Are the Enemies on the Right the Right Enemies to Have?

Dean Heller has irked Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn. What remains to be seen is whether that’s good news or bad news for him.

The New York Times reports the two casino magnates called the GOP senator from Nevada at the White House’s request to register their displeasure. They’re unhappy with his opposition to Mitch McConnell’s effort to kill anyone making less than a million a year or with a disability—uh, that is, the “replacement” for Obamacare. “One ally of Mr. Heller’s acknowledged that Mr. Adelson and Mr. Wynn were unhappy with the senator at the moment and that their relationship needed some repair work,” The Times reported.

Heller’s possibly momentary abandonment of the distant right (far right doesn’t go far enough) inspired Danny Tarkanian to investigate a primary challenge. Since we can’t go through an election cycle without Tarkanian running for something, he might as well face Heller.

Heller’s between a rock and a hard place. In Ely, one constituent yelled at him to get behind the president while another thanked him for saving her health care.

Heller’s between a rock and a hard place. In Ely, one constituent yelled at him to get behind the president while another thanked him for saving her health care. Those responses pretty well cover the position he’s in. But while Heller has no one to blame but himself and his party, he shouldn’t feel lonely. Politicians have a way of offending people around them, for good and ill.

Consider Pat McCarran, Nevada’s second most powerful U.S. senator ever (more on No. 1 below). He teed off George Wingfield, who owned many of Nevada’s major mines, banks and hotels—in other words, he was Adelson and Wynn combined with Barrick Gold and Chase. And McCarran went further than Heller: He represented Wingfield’s wife in a divorce case that publicized ol’ George suffered from syphilis, then attacked his efforts to break a miners’ strike and his railroading of union organizers, then ran for office against a Wingfield favorite.

Wingfield did his best and worst to keep McCarran from winning the office he most wanted—the one Heller holds. But McCarran hurt himself far more by refusing to play along with fellow Democrats. Ultimately, he won that Senate seat, thanks to Wingfield’s empire going under during the Great Depression and voters preferring McCarran to the alternative.

As for power numero uno, Harry Reid had the audacity to help rural Nevadans get a national park some of its denizens claimed not to want, and a water settlement that benefited numerous residents and millions of acres of wilderness areas, as well as save Ely’s small regional airport. For all of this, most rural Nevadans have hated him forever and ever, amen. But Reid did what he thought was right and probably figured he wasn’t going to harvest a lot of votes from that part of Nevada, anyway.

Then there’s the matter of how much influence Adelson and Wynn would actually have—especially if they decided to support Tarkanian against Heller. Or, if Heller won the primary, the Democrat in the general election (and neither of them is likely to back any Democrat).

After McCarran died in office in 1954, his big-money supporters—led by the developer Norman Biltz and the lobbyist John Mueller—decided Democrats would nominate Reno lawyer Bill Cashill for the seat. While they sat in Biltz’s home and plotted how to move their pawns around the board, Alan Bible and his allies went around the state and locked up party leaders’ support and the nomination. Bible won, served for 20 years and did both of the big-money men a great deal of good. He also helped Southern Nevada get the water it needed to grow and, behind the scenes, he helped pass important environmental legislation. Cashill might have been a great U.S. senator, but Bible understood who did the voting.

“We have people like that in Nevada now, who sit around, pat each other on the back, and convince each other they know how to handle what’s going on. They forget a couple million people out there aren’t privy to their conversations.”–Ralph Denton, attorney and activist

Similarly, in 1998, Kenny Guinn won the governorship in what political maven Jon Ralston correctly called an “anointment.” But Guinn inevitably made several rookie mistakes and his campaign could have gone south a few times. Brian Sandoval had more political experience when his own gubernatorial anointment came in 2010, but, lest we forget, both he and Guinn benefited from the Democratic theory (referenced in the June 29 column in this space) that just because they’re Republicans doesn’t mean they’re unreasonable. It helped Sandoval that some Nevadans did having two Reids on the ballot at the same time (Rory, a county commissioner, opposed Sandoval), and that he’s a Northern Nevadan, meaning some Northern Democratic votes were going to go his way simply on geographic grounds.

Or as my late dear friend Ralph Denton, the longtime attorney and activist who related the story about Bible and Cashill, said, “We have people like that in Nevada now, who sit around, pat each other on the back, and convince each other they know how to handle what’s going on. They forget a couple million people out there aren’t privy to their conversations.”

None of this means Heller isn’t in trouble. He may well be, although a lot of time and legislation await. Adelson and Wynn may decide they can more easily control Tarkanian or some other candidate. Whether they or anyone else can control the voting population is another matter entirely. 7

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.

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