When Election Season Lasted One Season

Nov 6, 2018

If you have the feeling that election season is getting longer and longer, you’re not wrong. Even on the state level, political candidates often announce their intentions at least a year before Election Day. In this installment of “Time & Place”, historian Alicia Barber takes us back to a time when running for office required much smaller investments of time—and money.

It wasn’t all that long ago when election season only lasted for the length of an actual season. Take 1970, for instance. The governorship of Nevada was up for grabs. Incumbent Paul Laxalt, a Republican, had announced in September of 1969 that he would not seek reelection. And by the following June, it was still unclear who would be running to replace him. It’s hard to believe, but the deadline to file for candidacy was July 15 of the election year. The state primaries weren’t even held until September 1.

Finally, just two months before the election, the major parties had their candidates: on the Republican side, Laxalt’s lieutenant governor, Ed Fike. And for the Democrats, it was Mike O’Callaghan, a former schoolteacher from Henderson who had held several administrative posts in state and federal government. With a much lower public profile and practically no campaign war chest, O’Callaghan was very much the underdog.

Frank Schreck had been a high school student of O’Callaghan’s years earlier, and worked on his mentor’s bare bones campaign, as he recalled in 2004.

“When we opened our campaign headquarters, we had maybe 200 people. Out of that, 180 of them were from Henderson and were former students. 10 of them were the political hangers-on that you see, and 10 of them were just bums walking up the street, you know, seeing if there was free hot dog and beer, who just popped in. Ed Fike had his opening about two or three weeks later, and everybody who was anybody was there,” said Schireck.

With O’Callaghan’s financial disadvantages and very little time to make his mark, Shreck realized that success would require O’Callaghan to take a hands-on approach.

“At that point, I said, ‘Mike, you know, you’re not going to have any money compared to what the other side’s going to have. But one thing you do have is that if you can get in a room and talk with 10 people, six of them will vote for you, and two of them will be thinking about it, and two of them will hate your guts.’ So I said, ‘You got to get around the state and talk to everybody you can.’ In those days, the state was only 400,000 - 500,000 people, so you could do that. And that’s what he did,” Shreck said.

The odds were stacked against him, but in the end, O’Callaghan was the victor, beating Ed Fike by about 6,000 votes. He went on to become one of Nevada’s most popular governors, presiding over the adoption of fair housing laws, the establishment of environmental agencies, and a huge purge of mobsters from the state’s casino industry.

Incidentally, O’Callaghan’s running mate won by an even larger margin than he did. Another one of O’Callaghan’s former high school students, his victory at age 30 made him the youngest lieutenant governor in Nevada history. His name was Harry Reid. 

Historian Alicia Barber is the author of Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.