October 3, 2022
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Second primaries, also known as runoff primary elections, were conducted in Florida until 2005, when Governor Jeb Bush signed a bill eliminating the second primary. The reasons for discontinuing them came down to timing and cost of conducting a third contest in an election year.
By May 7, 1912, it was clear that the runoff primary would be between the two-term incumbent and a newcomer. In fact, if you stand back from the research and take a broad look at what was happening in this contest, almost 110 years later, it really does look like a David vs Goliath contest of innocence versus experience: The neophyte, untested, unknown Emmett Wilson of Pensacola versus the well-monied, older, better known Dannite Mays of Monticello.
It’s not that Mays was a terrible congressman; he was, well, blah.
He neither authored nor delivered a speech on any significant legislation; his record is unremarkable, mundane. It’s not that he didn’t do any work at all; Mays’ record reveals nothing exciting, nothing that would put Florida into any national newsworthy coverage, or attention-getting articles. Not that there’s anything wrong with keeping one’s head down, keeping the everyday state’s business functioning; but somehow, basically ‘being functional’ in his congressional job wasn’t good enough. At least, not according to Frank Mayes’ political machine. Frank Mayes, editor of the Panhandle’s largest newspaper, was getting the message out that Dannite Mays (no relation) was substandard for Florida’s political interests.
A more accurate, hidden message, though, was that Dannite Mays was not beholden to Frank Mayes, and therefore, wasn’t going to do his bidding in Washington, D.C.
Mays thought the editor of The Pensacola Journal was a self-seeking jerk; a nouveaux-riche upstart from a Northern state who felt emboldened to ‘tell’ native Floridians how to think and vote.
Dannite Mays was right about that. He was also a wealthy, self-made man who didn’t pull any punches with Frank Mayes, so perhaps he felt he was safe in telling The Pensacola Journal publisher where he could get off.
By Tuesday, May 7, 1912, the vote count was almost complete:
Dannite Mays may have come in second, but he was hardly the ‘low man’ in the race.
What was clear to Frank Mayes and Emmett Wilson’s campaign team comes through in the statistics: the race between Emmett and Mays was fairly close especially for a political neophyte like Emmett. Flournoy’s distant third place votes were the votes Emmett and Mays would battle over. The second primary was slated for May 28 — only three weeks away.
The difference between Dannite Mays and Emmett Wilson came out in this second primary race: Emmett didn’t wait around to get a new campaign plan going. Frank Mayes and several prominent Pensacola political colleagues were making sure Emmett would get out to voters in the rural areas now, Dannite Mays’ territory, and make himself known.
The second primary coverage also boosted the public image of Emmett as a young, fierce, energetic campaigner worked well for him, compared to the stodgy, business-as-usual image of Dannite Mays. Mays gave off the feeling low energy. Emmett was the opposite, and it fired people (and the press) up. On May 7, Emmett’s friends launched the “Emmett Wilson Club,” a state-wide effort with lots of grassroots support to promote his campaign. “The people want a change,” said Scott Loftin, a prominent Pensacolian, close friend of Emmett, and the president of the Emmett Wilson Club, “and it devolves upon us one and all,” to elect Emmett to U.S. Congress.
What’s interesting about this article is that, for the first time, we see a description of Emmett ‘visibly moved’ in the article (something that is not mentioned in any previous news coverage about him):
The rest of the article goes on to introduce the officers and describe the strategies of the new Emmett Wilson Club. This was, clearly, a well-organized political operation in place, ready to deploy across 13 counties immediately. It was well funded, and ready to go. Frank Mayes was determined to have his man in office; he wasn’t going to lose to Mediocre Dannite Mays.
As the secondary runoff was just getting started, he knew the finish line wasn’t far, but it was going to be a hell of a sprint.
Categories: Book Congressman Florida History
Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
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