Even Small Cracks in Party Unity Can Have Consequences

Will Rogers once said he didn’t belong to an organized political party; he was a Democrat. How divided were Democrats at their convention? Obviously, it depends on your perspective. But even the smallest fissures may matter. Nevada’s political history provides educational examples:

• In the 1940s, Pat McCarran was the state’s senior senator and ostensibly top Democrat. But McCarran didn’t just think Communists lurked under every bush. He also saw threats from fellow Democrats. He was right: Other factions wanted to undercut or oust him.

But as McCarran often did, he went a bit far. In 1946, he encouraged Nevada’s lone congressman, Berkeley Bunker, to challenge Democratic Senator Ted Carville in a primary. Why? Because McCarran and Carville had a falling-out after having once been allies. Bunker won the primary.

Irony alert: Bunker had been a U.S. senator, appointed in 1940 by then-Governor … Carville. In 1942, Bunker sought a full term but lost in the primary to a candidate backed by … McCarran. In 1946, Bunker went into the general election against a Republican in a Republican year. Carville supporters stayed home, and the Republican won.

In 1952, that Republican, George Malone, was going to lose re-election to McCarran protégé and former state Attorney General Alan Bible. But Bible lost the Democratic primary to Tom Mechling, who attacked Bible as the tool of a corrupt, dictatorial senator. As the general election approached, McCarran’s financial allies caught Mechling on tape offering to stop criticizing the senator—for a price. McCarran announced he wouldn’t support his fellow Democrat. Malone won a second term. Agree or disagree with him, he was much more conservative than the average Democrat, including McCarran.

• By 1958, McCarran was gone and Democrats divided in every way imaginable. Three prominent Democrats ran for governor; Grant Sawyer won—and his opponents backed him in the general election, even after some viciousness during the primary. The U.S. Senate primary pitted moderate Las Vegan Howard Cannon and liberal Renoite Fred Anderson. Cannon won and Democrats came out strong for Cannon, who was elected. Maybe they thought the Republican alternatives were too conservative for them?

• In 1978, Republican Attorney General Bob List battled Democratic Lieutenant Governor Bob Rose to succeed Governor Mike O’Callaghan. Rose won as many primary votes as his two main opponents combined. But conservative Democrats deemed Rose far too liberal. Amid rumblings that O’Callaghan wasn’t thrilled with Rose, either, List won big and had the pleasure of presiding over a recession.

Four years later, Democrats had another tough primary—Attorney General Richard Bryan defeated Lieutenant Governor Myron Leavitt and State Treasurer Stan Colton. In the general election, Leavitt and Colton backed Bryan, who easily won and led the state back to something resembling prosperity.

• Ah, but all was not well in 1982. Four-term Democratic Representative Jim Santini didn’t want to wait another six years for Cannon, then in his fourth term, to retire. So he challenged Cannon and lost the primary by about 4,500 votes. Some of the Santini faithful then stayed home or voted for the Republican, Chic Hecht, who won and didn’t exactly set the world on fire.

  In 2006, state Senator Dina Titus defeated Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson in what was supposed to be a three-way primary involving Gibson’s fellow conservative Mormon Democrat, Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, who dropped out of the race. Gibson and his allies didn’t exactly fall all over themselves to help Titus in the general election, which she lost by 4 percent to Representative Jim Gibbons. Perhaps it’s enough to say of Gibbons that he once declared Democrats had bought off The Wall Street Journal—you read that right—to write nasty things about his personal and financial issues.

Not that Nevada has the only Democrats who shoot themselves in the foot. In 1968, some liberals wouldn’t vote for Hubert Humphrey; in 1972, some conservatives wouldn’t vote for George McGovern. The beneficiary of each scenario was Richard Nixon, who lied a lot, had a bad complexion, benefited from dirty tricks, committed treason during his first campaign and claimed to be the “law and order” candidate. Uh-oh.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.