Last time, we talked about the 1964 election and what a big Democratic victory it was. But not all victories were big.
That year, Howard Cannon ran for his second term as a U.S. senator. He had been elected in a Democratic wave in 1958, becoming the first Las Vegas resident and Nevada Mormon elected to the Senate; Berkeley Bunker had been the first Las Vegan and Mormon appointed.
In 1962, Bunker had run for lieutenant governor. He was the only Democrat to lose a major statewide race that year. The winner was Republican Paul Laxalt, a Basque raised in Carson City, an attorney, and a former district attorney. Laxalt had help from Cannon’s administrative aide, Jack Conlon, who was worried about his boss. Conlon feared that with a Democratic lieutenant governor, Governor Grant Sawyer might challenge Cannon in the primary. Little did Conlon imagine ….
In 1964, Laxalt declared for the U.S. Senate and cruised through the primary. Cannon did have primary challenges from Las Vegas lawyer Harry Claiborne, Las Vegas civil rights activist James McMillan, and Sparks city councilman Bill Galt. Cannon disposed of them without too much trouble. That set the stage for the general election.
Cannon soon began having trouble. He had never been a great campaigner. He truly was a workhorse rather than a showhorse, to use the old saying about senators. He also was linked to a scandal involving Bobby Baker, a Senate insider and former aide to LBJ accused of financial corruption. Baker was tied to, among others, Ed Levinson, who owned the Fremont Hotel in Las Vegas, and Cliff Jones, a longtime Las Vegas attorney. Also, Baker was close to Conlon, Cannon’s aide.
Meanwhile, Laxalt ran a great campaign, keeping on the attack. He was effective on television—more so than Cannon. And at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nevada’s largest newspaper, editor Bob Brown emphasized the Baker scandal. So did Carson City Appeal editor Ed Allison.
Then things got interesting. Brown and Allison worked for publisher Don Reynolds. Suddenly, both Brown and Allison resigned. Brown said he had been ordered to slant the news. Allison had written a pro-Laxalt editorial that was removed from the Appeal, leaving a blank space when it was printed. Both editors went to work for Laxalt.
Jude Wanniski was an R-J columnist at the time who later worked for The Wall Street Journal. He told this story. Reynolds received a phone call from Lyndon Johnson. Donrey Media owned not just those newspapers, but radio and TV stations in Las Vegas and Reno. LBJ knew how to play hardball. He apparently reminded Reynolds that those broadcast outlets required federal licenses to operate. Reynolds got the point. Reynolds also had hopes of being named ambassador to Australia. The R-J’s coverage of Laxalt and the Baker scandal just about disappeared.
Meanwhile, both presidential candidates visited Nevada. LBJ’s visit didn’t hurt Cannon. Laxalt turned aside advice that he stay away from Goldwater; that may have hurt him. On election night, Laxalt had the lead, but then Clark County found that there had been a miscount. Cannon won statewide by 48 votes out of 135,000 cast. Laxalt requested a recount, and Cannon’s total grew to 84. He had won a second term.
Laxalt ran against Governor Grant Sawyer two years later, defeated him, and later went on to two terms in the U.S. Senate and considerable influence as a close friend of Ronald Reagan. Cannon won two more Senate terms before losing in 1982 to Chic Hecht, who had help in that campaign from his friend and fellow Republican … Paul Laxalt.
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