ, Gov. Shivers, John Connally) and the liberal wing (Yarborough) that identified more with the national party.
Ralp Yarborough was urged to run again for state attorney general in 1952, and he planned to do so until a personal affront by Governor Allan Shivers telling him not to run. Out of spite, Ralph Yarborough then ran in the primaries for governor in 1952 and 1954 against the conservative Shivers, drawing support from labor unions and liberals. Yarborough denounced the corrupt "Shivercrats" for veterans' fraud in the General Land Office and for endorsing the Republican Eisenhower/Nixon ticket for President instead of Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Shivers portrayed Yarborough as an integrationist supported by communist labor unions. The 1954 election was particularly nasty in its race-baiting by Shivers as it was the year Brown vs. Board of Education was decided, and Shivers made the most of the court decision to play on voters' racism. In one particularly odious episode, a black man was hired to drive around East Texas in a Cadillac full of Yarborough stickers and to be obnoxious and insult gas station attendants as slow. The man would say he was busy and had to hurry "to work for Mr. Yarborough." Yarborough made it to the primary and came surprisingly close despite losing almost all newspaper endorsements, being outfundraised, and nasty attacks.
In 1956, Yarborough made it to the primary runoff for governor against U.S. Sen. Price Daniel. After being endorsed by former opponent and governor W. Lee O'Daniel and making aggressive attacks on the Shivers-backed candidate Yarborough looked to win the runoff but lost by about 9,000 votes. It is believed (by Yarborough, his supporters, and biographer) that the election was stolen due to irregular voting in East Texas and other places and that Yarborough really won the runoff by 30,000 votes.
Nevertheless, Yarborough's runs for governor had raised his stature and popularity in the state as he had been campaigning for six years straight for office. When Daniel resigned from the Senate in 1957 to become governor, Yarborough ran in the special election to fill the empty seat needing only a plurality of votes (no runoff needed) to win. Ironically, his many runs for governor made him best positioned to become a U.S. Senator. Yarborough won the special election with 38% of the vote to join fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson in the Senate. In office, Ralph Yarborough was a very different kind of Southern senator. He refused to sign the Southern Manifesto opposing integration and supported national Democratic goals of more funding for healthcare, education, and environment. Himself a veteran, he worked to expand the GI Bill of Rights to cold war veterans.
In 1958, Ralph Yarborough easily defeated conservative William A. Blakley in the Democratic primary and cruised onto victory in the general election against Republican Roy Whittenburg. As a senator, Yarborough got Congress to pass and John F. Kennedy to sign, a bill making Padre Island a national park. Ralph Yarborough sat in the Dallas, Texas motorcade where John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, in the car behind the president and Gov. John Connally.
In 1964, Yarborough again won the primary without a runoff and went on to general election victory with 56.2% in LBJ's 1964 Democratic landslide, this time defeating future president George H.W. Bush who attacked Yarborough as a left-wing demagogue and for his vote for the Civil Rights Act. Yarborough denounced Bush as an extremist to the right of that year's GOP nominee for president Barry Goldwater and as a rich easterner and a carpetbagger trying to buy a Senate seat. It has been found that John Connally was covertly aiding Bush instead of party nominee Yarborough against President Johnson's wishes by teaching voters how to vote split ticket.
Although Yarborough supported Johnson's domestic agenda, he was critical of his foreign policy and the Vietnam War after Johnson announced his retirement. Yarborough supported Robert F. Kennedy until his assassination, then Eugene McCarthy until his loss in Chicago, and finally Hubert Humphrey for President in the pivotal year of 1968. In 1969, Sen. Yarborough became chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare.
In 1970, South Texan businessman and former congressman Lloyd Bentsen, Jr. won an upset victory against Yarborough in the Democratic primary when Yarborough was focusing on the general election. Bentsen played on voters' fears of societal breakdown and urban riots and made an issue of Yarborough's opposition to the Vietnam War. Yarborough was an antique out of place in the modern era he claimed. Said Bentsen, "It would be nice if Ralph Yarborough would vote for his state every once in a while." Bentsen went on to win the general election against George H.W. Bush.
In 1972, Ralph Yarborough made a comeback effort to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senator to challenge Republican Sen. John Tower. Yarborough won the first round of the primary, coming short 526 votes of a full victory. Again, Yarborough suspected vote fraud from the conservative wing. He lost in the primary runoff to Barefoot Sanders in an anti-incumbent sweep after the Sharpstown Bank-stock Scandal despite neither being an incumbent nor involved at all with the scandal. This was to be Ralph Yarborough's last run for office.
He died in 1996 in Austin, Texas and was buried in the Texas State Cemetery (the Arlington of Texas). Ralph Yarborough left a legacy in the modernization of the state of Texas and achieved political power at a peak of Texas's national power during the Johnson years. In a state now famous for closeness between business interests and politicians (LBJ, George W. Bush), Yarborough was combative with the dominant industries of oil and gas, always pushing for petroleum's fair share of the public burden.
Yarborough also was one of the last of the New Deal Democrats and liberals in a conservative southern state. The window of opportunity for a liberal in Texas to reach such a high office was narrow, between the Great Depression and the Great Society. Yarborough represented this brief political moment, both preceded and followed by conservatives (Phil Gramm) and reactionaries ("Pappy" O'Daniel). Ralph Yarborough is remembered as the acknowledged "patron saint of Texas liberals." Yarborough easily makes the list of greatest conservationists from Texas with his success at making Padre Island, the Guadalupe Mountains, and the Big Thicket into protected parkland (the last one after he left the Senate). Supporters and former aides that rose to prominence include Jim Hightower, Ann Richards, and Gary Mauro.
The University of Texas at Austin Press published a biography titled, Ralph W. Yarborough: The People's Senator, by Patrick L. Cox. It features a forward written by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA).