In the early-1960s, the ratings for General Electric Theater were slipping; the format was outdated compared to most other programs. In 1961, the Justice Department launched a probe into price-fixing, and GE was the prime target; JFK's election as President had shifted the political landscape towards Liberalism and Big Government. Reagan was bucking the political tide with his conservative speeches, and GE didn't want their profile to be any greater than what it already was with the government. GE offered to let Reagan do GE commercials if he would stop talking conservative politics when he was representing the company. In 1962, Reagan formally refused GE's offer, and GE canceled their TV show, completely severing ties with Reagan.
In the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the growing US involvement in Vietnam, and JFK's Assassination, Reagan had the opportunity to publicize his conversion to Republican Conservatism (he had long been a "New Deal Democrat"). Republicans were split, some believing that the moderate President Eisenhower was too accommodating, not only to liberals, but also to the USSR. These conservatives pointed to the expanded role of the federal government, the main reason being Social Security. These conservative Republicans were concerned that the Grand Old Party was actually losing its political soul. (Pictured: an ad promoting a conservative speech by Reagan while he was still employed with General Electric)
Goldwater favored equality, but he opposed Civil Rights on the political belief that the states should have the authority with legislation on that issue, not the federal government. Goldwater was contested in the Republican primaries by Nelson Rockefeller (pictured: Goldwater is to the right), the Governor of New York. Goldwater edged Rockefeller in the California primary, which gave Goldwater a decided advantage in the Republican National Convention in the Cow Palace in San Francisco.
Moderates tried every trick they knew to keep Goldwater from becoming their party's candidate, even during the "11th Hour", but Goldwater and his supporters had a lock on the nomination. Goldwater became the nominee with 883 delegates, William Scranton (Governor of PA) finished second with 214, and Rockefeller finished a very distant third with 114 delegates.
During his acceptance speech, Goldwater stated "extremism in the defense of liberty . . . is no vice . . . and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue"; conservative Republicans were elated. But conservatives soon discovered that they had nominated an unelectable candidate for the Election of 1964: President Lyndon Johnson received the highest percentage of the popular vote in history, .611, to Goldwater's .385.
Reagan had only been a Republican for two years, and with one speech, he was viewed as the #1 conservative Republican after Goldwater's disastrous showing in the Election of 1964. Almost immediately, Reagan was being mentioned as a Republican candidate for the Governor of California. Democratic Governor Pat Brown's second term expired in 1966, and many California Republicans viewed Reagan as their chance to win the state's highest political office.
But Reagan was a Southern Californian, and that's where most of the votes were located, and his apparent Republican opponent for the nomination was a Northern Californian. Reagan had the advantage of coming through great on television, and when Reagan spoke, it was on broad principles instead of political details. Reagan did attack moderate Republicans, stating that the moderates were the main reason for Goldwater's defeat. Despite his popularity in California, Reagan remained noncommittal about running for governor.
But, ironically, the 1960s were the best of times for conservatives as well, in that there was a sense of lawlessness and disorder that galvanized conservatives into action across the nation. Race riots occurred in Harlem, Philadelphia, Rochester (NY), and Jersey City in 1964, and then the Watts Riot (headline pictured to the left) started just days after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. (the only African-Americans that were safe during the riot were those that shouted "Burn Baby Burn"). Until 1965, the main complaint of conservatives was that the federal government was too large, but with the race riots, conservatives actually started to think that the federal government might be too small to secure law and order.
And then, there were the Baby Boomers; they represented the first huge wave of students that hit colleges / universities in the 1960s. These Baby Boomer students demanded autonomy and protested such issues as freedom of speech. The University of California at Berkeley was the first flashpoint; a combination of anti-Establishment and anti-Vietnam activists protested the restrictions of freedom of speech on campus. Conservatives were especially irked by the anti-Vietnam War protesters, whose war model was World War II; many conservatives branded resistance to the draft as sedition, or even treason.
Conservatives, such as Reagan, wondered who was more responsible for what was wrong with America: the over-sized liberal government under LBJ, or the "Long Hair" protesters on college campuses. The question that was most-often asked by conservatives was this: why didn't the federal government do something about the disorder in America? Due to this frustration and anxiety, the stage was set for a conservative backlash to Liberalism, and with the right candidate, Conservatism could rise again . . . the stage was set for Ronald Reagan's entry into politics in the California Gubernatorial Election of 1966.