If you’re a Republican in office or seeking office, you may have a problem. You may think Donald Trump shouldn’t be president. But a lot of your potential supporters think he should be. Do you risk offending them, or support a candidate who says Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton founded ISIS, attacks the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq and claims he has seen video of things that never happened?
Can a candidate or elected official really run away from her or his party or nominee? In Nevada, it’s been known to happen.
Consider Democrat Pat McCarran. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been re-elected by an electoral majority of 523-8, but the Supreme Court kept invalidating New Deal legislation. So FDR proposed naming a new justice for each one over age 70, possibly leading to a 15-member court.
McCarran owed his election to Roosevelt but fought the plan. A year later, FDR tried to assure McCarran’s defeat. If anything, it helped the senator. Nevadans liked the idea of their man in Washington, D.C., standing up to a president from his own party. FDR offered him a federal judgeship to sideline him, but McCarran declined.
McCarran went further in 1952. Eyeball-deep in his crusade to find communists under every bush, he went to the Democratic National Convention that year backing Senator Richard Russell, an ally in the cause. When other Nevada delegates demonstrated on behalf of Adlai Stevenson, McCarran swung at one of them (conventions were more interesting back then). He repudiated Stevenson and supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
McCarran’s political protégé Alan Bible won the race to succeed him and faced a different situation in 1968 when he sought a fourth term. Bible had been an ardent supporter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, first as majority leader, then as president.
But 1968 was the year of Tet in Vietnam, assassinations (Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy) and riots in Chicago’s streets at the Democratic National Convention. Eugene McCarthy and then Kennedy had challenged Johnson, who decided against seeking re-election; instead, Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination. Accordingly, Bible ran not with LBJ or his policies, but from him. His opponent that year, Republican Lieutenant Governor Ed Fike, said, “To hear the senator talk today, you’d hardly think he knew Lyndon Johnson.”
Bible won that year. By 1968, another Nevada politician who went to law school on McCarran’s patronage, Grant Sawyer, had finished his two terms as governor. He had no use for LBJ. (“I had always felt almost as if I should wash my hands after every meeting,” Sawyer said in his subsequent oral history.) But he despised Kennedy for trying to raid Nevada’s casinos when he was attorney general. “The last time I had seen him before this was in Los Angeles at the 1960 Democratic convention, when he came to my room pleading for the Nevada votes for his brother,” Sawyer recalled. RFK treated him like “someone who had just stepped out from behind a craps table” and seemed “to imply that I was connected with the mob.” Thus, Sawyer said, “I didn’t support him later when he decided to run for president. … I wouldn’t have supported him under any conditions, even if it meant I had to support a Republican instead.” Whether he would have gone so far as to support the GOP nominee in 1968 seems unlikely if Kennedy had lived and won the nomination. After all, the Republican was Richard Nixon.
But Sawyer wasn’t running for anything that year. Cresent Hardy is: In a tough race with Ruben Kihuen in the 4th Congressional District, he’s “100 percent” for Trump. Joe Heck, battling Catherine Cortez Masto for the Senate, is adaptable. Anyone unfamiliar with him wouldn’t know from his Senate race ads that he’s serving in Congress. Many forget he first won office in 2004 by running to the right of then-state Senator Ann O’Connell in a GOP primary. He used one of the only votes she ever cast for a tax hike to paint her as too liberal. So, Heck, who has talked about wanting immigration reform and been able to do nothing about it, says Trump “makes me cringe” but Clinton’s actions “terrify me to death.”
Like every other prominent Nevada Republican, including Governor Brian Sandoval, whom Trump considered for the vice presidency, and Senator Dean Heller, who has danced around the Issue of Trump, Heck fits the words of the great journalist Elmer Davis. He said of a politician who gave in to McCarthyism that the “Senator … wrestled with his conscience. He won.” It’s hard to wrestle with what doesn’t exist.
Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.