Inside The Beltway
When Politicians Get Shifty
by Michael Green
It was going to be an exciting primary. Dean Heller, seeking his second full term in the U.S. Senate, faced a challenge from Danny Tarkanian, who had tied himself closely to Donald Trump and attacked Heller for failing to do the same. In turn, after not exactly embracing Trump during the 2016 election, and making occasional noises during congressional hearings, Heller had tacked toward Trump.
Then, right before the filing deadline for the June 12 primary, Tarkanian decided instead to run for Congressional District 3. Originally, Republican leaders had hinted strongly—did we say strongly?—that Tarkanian should switch races. Tarkanian said he would do so if Trump made clear it was what he wanted. A tweet was forthcoming, and Tarkanian responded accordingly.
Thus, Tarkanian decided to run for the same seat he sought in 2016, instead of the one he sought in 2010. Earlier, he had run in the GOP Senate primary as the seeming front-runner next-in-line behind seeming front-runner Sue Lowden. Sharron Angle won the primary, and went on to lose the general election to Harry Reid.
In 2016, Tarkanian was to be the also-ran to Michael Roberson, a state senator seeking the GOP House nomination. Instead, Tarkanian won the primary, and the tallies were telling. Roberson won 24 percent of the vote while Tarkanian won 32 percent. Stop to consider that Michele Fiore received 18.2 and Andy Matthews 14.12, and both ran on platforms and/or reputations well to the right of Roberson as well. The base wants red meat—right-wing or left-wing.
But the key point here is that Tarkanian made the switch after quite a warm-up that had everybody ready for a ring-tailed, double-jointed doozy of a primary. Whether or not Tarkanian was disappointed by that outcome, Heller certainly wasn’t. We thought it might be useful to step back and ponder similar situations in Nevada. ARE there any?
How silly of us to ask.
— In 1956, Republican Dwight Eisenhower seemed likely to win a second term as president. Admittedly, it wasn’t a gimme. But one thing seemed equally sure: Democrat Alan Bible would win a full term as a U.S. senator. He had won the race to finish a term after Pat McCarran died in office, and he seemed unlikely to attract the toughest possible challenger.
That challenger would have been the two-term Republican representative, Cliff Young, a Lovelock native who had come home after graduating from Harvard Law School. Except that Young wasn’t going to challenge Bible—who, coincidentally, was from the same town.
Bible had been born in Lovelock, grown up in Fallon, and lived in the Reno-Carson City area. And he loved it there, as did his family. Washington, D.C.? Not so much. His wife wasn’t a fan of the social whirl and his young sons missed their old stomping grounds.
This brings us to two points. One, he had lost a tough Senate primary in 1952, ran again in 1954 and won, and, two years later, was ready to come home. Two, sometimes politicians do make campaign decisions on the basis of how their family members feel. Isn’t that shocking?
So, Bible said he wouldn’t run for reelection, and so informed Nevada Democrats. Several prominent Nevada Democrats announced: Harvey Dickerson, who was attorney general; Mahlon Brown, Clark County’s lone state senator; and Julien Sourwine, who had been a close ally of Pat McCarran in his communist witch hunt.
Bible also had informed his majority leader and close friend, Lyndon Johnson. You may have heard of the “Johnson treatment.” To get his way, or a vote he wanted, LBJ would work someone over—figuratively and sometimes literally. Nor did LBJ take his leadership post lightly: his majority was razor-thin, and the loss of one vote might turn him into the minority leader.
Cliff Young declared for Bible’s Senate seat, and immediately became a favorite, perhaps a prohibitive one. Johnson swung into action, doing his best to persuade Bible to stay in the race and enlisting other Senate powers. Finally, Bible agreed—“I got my arm twisted by these various emissaries, particularly LBJ, and got back in the race.”
So, Bible ran for reelection. It was tight. Young attacked his honesty, saying that unlike Bible, he was a man of his word (and Bible felt bad that he had put Young in the position of thinking he would be running against a different person). Bible still won by about 5,000 votes out of 96,000 cast. He also promised that he would continue in office until his constituents no longer wanted him, which proved to be partly true: he chose to retire at age 65 rather than run for another term in 1974.
But Bible also proved that, like his friend Johnson, he could be a pretty savvy negotiator: Bible later wound up with a seat on the powerful and prestigious Appropriations Committee, where senators doled out pork to their home states—and in that realm, Bible was an outstanding pig farmer, if you get our drift. Bible just might have made clear to LBJ that if he was indeed going to stay in the Senate, he needed to be in a more powerful position.
Nor was Young done with public service. He won a state senate seat in 1966 and served for several years, and later spent three terms on the Nevada Supreme Court. He also was active in conservation efforts.
— Bible was what was called a “McCarran Boy,” meaning he was one of about 50 Nevadans who went to law school on the senator’s patronage in the days before the state had a law school. Two others were Harvey Dickerson and Grant Sawyer. And they bring us to our next odd example.
In 1958, Republican Charles Russell was going to seek a third term as governor. Now, anyone who has been in the governor’s mansion will tell you that one of the best and worst things about being a governor is that he gets to make decisions, yes or no; Richard Bryan talked about this as an adjustment for him going from Carson City to the U.S. Senate, where any of 99 other senators might not agree with you. But when you make those decisions, you’re responsible for them, and that means you just might make some people mad at you. Throw in that Republicans controlled the White House and midterm elections usually hurt the party in that position, and it looked good for Democrats everywhere, especially in Nevada.
Dickerson had decided to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, so he would be running for statewide office for the third straight election—in 1954, attorney general, which he won; in 1956, U.S. Senate, where he lost to Bible; and in 1958, governor. George Franklin also declared for governor. He was a Las Vegas attorney, and Dickerson was well connected in southern Nevada as well.
Three other Democrats had made clear a desire to go for high office: Howard Cannon, the Las Vegas City Attorney and an unsuccessful candidate for the House in 1956; Roger D. Foley, son of a federal judge and a former Clark County district attorney; and Sawyer, the former Elko County DA and a university regent (a note: today we would say higher education regent, allowing for community and state colleges, but back then, all we had was a university in Reno and a southern branch in Las Vegas). Three offices were of special interest and did not have Democratic incumbents running: Senate, governor, and attorney general.
Cannon had a cagey political adviser, Jack Conlon, who had been around Nevada politics roughly since the geologic activity that created the state. Foley’s father was an old-time operator. Sawyer had … well, his father, a Fallon-area doctor who had been in politics, but, mostly, himself. Exactly what was said and done is unclear, but this we know. Foley loved the law, and probably had the lowest statewide political profile of the three. So, apparently on the advice of his father and out of his own inclinations, he went for attorney general.
That left Cannon and Sawyer. Reportedly, Cannon was watching what Sawyer would do. Sawyer supposedly was torn between governor and attorney general, and Cannon supposedly preferred to be governor. As the filing period neared its close in 1958, Sawyer went for governor, and then Conlon filed Cannon’s papers for Senate.
After that, it gets tricky. We have what Sawyer and his political friend and ally Ralph Denton said, and we have what Michael Vernetti, who wrote a fine biography of Cannon, found. Conlon claimed to have made the decision himself and that Cannon and his wife were upset because they didn’t want to leave Las Vegas—but as Vernetti noted, if Cannon wanted to be governor, that meant leaving Las Vegas anyway, for Carson City.
Here’s the wild card, and it’s worth thinking about in connection with recent developments here. There already was a candidate in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate: Dr. Fred Anderson of Reno. Anderson was a good friend of Bible, who resolved to be the opposite of McCarran and stay out of other people’s elections. In addition to being McCarran boys, albeit a decade apart, Sawyer and Bible had in common that several elements of McCarran’s old machine—notably money man Norm Biltz and lobbyist Johnny Mueller—weren’t big fans of theirs. In addition, Sawyer was a northern Nevadan through and through, so he certainly realized that in a Senate race, he would have to battle a fellow northerner—but in the governor’s race, Dickerson and Franklin were closer to southern Nevada, so if he could carry the rest of the state and sway a few southerners his way, he would have a better shot.
At the same time, Cannon was a southern Nevadan without northern connections—which Dickerson had through his family; his father had been governor and state prison warden, and before that an editor in Ely. Against Anderson, he could figure on doing well down south.
Now, that’s just political common sense, which so often seems to be lacking. Did it work out? Cannon beat Anderson statewide, 22,787-21,319, but beat him in Clark County, 14,964 to 4,548. Meaning Anderson destroyed Cannon in the rest of the state by a better than 2-1 margin. In the governor’s race, Sawyer won 20,711 statewide while Dickerson and Franklin picked up 13,372 and 10,175, respectively. In southern Nevada, Sawyer ran better than expected: basically, he got just under one-third of the vote, nipped Franklin, and ran less than a thousand votes behind Dickerson. If we have guessed their logic correctly, they were absolutely right.
Sawyer went on to win the governor’s race and became one of the most influential governors in the state’s history. Cannon took the Senate seat and in four terms left quite a record behind him of delivering money and projects to Nevada. Foley won the attorney general’s office and resigned with about a year left in his term for his dream job: U.S. district judge.
If the older examples show anything, it’s that getting in late and running for an office you may not have been sure you wanted won’t keep you from winning. Unless you’re going to lose anyway. We’ll return to this topic—meaning we won’t lose it, or you—later.