Tom Kleppe had the misfortune of running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican from North Dakota in 1964, a year that the Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, defeated the Republican, Barry Goldwater, in a landslide victory for the office of U.S. President.

Johnson received 58% of the votes, and the effects of the landslide were felt down the ballot. A number of state offices switched from Republican to Democrat, and the most noticeable loss for the Republican Party was in the North Dakota House, where Republicans had held a 66-43 majority in 1963, but with the loss of 22 seats, the Republicans fell to a 44-65 minority in 1965.

In his 1964 U.S. Senate bid, Kleppe had defeated a formidable candidate, former Gov. John Davis, in the Republican primary, but he lost in the general election to the incumbent, Quentin Burdick, a popular Democrat.

One of the victorious Democrats in the 1964 election was Rolland Redlin, a state legislator from Crosby. He was elected to the U.S. House, representing the western district of North Dakota, and Kleppe set his sights on running against him in the 1966 election.

At the 1966 Republican Party convention in mid-June, there were three announced candidates for the U.S. House: Kleppe; Ed Becker, a state senator from Willow City; and, Sam Burgess, a newspaper publisher from Dickinson. On the third ballot, Kleppe ended up defeating Burgess by a vote of 179-162, and received the Republican Party endorsement.

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One other important thing to come out of the convention was a resolution to disassociate the Republican Party from the John Birch Society (JBS), a far-right group that had been very active in Goldwater’s presidential bid two years earlier. The resolution pointed out that the JBS was divisive and detrimental to the future of the Republican Party, and it passed by a vote of 373-170.

Upon entering the 1966 primary election, Kleppe had a Republican challenger named Martin Vaaler from Kenmare, who had served on the North Dakota Public Service Commission from 1954 to 1962 and was a member of the JBS. Vaaler was defeated by Kleppe in the primary by a vote of 21,420 to 13,642.

Kleppe said that he “wanted to go to Washington to help straighten out inflation and spending concerns that were happening during President Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.” He believed that his experience as president of the Gold Seal Co. made him well-qualified to do just that.

Tom Kleppe. Public Domain / https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2721732 / Special to The Forum
Tom Kleppe. Public Domain / https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2721732 / Special to The Forum

As Kleppe prepared for the general election, the outlook did not appear to be very good. “A Huntley-Brinkley (two NBC television news anchors) election projection gave incumbent Rolland Redlin the edge, and reports (were) constantly filtered to Kleppe’s staff and the state headquarters that Kleppe just was not getting any response from the farmers.”

For a long time, “the candidate had to fend discouragement within his own ranks, and [he] carried a substantial part of the load himself.” It wasn’t until the latter part of October that things began to turn around, and when the election was held on Nov. 8, Kleppe barely edged Redlin in votes, 50,301 to 46,993.

In Washington, Kleppe quickly made influential friends. One of them was George H. W. Bush, who later said, “Tom Kleppe and I were elected to Congress on the same day in 1966 and instantly (we) became the best of friends.” Bush also said that Kleppe “loved North Dakota and he loved his country. Kleppe was a good man and I loved him.” When Kleppe died in 2007, former President Bush served as an honorary pallbearer.

Kleppe was endorsed by the Republican Party to run for reelection in 1968, but he was opposed in the primary by former Lt. Gov. Orville “Ike” Hagen. After trouncing Hagen by a vote of 35,220 to 11,095, Kleppe prepared for a general election rematch against Redlin, the person he narrowly defeated in 1966. However, there was another opponent, a member of the JBS, who entered the race.

Since members of the JBS had been disinvited to participate in the Republican Party political process, JBS candidates ended up running for political offices on the “Taxpayers Ticket,” and their candidate for Congress in the West District was Russell Kleppe, Tom Kleppe’s cousin. Russell was also from Kintyre and was a year younger than his cousin. Tom Kleppe coasted to an easy victory with 84,114 votes compared to 30,692 for Redlin and 2,166 for Russell Kleppe.

Boosted by President Richard Nixon’s urging, Tom Kleppe believed he was well-positioned to once again challenge Burdick for the U.S. Senate in 1970. “The White House impressed on Kleppe that he needed a high‐powered campaign manager and an advertising man to produce his TV ads.” He secured the assistance of “Harry Teleaven, the Madison Avenue executive who directed the advertising campaign of Richard Nixon” in his successful bid to get elected as president in 1968.

According to the New York Times, “the Republicans sent in (to North Dakota) national party workers with more than $300,000 (over $2 million today) to spend,” and this all began in June. Kleppe also hired a veteran campaign manager from Florida.

On the other hand, Burdick ran “a low budget, disorganized campaign, relying on personal appearances with some last minute television and newspaper advertisements.” Burdick did not bother to hire a campaign manager until early October, when he convinced his friend, Albert A. Wolf, to fill that position.

In the primary election on Sept. 1, both senate candidates ran unopposed, and the results must have been very encouraging for Kleppe, as he finished with 58,504 votes compared to 36,166 votes for Burdick. Both President Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew came to North Dakota to give speeches supporting Kleppe.

On Oct. 26, less than a week before the election, the Harvard Crimson reported, “liberal Democratic Senator Burdick is in deep trouble in a state where Agnew is a magic word.” On Election Day, Nov. 3, many people expected Burdick to lose, but a majority of voters were turned off by the fact that Kleppe’s campaign was run by slick “Madison Avenue” professionals, and Burdick won in a landslide with 134,519 votes compared to 82,996 votes for Kleppe.

Hilary Sandoval Jr., who was President Nixon’s director of the Small Business Administration, was advised by his doctor to resign because of a serious heart condition, which he did on Jan. 1, 1971. On Jan. 18, Nixon appointed Kleppe as Sandoval’s replacement. The SBA is an independent agency assigned to “aid, counsel, assist and protect the interests of small business concerns; preserve free competitive enterprise; and, to maintain and strengthen the overall economy of our nation.” On Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon resigned as president, and his replacement, Gerald Ford, kept Kleppe on as director of the SBA.

In November 1975, Stanley Hathaway, President Ford’s Secretary of the Interior, was “hospitalized for fatigue and depression.” Hathaway was advised to resign, and Ford selected Kleppe as his replacement. After receiving Senate approval on Oct. 17, Kleppe became the Secretary of Interior, the first person born and raised in North Dakota to head a cabinet post. The interior secretary is “responsible for the management and conservation of most federal land and natural resources and oversees such agencies as the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service.”

After Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter in 1976, Kleppe resigned on Jan. 20, 1977. Later that year, Kleppe accepted a position as an instructor at the University of Wyoming to teach a course on environmental politics. He retired from teaching in 1981 and began serving on the board of directors for different organizations like the Government Investors Trust, the Presidential Savings Bank and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Tom Kleppe died on March 2, 2007, and his interment at the Arlington National Cemetery took place on March 29 that year.

"Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.