The Political Kraft
A key architect of Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential election, Tim Kraft now lives in Las Cruces — and says the campaign game has changed.
By Jeff Berg
Tim Kraft is glad to be retired. So glad, that on a note he mails with copies of previous articles written about him in Time magazine and the National Journal, he has altered the letterhead so that it reads "From the couch of Tim Kraft" instead of "From the desk of."
This does not mean, however, that the one-time national field director for Jimmy Carter's successful 1976 presidential campaign is completely retired and spending as many of his days reading and watching movies as he would like. While such things remain high on Kraft's "to do" list, there is still a lot of work to be done. Although living in Las Cruces, far from the Washington, DC, Beltway, Kraft remains active politically — just not the way he was for many years.
"I was raised in a Democratic family in a Republican city in Indiana," Kraft recalls with a slight roll of his eyes. The city was Muncie, from which he went on to college at Dartmouth in New Hampshire.
From 1963 to 1965, Kraft served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, where he "built latrines and wells for local villagers." That experience helped lead to a part-time position with Sen. Birch Bayh from his home state of Indiana, in which he did public affairs work for the Peace Corps.
Kraft had become active in politics in college at Dartmouth. He recalls, "The first campaign that I worked for was in California when Jesse Unruh ran against Ronald Reagan for governor in 1970." Unruh, who was active in California politics for years, lost that race, but later was elected that state's treasurer for a dozen years.
Meanwhile, Kraft had come to New Mexico and, as he puts it, "just decided to stay." After Unruh's defeat in California, Kraft got a job with the New Mexico state Democratic Party, a position that he quips had him "raising the money for his own salary," as the party's executive director.
His taste for working on political campaigns lingered, however, and he soon was back in that arena, making frequent sorties from his New Mexico base. "I was struck by the phenomenon of senatorial campaigns," Kraft recalls. He worked on the Senate re-election campaigns of Democrats George McGovern in South Dakota and Henry "Scoop" Jackson in Washington state.
In 1974, Jerry Apodaca was running for governor of New Mexico in a very heated and controversial campaign against Republican Joe Skeen, who went on to serve in the US Congress for a number of years. Democrat Apodaca needed all the help he could get, and so Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter came to New Mexico to campaign for him. It proved a fateful connection for Kraft.
"Carter wasn't 'testing the waters' then for a presidential run — that didn't happen until January of 1975," Kraft recalls. "But a friend, Chris Brown, invited me to a dinner, and said that Carter was going to speak afterward. I talked to him for about an hour or so."
Kraft must have made a good impression, as he and Brown were hired in March 1975 to work on the underdog Carter presidential campaign. Kraft was soon promoted to National Field Director.
Now it was time for Kraft to really put his learn-by-doing method into action. He has no formal training in campaign management, but did it with a good degree of success in various political fields for 30 years.
There were times, however, when his inexperience caught up with him. Kraft recalls that on one trip to Washington, DC, to meet with Carter aide Jody Powell, he breezed in and completely overlooked the sign-in sheets and name tags. He adds with a smile, "It was a good visit anyway. They checked us out pretty good. Carter's team hired slowly and carefully."
Kraft's team was given their first objective to help get Carter elected: secure funds in 20 states that would allow the campaign to receive matching federal funds. Kraft worked with another close associate of Carter's, Hamilton Jordan, who later became President Carter's chief of staff.
"I helped raise funds in 10 western states, and then moved to Iowa in August of 1975, several months before the caucus, to be campaign manager there," Kraft recalls. "It was a large field of candidates, including Mo Udall, Fred Harris (former Oklahoma senator, who now lives in Corrales, NM) and Scoop Jackson."
Jimmy Carter, relatively unknown at the time, probably received a boost from that very fact, as many citizens were still ruffled by the shenanigans of the Nixon administration. Carter's strategy to try to enter every caucus and primary worked, as one by one, the other candidates eventually fell by the wayside. All told, at one time or another, there were 23 announced candidates for the Democratic nomination. Other names of note were California Gov. Jerry Brown and Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, who made his last bid for the office, four years after an assassination attempt crippled him for life. (Wallace would nonetheless get the third highest total of votes for Democratic contenders in 1976, trailing only Carter and Brown.)
Time was tight, and Kraft had only a few days to set up an office and start getting Carter's name out in Iowa. "We had no budget, and all of the help was unofficial."
But Kraft soon had an important ally, when Carter's wife, Rosalynn, was sent to help out. Efforts were made to hit all of the larger cities in Iowa, with her help. Kraft recalls, "I met her at the airport in Des Moines and handed her a legal pad with a bunch of appointments written on it, and told her, 'Here's your schedule.'"
Without missing a beat, Rosalynn Carter took the pad and started reading it before Kraft could let her know that he was kidding.
"She always made a good impression and could make people commit," Kraft says.
The Iowa caucus proved to be Carter's first national victory, even though he technically came in second place, just after "uncommitted." It also established Iowa as a crucial stepping stone to the White House, along with New Hampshire. Carter went on to win the nomination and to defeat President Gerald Ford.
James Earl Carter was sworn in as the 39th president on Jan. 20, 1977. "Ever the planner, Carter had his transition team ready in 1976," Kraft recalls. "He wanted to have the mechanics in place, and when it came time to put together his cabinet, Hamilton Jordan essentially went to a DC hotel and put it together."