California was considered a Republican stronghold in the post-World War II era, electing Republican governors Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight, as well as senators Richard Nixon, William Knowland, and Thomas Kuchel. Knowland was a prestigious two term Senator who had served as Senate Majority Leader and Senate Minority Leader. His seat was considered safe going into the 1958 mid term elections, but he stunned everyone when he announced his intention to run for governor instead of re-election to the Senate. This was especially surprising because California had a relatively popular Republican governor in Goodwin Knight who was also expected to be re-elected. Knowland coerced Knight into a "backroom deal" in which Knowland and Knight would "trade places", with Knight running for Knowland's Senate seat. Knight really had no desire to be Senator and in later years lamented how Knowland "strongarmed" him into the switch. Knowland thought being governor would enhance his chances of challenging another Californian, Richard Nixon, for the 1960 Republican Presidential nomination. For their part, the Democrats nominated popular state Attorney General Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, who was the only Democrat that held a statewide office in a Republican leaning state. As it turned out, the Knowland-Knight switch was not popular with California voters. Brown steadily gained in the polls and defeated Knowland for governor, and Knight lost to Congressman Clair Engle in the Senate race.
Brown is the last Democratic gubernatorial nominee to have won Glenn, Inyo, Sutter, and Tulare Counties. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate would not win Butte and Riverside Counties again until 1978.
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