Inside The Beltway
Movin’ On Up?
by Michael Green
If you remember The Jeffersons, the television show from the 1970s that now lives on in rerun heaven, you recall its theme song, “We’re-a-movin’ on up/To the East Side/To a deluxe apartment in the sky.” Jacky Rosen doesn’t want or need the Upper East Side apartment, and she’s actually trying to move over rather than up, but she’s trying to do what the Jeffersons did: leave the old neighborhood behind.
That neighborhood is the House of Representatives, where she is surrendering the seat she won in 2016 to challenge Dean Heller, who is seeking his second full term in the Senate. Pollsters have the race neck-and-neck, or whatever term of art you prefer. In the period it took you to read the previous sentence, there undoubtedly has been a tweet or post on the internet about the race that could affect what that sentence said. So we’ll set aside the horse race for now to ask whether history tells us anything about what happens when an incumbent in the House tries to imitate Weezie and George Jefferson by movin’ on up.
The first example predates actual popular elections but tells us a good deal. Remember that the state legislature used to elect U.S. senators, so what mattered was electing state lawmakers who would then vote for a candidate. In 1898, Senator William Stewart sought a fifth term, and Representative Francis Newlands, in the process of winning a fourth term in the House, campaigned for the Senate. When the legislature met in 1899, it was evenly and bitterly divided. Then, one Newlands vote disappeared—literally. Nobody could find him. He finally turned up a few days later, with Stewart having been reelected by one vote. He claimed the Stewart forces kidnapped him. The evidence suggests they gave him a nice hideout and a healthy sum for his bank account. Newlands would have to wait until the next Senate election, in 1903, to bribe enough people to win.
LESSON FOR HELLER AND ROSEN: Kidnapping or bribery used to work. Don’t do that.
Only a few years after popular election of senators became the law, in 1918, Rep. E.E. Roberts gave up his House seat to run for the Senate. His opponent, Charles Belknap Henderson, had been in office for less than a year after being appointed to succeed Newlands, who had died in office.
Henderson won without much trouble—out of 25,563 votes cast (yes, Nevada was much smaller then), Henderson won nearly 12,000 while Roberts notched just over 8,000. The wild card was a third-party candidate, Independent Anne Martin, the renowned advocate of women’s suffrage and women’s rights. She won 4,600 votes. Had every one of her supporters gone with Roberts, he would have won, but that obviously presumes a lot.
The irony was that Nevada has a history of reflecting national trends, but it didn’t this time. The GOP gained six seats to take over the Senate, and 25 House seats to win that chamber. But in Nevada, Democrats made a clean sweep, including representative and governor.
LESSONS FOR HELLER AND ROSEN: Don’t count on third-party candidates to affect the outcome, or on national trends to help or hurt you. They very well might, but there’s no guarantee.
In 1942, James Scrugham, a five-term congressman, entered the Democratic Senate primary against Berkeley Bunker, who had been appointed in 1940 to finish the term of Key Pittman, who died in office. Scrugham barely won the primary, then cruised in the general election. But the odds were with Scrugham. He had been state engineer, governor, and congressman, and thus had ample name recognition—more, really, than Bunker, who was 25 years younger and had been in the assembly before receiving the U.S. Senate appointment from Governor E.P. Carville. What may be worth noticing is that Scrugham won the general election by a smaller majority than most other Democrats won by that year.
Scrugham died in office in 1945 and Carville stepped aside so that the lieutenant governor, Vail Pittman, could move up to governor. He then named Carville to the seat. Meanwhile, Bunker went back to Washington in 1944 by winning the state’s lone House seat, and decided in 1946 to challenge Carville. The primary was nasty, and Bunker won it—then lost the general election to George Malone, a Republican who was well known in Nevada. He might have been seen as benefiting from a nationwide GOP sweep—except that Democrats won almost every statewide race that year.
LESSONS FOR HELLER AND ROSEN: Bitter primaries do not help candidates who go on to the general election, so Heller has plenty of reason to thank Donald Trump for pushing Danny Tarkanian to drop his Senate bid and run for the House instead.
In 1956, Democrat Alan Bible said he was going to retire from the Senate and return to Nevada, so Republican Cliff Young gave up the House seat he had had for two terms to try to move up. Then Democrats back east—especially Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who could have talked a cat into letting a bird eat him—persuaded Bible to jump back in. He did, cruised through the primary against candidates who filed because they thought the seat would be open, and then staved off Young in a hard-fought general election. Young returned to law practice in Nevada, and later had a distinguished career in the legislature and on the Nevada Supreme Court.
LESSONS FOR HELLER AND ROSEN: Nobody threatened to retire, although rumors persisted that Heller wanted to come home, as Bible did, but reportedly to run for governor. But as Young’s fate reminds us, there’s life after Congress.
In 1982, four-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Howard Cannon faced a challenge from four-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Jim Santini. The primary was nasty. Cannon barely won. Then he lost the general election to Republican Chic Hecht.
This election has received plenty of attention in The Editrix’s publication before, and is worth its own book, frankly. What’s worth remembering is that the tide had turned: Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 ushered in a new political era, nationally and in Nevada, and Cannon faced its headwinds in both the primary and the general. Also, the Hecht campaign, as has been noted here before, was a work of political art.
LESSONS FOR HELLER AND ROSEN: See above, bitter primary and national trends. Also, run a perfect campaign. Yeah, right.
In 1998, Harry Reid was seeking his third term in the Senate and about to move up to Democratic whip. Two-term Republican John Ensign gave up his House seat to challenge him. It was a tough race, and an exciting one—certainly more exciting than either of them preferred. Reid ended up winning only two counties, but one of them was Clark (the other, trivia buffs, was Mineral), and run close to Ensign in Washoe; most of the rural counties looked redder than a bleeding beet. Reid won by 401 votes. Republicans demanded a recount, and Reid gained 27 votes.
From this election, Reid learned about the need to build up the state Democratic party and did so, though there were a couple of other tough elections before what became known as the “Reid machine” actually hummed. Ensign got his day in the sun when, two years later, he won the Senate seat that Richard Bryan chose to retire from. Reid and Ensign developed an excellent working relationship until Ensign had to resign from the Senate over ethics charges related to an extramarital affair and financial issues tied to it.
LESSONS FOR HELLER AND ROSEN: You don’t need to win every county to win the election. And even afterward, you might be able to get along with your opponent. Might.
After Ensign resigned in 2011, Governor Brian Sandoval appointed Heller, then a member of the House, to succeed him. He sought a full term of his own the following year. Representative Shelley Berkley, who had represented Clark County for seven terms, challenged him. It was a nasty race, as those of you who were around here will recall. Berkley faced ethics allegations and felt Republicans had trumped them up (that verb form may mean something slightly different now than it did then). Ultimately, Heller won by about 11,000 votes statewide. Berkley ran about 50,000 votes behind Barack Obama in Clark County, and that hurt her. Obama also carried Washoe County while Heller won it by about 20,000, bringing to mind an old Nevada politico’s dictum: Northern Nevadans will vote for a Southern Nevada only if they have to, while Southern Nevadans don’t care. Meaning—no offense, anybody, but the numbers bear it out—a Northern Nevadan has a better chance of inspiring regional loyalty or chauvinism than a Southern Nevadan does, and so may in the southland are newer to the state that they are far less conscious of regional rivalries.
LESSONS FOR HELLER AND ROSEN: Heller should be able to count on northern support, but Rosen might be able to make inroads as a newer candidate who, unlike Berkley, isn’t widely known already as a Las Vegan, and because northern Democrats have grown less likely to put region over party.
All of which means … well, everything and nothing. When Stewart and Newlands went at it, nobody was tweeting. At the time Young fought Bible, there were three television stations in Las Vegas, and none of them was MSNBC or Fox News. Heller and Rosen could be in the middle of the kind of shift that accompanied and followed Reagan’s election, but being in a historic moment and knowing that you’re in it at the time are two different things.
And we learn from history that movin’ on up is much easier when you’re on a television show.