Wayne Hubert Babbitt (1928–1994)
Wayne Hubert Babbitt was a Republican politician who, in 1972, became the only Republican ever to run against John McClellan, Arkansas’s long-serving and powerful U.S. senator. While his candidacy was unsuccessful, Babbitt’s effort represented another step forward in the development of a competitive Republican Party in Arkansas in the latter part of the twentieth century.
Wayne H. Babbitt was born on April 21, 1928, in Macedonia, Iowa, to Darwin Merritt Babbitt and Frances Charron Babbitt. He spent most of his childhood in Nebraska. After high school, he served in the U.S. Navy, and upon completing his tour of duty, he returned to Nebraska, spending a year at the University of Omaha (now the University of Nebraska Omaha).
Babbitt married Eleanor Joan Timmerman in July 1946; the couple had three children.
Deciding to study veterinary medicine, he switched to Colorado A&M University (now Colorado State University), from which he graduated in 1956. Soon after graduation, he moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County), where he set up a veterinary medicine practice.
As his practice grew, he became involved in Republican Party politics. In 1963, Babbitt became the chairman of the Pulaski County Republican Committee, and the following year he not only served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, California, but he also sought a seat in the Arkansas Senate, losing to the incumbent, Democrat Dan Sprick. He stayed active in the party, however, and served as vice chairman of the state GOP in 1966. Although he had aspired to be state chairman, he instead supported Odell Pollard, the party’s general counsel and the choice of Winthrop Rockefeller, the first Republican elected governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction. Rockefeller appointed Babbitt chairman of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission. The governor later promoted Babbitt to the post of state director for the Federal Housing Administration. That job led to an appointment by President Richard M. Nixon to the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office in Little Rock. While at HUD, Babbitt focused his efforts on relocating families from substandard housing and putting them into clean homes.
In 1972, Babbitt resigned from HUD. That April, he declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat held by John McClellan, which the veteran lawmaker had held since 1943. Arkansas was still a heavily Democratic state, and McClellan’s long-time membership in the Senate gave him considerable influence, although McClellan had been forced to fend off a vigorous intra-party challenge by Congressman David Pryor, winning by a margin of only four percent in a runoff. Babbitt mounted a vigorous campaign, promising to fight for an end to the continuing Vietnam War, a reinvigorated economy, and better-paying jobs. Babbitt also sought to appeal to those who had supported Pryor in the primary, but it was a challenge to convince the long-time Democratic loyalists to desert their party. Babbitt was also was handicapped by the fact that he was abandoned by the national Republicans and President Nixon who, although on his way to his own landslide reelection effort, did not want antagonize one of the Senate’s senior powerbrokers. In the end, Babbitt won just over thirty-nine percent of the vote, an impressive showing and one that helped further strengthen the growing Republican Party in the state.
Following the election, he turned his energies to business, buying the local Bush Caldwell Company (which sold hardware, sporting goods, and the like) and then creating National Custom Hollow Metal in Little Rock. He also returned to the practice of veterinary medicine that had first brought him to Arkansas. He and his wife were living in Heber Springs (Cleburne County) when he died on August 6, 1994. Babbitt and his wife are interred at Rest Hills Memorial Garden in North Little Rock (Pulaski County).
For additional information:
Parker, Suzi. “Politician ‘thrived on challenge.’” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 7, 1994, p. 4B.
Shaw, Robert. “Babbitt Declares His Chances to Beat Sen. McClellan ‘Excellent.’” Camden News, June 16, 1972, p. 3.
“‘Unknown’ Babbitt Faces Formidable Foe in Arkansas.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, October 25, 1972, p. 19A.
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated: 07/28/2020