Beyond the Beltway
By Michael Green
What the Home Folks Think, and Whether It Matters
Last time, we discussed some older examples of a conundrum that many politicians face: whether they are doing something that might offend the voters in their state or district. Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chair, has made a lot of news for his efforts on behalf of Donald Trump in the wake of the myriad reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The New York Times went to Nunes’s district in California’s Central Valley and found his constituents far more concerned about issues like water.
That seemed to be the case in Nevada when it came to longtime Senators Key Pittman and Pat McCarran, whose stories we went into last time. But Pittman died in office in 1940 and McCarran in 1954. Have the times changed? The answer appears to be, yes, eventually, they did. To a degree.
Walter Baring was a junior contemporary of theirs, getting involved in Democratic politics in the 1930s. In 1948, he won the first of two terms in the House, then lost twice to Republican Cliff Young, then came back in 1956 and remained in office until he lost theDemocratic primary to Las Vegan Jim Bilbray in 1972. Bilbray then lost the general election and didn’t actually get into the House until winning in 1986.
Baring’s loss involved the combination of southern Nevada and liberal northern Democrats ganging up on him, and the departure of his longtime political guru, Charlie Bell. The ganging up, though, was nothing new. In 1962, Baring had cut his tie line to the party, declaring himself a Jeffersonian States Rights Democrat and denouncing John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. He later attacked Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and civil rights legislation.
All of this prompted more liberal, southern Nevada Democrats to challenge Baring, who was Goldfield-born and a Reno resident. John Mendoza, Ralph Denton, Dick Ham, and Otto Ravenholt all tried and failed before Bilbray defeated him. Why did Baring survive so long when he was clearly not in step with his national party?
Gamesmanship didn’t hurt—Bell knew how to run a campaign, and some Republicans were known to switch sides for the Democratic primary, then switch back for the general, when the Nevada GOP rarely exerted great efforts against Baring. Also, he was in step locally. Many Nevadans shared his views. But there was another reason.
Well, not entirely. But we’ll start there and make it personal. When I was a kindergarten-aged Nevadan, my family received a packet of seeds from Baring. So did many other Nevadans. It didn’t help with us because of the vagaries of the Las Vegas soil: I planted the tomato and carrot seeds he sent, and up popped radishes. Go figure.
But Baring specialized not merely in constituent services, but in knowing the people. Bob Brown, The Valley Times publisher who gave The Editrix and me our first real training in journalism, loved to quote the line, “Nobody likes Walter Baring but the voters.” Baring had no problem using it himself. He knew it was true, because he knew them. He took care of them and, in turn, they took care of him.
So it went until the population of southern Nevada had grown enough to overcome the rest of the state—or perhaps more northern Nevadans had become Republicans and preferred to vote for their party.
The first southern Nevadan elected to the U.S. Senate was Howard Cannon, who won his seat in 1958 and served for four terms. He had a tough time winning his second term in 1964—Paul Laxalt ran against him, ran a brilliant campaign, and almost pulled it off—but Cannon pretty much cruised through his next two elections.
Then came 1982. Few thought Republican challenger Chic Hecht could defeat Cannon, who was by then seventh in Senate seniority. But Democratic Representative Jim Santini challenged Cannon in the primary, running from his right; Cannon held him off, but some Santini supporters declined to support Cannon in the general election. Add in strong outside support for Hecht from Ronald Reagan, a very popular president, and, in something that seemed unusual at the time, outside funders. Throw in that mobsters were caught on tape conspiring to attempt to bribe Cannon; they never did, but their trial came right before the election, getting the incumbent headlines he really didn’t need.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter had decided to go forward with a treaty—the negotiations began under his Republican predecessors, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—to give control of that canal down south to Panama. Paul Laxalt was one of the Senate leaders of the effort to block the treaty. As Laxalt recalled in his autobiography, one day Cannon told him that he shouldn’t count on his vote against the treaty. Reagan opposed the treaty, too, and it became a major issue for Republicans.
All of which should have meant nothing, if history told us anything. Cannon had spent nearly a quarter of a century serving his constituents. Elko wasn’t exactly Democratic territory, but Cannon obtained funding to relocate railroad tracks. All those years of delivering should have carried him across the finish line, right?
But Nevada had changed. McCarran ran into this problem late in his career. He had indeed done a lot for his constituents, and he had used his power on behalf of Southern Nevada, obtaining federal projects and blocking federal interference with its rising gaming industry. His success contributed to the area’s growth, which included a population that had no experience with him and no commitment to him. Cannon ran into that to some extent.
Also, Cannon had changed. During his fourth term, he paid less attention to constituents individually, though his office remained on top of things. When you put it all together, and add that Hecht ran a perfect campaign against him, Cannon lost, and the tide had turned, at least somewhat.
Four years later Cannon’s defeat, Harry Reid won his first term in the U.S. Senate, and remained there for five terms. That means he also had 30 years to tend to constituent issues. With each passing generation, members of Congress would appear to have less ability to sway the bureaucracy, for better and for worse. But Reid’s staff certainly aided a large number of people.
Reid also was the prime reason for the creation of Great Basin National Park. Nevada was the last state in the U.S. without a national park, and Reid, then in the House, pushed it through, with some help, of course. It became an attraction, drawing people who might not otherwise have come to the Ely area, and through other smaller Nevada towns to get there. So, he became a hero, right?
Uh, no. The Elko Free Press ended up calling him “Sierra Harry,” and many others in the so-called “cow counties” attacked him as the tool of tree huggers. Throughout his career, though, environmental groups often growled at and about Reid for protecting the mining industry, which obviously plays a crucial role in rural Nevada.
So, how did it turn out for him? If you consider Clark, Washoe, and Carson City the only non-rural areas in Nevada, it tells you a bit that in 1998, the only rural county that went for Reid was Mineral County. In 2004, against nominal Republican opposition (if you can remember that his GOP opponent was Richard Ziser, you are a fellow political nerd), Reid won six of the 14 rural counties. In 2010, in what proved to be his last election, Reid faced Sharron Angle. Some significant members of the Republican establishment supported Reid. He carried three counties statewide: Clark, Washoe, and Mineral. All of the rural counties went against him.
When McCarran and then Alan Bible were powerful Democratic senators from Nevada, rural Republican editors like Jack McCloskey of the Mineral County Independent and Walter Cox of the Mason Valley News supported them. It isn’t as though they or other rural editors were liberal Democrats. But they saw senior senators as vital, regardless of party, so they tended to be more forgiving of ideological trespasses. Today, rural or urban, Democratic or Republican, we are not. Chalk it up to increased partisanship if you want, or possibly to changes in the relationship between the voter and her or his member of Congress.