Documenting Nevada’s Long History of Intraparty Squabbles

Illustration by Krystal Ramirez

Illustration by Krystal Ramirez

Republicans have been attacking Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for voting to uphold Obamacare, which is based on a plan put forth by the right-wing Heritage Foundation—a plan that was a signature achievement of then-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (a Republican). Meanwhile, large numbers of Democrats have called Barack Obama a tool of every Republican and corporation for wanting a free-trade agreement.

To invoke a phrase introduced by either Justice Antonin Scalia or the Hamburglar: This kind of intraparty, intramural argle-bargle has gone on for a long time, including here in Nevada. And, as has been the case nationally, sometimes our family bickering has been ideological, sometimes political, sometimes personal:

⇐ In 1910, at the height of the Progressive Era, onetime Tonopah mining millionaire Tasker Oddie ran for governor because he lost it all and needed a job. One problem: The Republican Party’s anointed candidate, conservative William Massey, had money and support from powerful mining magnates George Nixon (then a U.S. senator) and George Wingfield. Oddie overcame all that, defeating Massey in the primary by running a Progressive campaign, attacking the Southern Pacific Railroad and demanding government reforms. In the general election, Oddie ran with the rest of the GOP ticket (which Wingfield supported) and won. Two years later, Nixon died in office. The progressive Oddie offered the Senate appointment to Wingfield, who turned it down. He then appointed Massey.

⇐ In the 1940s, U.S. Senator Pat McCarran constantly pitted other Democrats against one another, especially in U.S. Senate races. McCarran was known for breaking with other Democrats and thinking communists lurked under every bush, but his main issue wasn’t their ideology; rather, McCarran was concerned that other Democrats might undercut his power at home or in Washington, D.C.

⇐ In 1958, a pair of primaries further divided the frequently divided Democratic party. The most liberal candidate for governor was Elko County’s Grant Sawyer, who lobbied for rural support against his two Southern Nevada opponents: Harvey Dickerson (who was the choice of whatever Democratic machine there was at the time) and George Franklin. Meanwhile, the Senate race pitted the more liberal Fred Anderson of Reno against Las Vegas moderate Howard Cannon. Sawyer and Cannon won, and the men they defeated … supported them. More than just party loyalists, all of them were closer to one another ideologically speaking than they were to the GOP candidates.

⇐ In 1982, Cannon, at this point seeking a fifth U.S. Senate term, faced a primary challenge from four-term Democratic Congressman Jim Santini, who was more conservative at a time when the Reagan Revolution was in full swing. Cannon barely won. In the general election, some Santini supporters either sat on their hands or backed Cannon’s GOP opponent, Chic Hecht, who ended up winning. In this case, the differences were political, ideological and personal—and they not only cost Democrats the Senate seat, but cost Nevada a big chunk of its power.

⇐ In 2006, Dina Titus easily won the Democratic primary for governor against Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson. More conservative Southern Nevada Democrats weren’t pleased, nor were some Northern Nevada Democrats who hadn’t liked Titus’ support for Southern Nevada during her term in the Legislature. Titus fell to Republican Jim Gibbons, 48 percent to 44 percent. Um, that worked out well.

⇐ In 2010, Sharron Angle won the GOP Senate nomination, partly by running far to the right of opponents Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian, and partly by being the most prominent northerner in the race. In the general election, a lot of Nevada Republicans felt she was too far out there, including the late Bill Raggio. Our longest-serving state senator and the party’s legislative leader, Raggio crossed the aisle and publicly endorsed U.S. Senator Harry Reid. After Angle lost, Raggio’s colleagues stripped him of his leadership post, and he subsequently resigned.

Raggio took many right-wing positions in his time, but he also knew how to compromise. Plus, he resented Angle having run against him two years before in the GOP primary (and he only beat her 53 percent to 47 percent). How much of Raggio’s endorsement of Reid was ideological? Probably little of it; he simply understood the power Reid wielded in Washington, plus he knew that Angle was so far to the right that she met the far left coming back around. But would he have made that endorsement if he had liked Angle personally and respected her politically?

We’ll never learn the answer, but this much we do know: Intraparty scuffles have been and always will be part of our political process. If only Twitter existed when the Founding Fathers were around …

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.