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The Elbert Files: Rebel Republican


Gov. Kim Reynolds was not the first Iowa Republican to conduct a high-profile campaign against fellow party members when she successfully supported primary challengers last year against Republican lawmakers who opposed her school voucher bill. 

That distinction goes to Smith Brookhart, a Republican who trashed his own party’s president in 1924. 

Brookhart is unique in American politics. He ran for the U.S. Senate four times between 1920 and 1926. He won three of those races, including a two-year term in 1922. His 1924 victory was overturned by the Senate, the only time that has ever happened, but he came back and won again in 1926. 

His ejection from the Senate 16 months after the 1924 election was payback by fellow Republicans, who held a 56-40 majority, for Brookhart’s treatment of President Calvin Coolidge during the 1924 campaign.

Biographer George William McDaniel wrote that the New York Times reported during the 1924 campaign, “Senator Brookhart … is going up and down the state denouncing Mr. Coolidge.”

McDaniel’s 1995 book “Smith Wildman Brookhart: Iowa’s Renegade Republican” went on to say that Brookhart called for the resignation of Coolidge’s running mate and told a crowd in Emmetsburg: “I belong to the farm bloc; the president belongs to the Wall Street bloc.”

Brookhart was rarely on good terms with Republican Presidents Warren Harding, Coolidge or Iowa-born Herbert Hoover, and many old-guard Iowa Republicans wound up supporting his  Democratic opponent in 1924.

For the most part, Brookhart thought Republican leaders in Iowa and Washington, D.C., had it wrong, and he wasn’t shy about saying so. 

The issue he was most passionate about was agriculture, which suffered a severe depression after World War I that lasted through the 1920s, a full decade before the onset of the Great Depression.

Overproduction was at the heart of the farm problem. Farmers had increased output during the war, producing postwar surpluses that led to steep price declines and resulted in farm and bank failures. 

For Brookhart the problems were personal. He was a part-time farmer and co-owner of a bank that failed in 1924, making him liable for $70,000 of customer deposits. Few knew it at the time, but he took the debt seriously and gradually paid it all back, making the final payment just two years before he died in 1944, according to biographer McDaniel.

Brookhart was born in northern Missouri in 1869 and educated in southern Iowa. He taught school before becoming a lawyer in Washington, Iowa, in 1892. A natural speaker, he got involved in politics as the economy soured and set his sights on Washington, D.C. 

“Nobody dominated Iowa politics in quite the way he did during the 1920s,” McDaniel wrote. 

“Brookhart was called a radical, an insurgent, a progressive, a socialist, a communist, a Bolshevik [and] a buffoon,” McDaniel added. 

Three of those charges stemmed from a trip he made to the Soviet Union in 1923.

The Soviet tour occurred at a time when Russia was in the midst of a great famine and leaders were still consolidating power from the 1917 revolution. Brookhart persuaded U.S. and Soviet officials to grant him a special visa, and he spent a week touring the country. 

He was impressed by the cooperative farms. But opponents said he only saw what the Soviet leaders wanted and did not receive a balanced view of the new nation’s struggling economy.

Nonetheless, Brookhart liked much of what he saw, and for the rest of his career, he advocated solutions to U.S. farm problems that were based on cooperatives, including banks owned by farmers. 

And for the remainder of his public life, he was held in contempt by many because of his advocacy of Soviet-modeled programs. 

Ultimately, during the 1930s under Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt and the postwar  era, some of the economic changes Brookhart advocated were adopted in various forms, including a version of his cooperative farmer-owned banks.

But as a senator, Brookhart’s feisty nature and inability to get along with members of his own party prevented him from obtaining significant legislative achievements.


Dave Elbert

Dave Elbert is a columnist for Business Record.

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