The ’14 election was really interesting, wasn’t it? But we mean the 1914 election.
That year, Nevada had several exciting and important races. For the first time, thanks to the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution a year before, Nevadans would directly elect a U.S. senator. It turned out to be a barnburner.
The incumbent, Francis Newlands, had been in Congress since 1893, first in the House for five terms, then in the Senate. He entered politics with help from the old Comstock powerbrokers led by Senator William Stewart. Newlands had close ties to that group: his father-in-law had been William Sharon, one of the financial titans of Virginia City. The legislature elected Newlands to the Senate at the 1903 session and reelected him six years later. Newlands had been on the ballot in 1908 after Nevada instituted a preferential vote for senator, but the 1914 election marked the first time in more than a decade that Newlands had to campaign—that is, REALLY campaign.
Newlands often had focused on national issues, and reminded voters that he had served the country well. It didn’t hurt that he was a close adviser to President Woodrow Wilson, who had carried Nevada in 1912. Newlands was respected nationally as part of the progressive movement, which also had an impact in Nevada. But all politics is local, so Newlands talked about local themes. He took credit as the leader of the state Democratic party for ending the power of railroad bosses … a bit ironic given his old ties to mining bosses. He also reminded voters that his Newlands Reclamation Act had helped Nevada’s farmers and ranchers. He also got support from William Jennings Bryan, whose ties to the old silver movement still resonated in the Silver State.
But Newlands had problems. First, he faced rumors of primary challenges from other Democrats. Denver Dickerson had lost a tough statewide race for governor in 1910 and apparently was interested, but decided not to take on Newlands. State supreme court justice Pat McCarran desperately wanted to be a senator, and didn’t care that Newlands had backed his first political campaign for the assembly. But he backed off too.
The general election would be tough enough. Republican Sam Platt was well known in Reno, and his party seemed united after the 1912 split between Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Another problem for Newlands was the socialist party. In 1912, socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs had drawn more votes in Nevada than President Taft. In 1914, socialists ran candidates for senator, congressman, governor, and lieutenant governor, with their leader, Grant Miller, going against Newlands.
Newlands believed his opponents were in league with each other. Platt and the Republicans accused him of being too caught up in national issues and forgetting the needs of Nevadans. Miller and the socialists claimed that Newlands actually had cooperated with the railroad bosses and denied that he was as important to Woodrow Wilson and the progressive movement as his defenders claimed. Add in that Newlands had never been a great campaigner, and he was in trouble.
But he made it through … barely. The final totals: Newlands had 8,078. Platt, 8,038. Miller, 5,451. Think about it: a socialist got one-fifth of the vote in Nevada, and Newlands won statewide by 40 votes. That wouldn’t be all that was unusual about that election. More on that next time.