Landon's interest in politics began early. He supported Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party in 1912, and, in 1922, was private secretary to the governor of Kansas. He later became known as the leader of the liberal Republicans in the state. He was elected chairman of the Republican state central committee in 1928 and directed the Republican successful presidential and gubernatorial campaigns in Kansas in that year.
Landon was elected Governor of Kansas in 1932. He was re-elected governor in 1934--the only Republican governor to be re-elected that year. He served as governor from 1933 until 1937. As Governor, Landon gained a reputation for reducing taxes and balancing the budget. Landon is often described as a fiscal conservative who nevertheless believed that government must also address social issues. He supported parts of the New Deal but opposed labor unions.
In 1936, Landon sought the Republican presidential nominee opposing the re-election of FDR. At the Republican National Convention in 1936, Landon's campaign manager John Hamilton mobilized the younger elements of the party against the faction led by Herbert Hoover. Landon won the nomination on the first ballot; the convention selected Chicago newspaper publisher Frank Knox as his running mate.
Landon proved to be an ineffective campaigner who rarely traveled to make appearances. Most of the attacks on FDR and social security during the 1936 election were developed by Republican campaigners rather than Landon himself. In the two months after his nomination he made no campaign appearances. As columnist Westbrook Pegler lampooned, "Considerable mystery surrounds the disappearance of Alfred M. Landon of Topeka, Kans.... The Missing Persons Bureau has sent out an alarm bulletin bearing Mr. Landon's photograph and other particulars, and anyone having information of his whereabouts is asked to communicate direct with the Republican National Committee."
Landon respected and admired Roosevelt and accepted much of the New Deal but objected that it was hostile to business and involved too much waste and inefficiency. Late in the campaign, Landon accused Roosevelt of corruption--that is, of acquiring so much power that he was subverting the Constitution. Landon said:
The 1936 Presidential election was extraordinarily lopsided. Although Landon gained nearly 17 million votes and obtained the endorsement of track star Jesse Owens, he lost the popular vote by more than 10 million votes. He carried only Maine and Vermont for a total of 8 electoral votes to Roosevelt's 523. FDR's win was the most crushing electoral victory since 1820. The overwhelming Roosevelt victory prompted Democratic party boss James Farley to joke, "As Maine goes, so goes Vermont."
Following his defeat, Landon finished out his term as governor of Kansas and returned to the oil industry. Landon did not seek elective office again.
The Republicans' defeats in 1932 and 1936 plunged their party into a period of bitter intraparty strife. Landon played an important role in ending this internal bickering in 1938, in helping to prepare a new group of leaders for the presidential campaign of 1940, and in trying to bring about a compromise between the isolationist and internationalist viewpoints in foreign policy. Landon failed to enter Franklin Roosevelt's Cabinet because he made his acceptance contingent upon the President's renunciation of a third term.
After war broke out in Europe in 1939 Landon fought against isolationists such as America First who supported the Neutrality Act; he feared it would mislead Nazi Germany into thinking the United States was unwilling to fight. In 1940 he argued against lend-lease, urging instead that Britain be given $5 billion outright. After the war, he backed the Marshall Plan, while opposing high domestic spending. After the communist takeover of China, he was one of the first to advocate recognition of Mao Zedong's communist government, and its admission to the United Nations, when this was still a very unpopular position among the leadership and followers of both major parties.
In 1961, he urged the U.S. to join the European Common Market. In November 1962, when he was asked to describe his political philosophy, Landon said: I would say practical progressive, which means that the Republican party or any political party has got to recognize the problems of a growing and complex industrial civilization. And I don't think the Republican party is really wide awake to that. Later in the 1960s, Landon backed President Lyndon Johnson on Medicare and other Great Society programs.
On December 13, 1966, Landon gave the first "Landon Lecture" at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. Landon's lecture, titled "New Challenges in International Relations" was the first in a series of public issues lectures that continues to this day and has featured numerous world leaders and political figures, including seven U.S. presidents (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush).
Landon died October 12, 1987, in Topeka, Kansas, 34 days after his 100th birthday. When he died, he was the earliest born U.S. governor of any state still living, a title he assumed in 1984 on the death of George Alexander Parks, another centenarian. When Landon died, the title went to Albert B. Chandler of Kentucky. Alf Landon is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery, Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas.