The first U.S. state governor ever to lose their seat in a recall election? 1921: Lynn Frazier, a socialist who led North Dakota.
Frazier was affiliated with the Non-Partisan League (NPL) faction of the Republican Party, a socialist faction which only emerged in 1915 but won Frazier the 1916 election. At the time, North Dakota held governor elections every two years, with Frazier winning second and third terms in both 1918 and 1920. (The governor’s term was changed to every four years starting in 1964.)
As governor, Frazier implemented socialist policies, which were popular with the state’s voters for a time. But an economic downturn hit in 1921, and voters didn’t want to wait until 1922 to potentially throw Frazier out of office. So they successfully petitioned for a recall election in November 1921. Frazier lost in a squeaker, 50.9% to 49.1%.
The year before that, though, Gov. Frazier penned this New York Times article about how well his tenure was going:
Our state legislature enacted into law… state-owned terminal elevators and flour mills, a rural credit bank to be operated at cost, state hall insurance at cost, the exemption of farmers’ improvements from taxation, and a fair and just grain grading act.
It is very easy to see why certain financial interests are bitterly opposed to our organization, and are fighting it in North Dakota; because we are cutting off some of the easy profits that have been made by these interests in the past.
Frazier became the first governor in American history to lose a recall election. Yet although he lost the battle, he won the war, on both the personal and ideological levels. Personally, Frazier would shortly thereafter become a U.S. senator from North Dakota, from 1923 to 1941. Ideologically, six of the state’s subsequent nine governors were affiliated with the Non-Partisan League.
In the 1950s, the state party switched from Republican faction to merging with the Democrats. To this day, one of the two main parties in North Dakota is officially known not as the Democrats, but the North Dakota Democratic–Nonpartisan League Party.
The name change hasn’t done much good. The party last won a North Dakota governor election in 1988.
The only other governor ever successfully recalled was California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, when he was ousted by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Gov. Frazier’s Own Story of the Non Partisan League: North Dakota Executive, Twice Elected by Farmers in “Anti-Capitalist” Movement, Describes Benefits and Economies Derived from New Form of Government
Published: Sunday, May 16, 1920