The younger Talmadge had been a write-in candidate and was one of three competitors serving briefly as the 70th Governor of Georgia before yielding to a court decision in favor of the elected lieutenant governor. Talmadge was elected as governor in a special election in 1948, and elected again to a full term in 1950, serving into 1955. After leaving office, Talmadge was elected in 1956 to the U.S. Senate, serving four terms from 1957 until 1981. He gained considerable power over the decades. He gained chairmanship by seniority of the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee.
After being censured by the Senate in 1979 for financial irregularities, Talmadge lost the 1980 general election to Republican Mack Mattingly, part of the shift of white conservatives in the South to the Republican Party. It was a reversal of party affiliation from the 19th century.
Talmadge was born in 1913 in McRae in Telfair County in south central Georgia, the only son of Eugene Talmadge and his wife. His father served as Governor of Georgia during much of the 1930s and the 1940s. Herman Talmadge earned a degree from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1936, where he had been a member of the Demosthenian Literary Society and Sigma Nu fraternity.
He returned to McRae to set up a law practice. When World War II broke out, Talmadge joined the United States Navy, serving in combat in the South Pacific. He reached the rank of lieutenant commander.
After returning from the war, Talmadge became active in Democratic Party politics. He ran his father's successful 1946 campaign for governor. Eugene Talmadge had been ill, and his supporters were worried about his surviving long enough to be sworn in. They studied the state constitution and found that if the governor-elect died before his term began, the Georgia General Assembly would choose between the second and third-place finishers for the successor. The elder Talmadge ran unopposed among Democrats, so the party officials arranged for write-in votes for Herman Talmadge as insurance.
In December 1946, the elder Talmadge died before taking office. Melvin E. Thompson, the lieutenant governor-elect; Ellis Arnall, the prior governor; and Herman Talmadge as write-in candidate, all arranged to be sworn in and were concurrently trying to conduct state business from the Georgia State Capitol. Arnall relinquished his claim in favor of Thompson. Ultimately, Thompson was supported by the Supreme Court of Georgia.
Talmadge soon yielded to the state supreme court ruling. He prepared to run for the special gubernatorial election in 1948, and defeated incumbent Governor Thompson. Two years later, Talmadge was elected to a full term in the 1950 election. During his terms, Talmadge attracted new industries to Georgia. He remained a staunch supporter of racial segregation, even as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the postwar years. Many African-American veterans began to seek social justice.
Talmadge was barred by law from seeking another full term as Governor in 1954. That year the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, and advised school systems to integrate.
Talmadge was elected to the United States Senate in 1956. Most blacks in Georgia were still disenfranchised under state laws passed by conservative white Democrats and discriminatory practices they had conducted since the turn of the 20th century. During his time as U.S. Senator, Talmadge continued as a foe of civil rights legislation, even as the Civil Rights Movement gained media coverage and increasing support across the country.
After President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Talmadge, along with more than a dozen other southern Senators, boycotted the 1964 Democratic National Convention. With the help of Senator Richard Russell, Talmadge had gained appointment to the Agriculture Committee during his first year in Washington and to the Senate Finance Committee shortly thereafter. Given his successive re-elections from the one-party state of Georgia, Talmadge gained the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee by seniority. He sponsored bills to help white farmers, an important constituency.
In 1968, Talmadge faced the first of his three Republican challengers for his Senate seat. E. Earl Patton (1927–2011), later a member of the Georgia State Senate, received 256,796 votes (22.5 percent) to Talmadge's 885,103 (77.3 percent). Patton, a real estate developer, was the first Republican in Georgia to run for the U.S. Senate since the Reconstruction era, when most Republicans had been African-American freedmen. He was a sign of the shifting white electorate in the South, where white suburbans moved into the Republican Party.
Talmadge ran a disciplined office, requiring his staff to respond to every constituent letter within 24 hours of receipt.
In early 1973, Talmadge was appointed to the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (better known as the United States Senate Watergate Committee) which investigated the activities of members of the Nixon administration. He served on the committee until its final report was issued in June 1974.
Late in his Senate career, Talmadge became embroiled in a financial scandal. After an extensive investigation by the Senate, on October 11, 1979, Talmadge was censured by an 81–15 vote of the U.S. Senate for "improper financial conduct" between 1973 and 1978. He was found to have accepted reimbursements of $43,435.83 for official expenses not incurred, and to have improperly reported the "expenses" as campaign expenditures.
In 1980 Talmadge and his wife divorced. That year he had a tough primary challenge from Democrat Zell Miller. Talmadge defeated Miller but lost the general election to Republican Mack Mattingly, marking the end of his family's political dynasty and the start of the rise of the Republican Party in Georgia. Mattingly was the first Republican to represent Georgia in the Senate since Reconstruction and was a white conservative. Miller later served as a U.S. Senator from 2000 until 2005.
After his defeat, Talmadge retired to his home. He lived on for more than two decades, dying at the age of 88. Talmadge and his wife had had two sons together, Herman E. Talmadge, Jr., and Robert Shingler Talmadge.1969, he was awarded an honorary degree in Doctor of Laws from Oglethorpe University.