Looking at the greatest campaign implosions

Las Vegas has a history of imploding hotels, but those collapses have nothing on Sue Lowden. When politico.com puts you atop the list of worst campaigns of the 2010 election season, either you are lucky to win or you deserve to lose.

Lowden has been her own worst enemy. First, she stuck with the idea of bartering chickens for medical care, then accused Sen. Harry Reid of making it an issue (though she’s the one who kept defending it) before she denied saying part of what she actually said. Then came questions about who actually owned her campaign bus, and she flubbed the response to that.

In the process, she blamed the media, including Nevada Public Radio, whose research she attacked on the air, and interviewer Jon Ralston, who happens to work at KVBC Channel 3 for Bob Stoldal, who once employed Lowden as an anchorwoman at KLAS Channel 8, begging the question of whether she remembers ever being part of the media.

As this issue went to press, the primary election results were unknown, but regardless of the outcome, Lowden will be remembered for one of the most incompetent campaigns in the history of Nevada politics. She definitely has competition:

• In 1952, Republican George Malone sought a second U.S. Senate term. Alan Bible ran in the Democratic primary, having just completed two terms as state attorney general. He was as close to a political protégé as Sen. Pat McCarran had, giving him access to ample support.

But McCarran was a bull who carried his own china shop, meaning he made plenty of enemies, even in his own party. Tom Mechling, a recent arrival in Nevada, challenged Bible in the primary.

When Mechling won, Bible was so embarrassed he almost left Nevada, where he had been born and bred. Instead, he stayed, won a subsequent election to succeed McCarran, and stayed in the Senate for two decades.

Meanwhile, Mechling forgot that when the primary ends, you’re supposed to stop attacking your side and concentrate on the opposition. Mechling kept blasting McCarran, whose allies then caught Mechling on tape offering to lay off in exchange for money. Between that and McCarran publicly opposing him, Mechling lost the general election to Malone, giving Democrats two implosions for the price of one in one year.

• In 1970, Lt. Gov. Ed Fike was expected to defeat Democrat Mike O’Callaghan, who had far less money and name recognition, in the race for governor. But Fike had been involved in a questionable land deal, and the story broke in famed muckraker Jack Anderson’s column. Hank Greenspun then played it up in the Las Vegas Sun.

Republicans screwed up in every possible way. Paul Laxalt, leaving the governor’s office, challenged Anderson as an outsider who didn’t understand the West, apparently not knowing the columnist was a Utah-raised Mormon. Fike attacked Greenspun, which was a foolish move. The Republicans’ implosion helped get O’Callaghan elected.

• In 1974, Laxalt ran for the Senate seat left open when Bible retired. In the wake of Watergate, he should have lost, but the Democratic candidate blew it, attacking Laxalt’s family, linking Laxalt to Howard Hughes when he, too, benefited from Hughes’s largesse, and generally running a bad campaign. The Democrat Laxalt defeated? Harry Reid.

• In 1982, Reid sought a seat in the House of Representatives. In the Republican primary between longtime school board member James Lyman and former legislator Peggy Cavnar, Lyman was favored and leading. Then, asked about his opponent, Lyman called her a “nice little girl,” an unwise comment anytime, especially about a woman in her 30s. Cavnar beat Lyman, who pretty much disappeared from Nevada politics.

• In 1986, Reid ran for the Senate against Jim Santini, a former Democrat who had recently become a Republican but enjoyed widespread party support. Announcing his candidacy, Santini faced questions about a few thousand dollars he couldn’t account for in a previous campaign. In answering, he actually pulled out a handkerchief to wipe away sweat—on television. He looked so bad, you would think he needed a chicken to make a trip to a doctor’s office.

All of which demonstrates that candidates are human, after all. They make mistakes, sometimes from inexperience, stupidity or hubris. At some point, those chickens come home to roost.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.

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