The Republican Party became increasingly divided ideologically during the presidency of William Howard Taft (1909-1913). In the congressional elections of 1910, conservative Republicans, backed by the president, fared poorly and the GOP lost control of the House of Representatives to the Democratic Party. However, progressive Republicans did well in the election, and that December organized the National Progressive Republican League to promote reform legislation. An unstated purpose of the new group was to replace Taft as the party’s 1912 nominee with a progressive, presumably Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. This Harper’s Weekly cartoon, published almost a year before the 1912 election, makes light of La Follette’s presidential boom. He is portrayed as a “Little Fellow” with a toy cannon who stands under the girth of the towering Taft, who winks confidently at the readers.
La Follette was first elected to Congress in 1884 as a mainstream Republican from Wisconsin. He was reelected two more times before losing his seat in 1890 because of his support of the McKinley Tariff. In the 1890s, he moved politically to the left, combining ideas from agrarian and municipal reformers, and emerged as the progressive “Fighting Bob.” He unsuccessfully sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1896 and 1898 before winning the Wisconsin governorship in 1900. When conservative Republicans in the legislature thwarted his reform agenda, he took his case to the voters, winning reelection in 1902 and 1904. He secured passage of a tax on high incomes, a consumer protection law, and a direct primary. He argued for the “Wisconsin Idea” of using nonpartisan experts to draft laws. Although he campaigned against machine politics, he created a powerful machine of his own to further reform legislation.
In January 1905, the Wisconsin state legislature elected La Follette to the U.S. Senate, but he remained in the governor’s office for another year until he established a state railroad commission. Assuming his Senate duties in 1906, he and President Theodore Roosevelt clashed over the Hepburn bill for regulating railroads, which La Follette tried unsuccessfully to strengthen. Although the two men’s political philosophies were similar, they became bitter political rivals. La Follette did not work well with other senators, but exerted influence through his use of filibusters and bill amendments. He advocated more direct democracy, taxes on the wealthy, labor and consumer protection, stringent antitrust laws, and tariff reform. In 1910, he severed relations with President Taft over the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy.
In 1909, La Follette began publishing La Follette’s Weekly Magazine to promote his reform views, and soon started publishing segments of his autobiography. He used those publications and the National Progressive Republican League to build support for a presidential run. His candidacy suffered a devastating one-two punch in early 1912. On February 2, tired from campaigning, he lost his temper and chastised his audience at a Periodical Publishers’ Association dinner in Philadelphia. The press interpreted it as a nervous breakdown and urged his withdrawal from the race. Ten days later, former president Roosevelt declared his candidacy for the presidency, taking crucial progressive support from La Follette. The senator stayed in the race through the Republican National Convention, where he finished third behind Taft and Roosevelt, 561-107-41. La Follette did not endorse Taft and his magazine relentlessly attacked Roosevelt, who ran as the Progressive Party nominee.
After Woodrow Wilson’s election in November 1912, La Follette supported several of the Democratic president’s domestic reforms. However, he opposed America’s entry into World War I, the military draft, wartime restrictions on personal liberties, and U.S. membership in the postwar League of Nations. In 1922, he persuaded his Senate colleagues to investigate charges of corruption concerning the oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. In 1924, La Follette was the presidential nominee of the Progressive Party (unconnected with the party of 1912). He stood for government ownership of railroads and utilities, labor rights, federal aid to farmers, and the recall of federal judges. He received 17% of the popular vote, but won only the 13 electoral votes of his home state of Wisconsin. He died on June 18, 1925.