Nevada’s Bipartisan Past and Present
by Michael Green
As you’ve seen on our site, Frank Mullen has outlined how bipartisanship is crucial to Nevada. Indeed, on state issues, the orneriest Democrat and Republican have worked together. Yucca Mountain, protection for the gaming industry, watching out for the interests of mining–if it matters deeply to the home folks, Nevada’s congressional delegation has almost always put aside personal and ideological differences on other subjects to unite.
But when did the tradition start, and how has it worked? The answers are, it goes back a ways, and some of the time it’s worked quite nicely, thank you. Other times, not so much.
The classic example in Nevada’s case was early in the twentieth century, when what was known as a “bipartisan machine” ruled the state. George Wingfield was known as the owner and operator of Nevada, and with good reason: he owned most of the major gold and silver mines, several of the leading banks, and Reno’s most popular hotel. His was the first Nevada mining company publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
He was also a fairly loyal Republican, to the point that he threatened to leave Nevada if the state didn’t vote for his old friend–and mining engineer–Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential election (Hoover won Nevada, but whether Wingfield swung the election is open to debate, since he won nationally by a 444-87 electoral majority). He hired a law firm to handle his affairs: Thatcher and Woodburn. George Thatcher was a longtime Republican leader. William Woodburn was a longtime Democratic leader. And when Thatcher gave up his seat as Nevada’s Republican national committeeman, guess who succeeded him? Another George, Wingfield.
Yes, Wingfield tended to prefer Republicans, but he also would support or at least not dedicate himself to making life miserable for Democrats. For example, Democrat James Scrugham easily won the governorship in 1922, and Wingfield saw no reason to throw his lot behind a Republican who was unlikely to win; in 1926, Scrugham was more vulnerable, and Wingfield was happy with Fred Balzar, the Republican who defeated him. He also reportedly made a loan to Scrugham so he could buy a newspaper, which didn’t seem to treat Wingfield too nastily.
But Wingfield and company were more attuned to Congress. They seem to have realized that as a small state, Nevada was going to have more power in the Senate than in the House, and it helped to keep people around so they would gain all-important seniority, and to have a Democrat and a Republican so Nevada had a voice on both sides of the aisle. There also was pragmatism involved: the Democratic senator, Key Pittman, was popular, so it was better not to invest too heavily in an opponent without much chance of winning.
So, in the 1920s, Wingfield supported the Republican senator, Tasker Oddie, who won two terms, and he wasn’t terribly vocal about Pittman. Consequently, Nevada had two senators gaining in seniority, one on each side of the Senate, and Wingfield had a voice when he wanted it.
But that would change, and lead to a different kind of bipartisan approach, and we’ll tell you more about it in the weeks to come.