Political Machinations Are Nothing New in Our Great State

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Learning Nevada history is fun and beneficial. Learning from Nevada history is even more so. Take almost any recent political development and something in this state’s past is comparable or illuminating:

Breaking a sweat. On an average of least once a week for the past two months, Donald Trump has criticized Marco Rubio for sweating too much. Granted, Rubio doesn’t get his hair from the same muskrat, and being onstage with Trump could make anyone perspire. But can sweat shape a campaign?

It did in Nevada. In 1986, Jim Santini, formerly a four-term Democratic representative, ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican against two-term Democratic Representative Harry Reid. At his announcement, a reporter asked Santini about a few thousand dollars for which one of his previous campaigns couldn’t account. It really wasn’t that big a deal. But under the TV lights, Santini broke into a sweat and wiped his forehead. At which, Reid probably did the table dance like Tom Cruise in Risky Business. That wound up in Reid’s ads and helped him win. Santini’s political consultants never forgave the media involved in that one.

By the way, Santini’s previous campaign had pitted him against Democratic Senator Howard Cannon. When they debated, Santini’s advisers turned the temperature so low, poor Cannon nearly froze. And Santini still sweated.

Just because you’re paranoid about the media doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Republican knickers are in a twist over what moderators from CNBC, which is the network that helped start the Tea Party (really), asked at a debate. This has led to new demands about what future moderators can say or do.

They think CNBC was out to get them? They should have tried Nevada. Hank Greenspun’s Las Vegas Sun used to publish some great stuff right before elections. In 1966, it was J. Edgar Hoover advising against re-electing Democratic Governor Grant Sawyer, who had compared the FBI with the Gestapo. In 1970, it was a questionable land deal involving GOP Lieutenant Governor Ed Fike, helping to elect his opponent, Democrat Mike O’Callaghan. In 1974, the Sun revealed that Independent American candidate James Ray Houston was a crook, again aiding O’Callaghan.

It wasn’t just Greenspun. There’s a long history, from the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise’s editor fighting a duel with one political opponent to the Las Vegas Review-Journal doing everything except photoshopping a picture of Harry Reid with a goat during his 2010 re-election campaign against Sharron Angle. When I was a boy reporter, our publisher at The Valley Times, Bob Brown, was a top behind-the-scenes campaign adviser to Republican Chic Hecht when he defeated Cannon in 1982. And they think those moderators were partisan?

Trolling the opposition. Harry Reid loves doing this, and the media love to point it out. He said Paul Ryan would make a fine speaker and John Boehner was a great guy, especially after Boehner suggested in two words that Reid do something biologically impossible. Not that Reid is new at it. In 2005, he endorsed President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nomination, Harriet Miers, who was Bush’s counsel. Republicans deemed completely unqualified because she lacked a judicial record of loving corporations and hating women and minorities. In each case, Republicans were unhappy with Reid being happy.

But then there was Pat McCarran, a Democratic senator from Nevada from 1933 to 1954. He didn’t just troll the opposition, he trolled members of his own party. Twice he helped elect Republican George Malone as his Senate colleague because he hated the Democrat in the race. He also interfered in Democratic primaries at all levels, from Senate on down. He got one Democrat fired from a federal job for criticizing him, and actually stopped a critic within the party from getting a job as a bartender by threatening the bar owner’s license.

Then again, in 2010, Reid did all he could to assure Angle’s victory in the Republican Senate primary, thereby easing his re-election. In 2012, Barack Obama’s campaign took a similar approach, hammering GOP front-runner Mitt Romney in hopes of promoting the nomination of a weaker candidate or at least softening him up for the general election. Some are willing to learn something from Nevada and its history.

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