by Wendy Schiller and Cory Manento
This post appears concurrently on the Brown University website.
When there is an open U.S. Senate seat, the dynamics of Senate elections are quite different than when an incumbent is seeking reelection. In 2016, there are few open seat races but one in particular – Nevada – has major consequences for party control of the Senate and is closely tied to the fortunes of the two main party presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In this essay, Cory Manento and I analyze the Nevada open seat Senate race in the context of the 2016 political environment. We also take a trip back in time to showcase how this race stacks up to a similarly hotly contested open seat Nevada Senate election that occurred more than 100 years ago.
On March 27, 2015, U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that he would not seek reelection in 2016 after serving for 30 years in the Senate and 12 years as the leader of the Senate Democrats. In response, two ambitious politicians, Joe Heck and Catherine Cortez Masto, jumped into the fray to run for the open seat. More than a century earlier, another senior Nevada U.S. Senator, John Jones, announced that he would not seek reelection after serving for 30 years. An ambitious and enterprising politician named Francis Newlands seized the opportunity to run for what was now an open seat to represent Nevada in the Senate. Newlands parlayed his wealth and political pedigree into a successful campaign for the open seat. Just four years earlier Newlands had mounted a challenge against incumbent U.S. Senator William Stewart, but dropped out of the race when it was clear that he would not gain the support needed to win the election. That Newlands didn’t fare well against Stewart in 1899 is telling, because it shows that the political advantages of an entrenched incumbent can overcome a well-funded challenger. But with an open seat, Newlands’s wealth (and political experience made possible by his wealth) made a critical difference.
Comparing the 2016 election to the 1903 election highlights the differences between what it takes to win a U.S. Senate election in the age of indirect elections versus direct elections. Under the indirect system of elections, each chamber of the state legislature met separately at the beginning of their legislative session to vote for senator; a candidate who received a majority in each chamber was declared the winner. If no candidate received a majority, the two chambers would meet jointly and vote until a winner was chosen or they adjourned for the year. Under direct Senate elections, which came about after the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, voters cast their votes directly for U.S. Senators. In 1903, Francis Newlands used his tremendous wealth and political power to curry favor in the Nevada state legislature and won the open seat left by Jones’s retirement without having to worry about the down ballot effects of a national party presidential nominee. In contrast, Republican Congressman Joe Heck and Democratic former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, the 2016 candidates, are each showcasing their own personal histories of service to the voters directly while simultaneously trying to avoid comparisons to polarizing national figures from their own parties.
Modern Political Ambition – Joe Heck and Catherine Cortez Masto
The Republican candidate for Senate, U.S. Representative Joe Heck, was born in New York in 1961, grew up in Pennsylvania, and moved to Nevada in 1992. He has served for over 20 years in the U.S. Army Reserve and was called into active duty three times over that period, including a 2008 deployment to Iraq, and he recently became a one-star general. Heck also served his community as a volunteer firefighter, ambulance attendant, and search-and-rescue team member before becoming an emergency room doctor and running a company that provides consulting, medical training, and operational support to law enforcement, emergency responders, and military special operations.
Heck first entered politics in 2004, when he was elected as a Nevada state senator. After serving one four-year term, he was defeated by 765 votes (0.76 percentage points) in his bid for reelection. But Heck recovered quickly, successfully running for Congress for Nevada’s 3rd district in 2010. In Congress, he has put his military experience to work, serving on the Armed Services Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, while chairing the Military Personnel Subcommittee and the Subcommittee on Department of Defense Intelligence. Through these committees, his stated primary focus has been “maintaining our national security.” A relatively moderate Republican, Heck is not a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and ranks in the 73rd percentile for conservatism among House Republicans when examining his bill sponsorship patterns. Despite this relatively moderate bill sponsorship record, Heck has voted with the Republican Party about 93 percent of the time. Heck’s record of public service, his Congressional experience, and his relatively centrist tendencies make him a strong candidate in a state that usually has competitive statewide elections.
The Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto, presents a strong opponent for Heck. Nevada Democrats were eager to find a potential replacement for Harry Reid that would be supported by retiring Senator Reid but not overshadowed by him. Cortez Masto fits that bill. With a victory in November, she would become the first Latina U.S. Senator in American history. Cortez Masto has already exhibited her ability to win a statewide election, as she was elected Attorney General of Nevada for two terms – winning each election by more than 15 points – before being required to step down in accordance with the term limit imposed by Nevada’s constitution.
Born and raised in Las Vegas, Cortez Masto worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and as former Nevada Governor Bob Miller’s Chief of Staff before entering electoral politics herself. She successfully ran to become Nevada’s 32nd Attorney General in 2006, and was reelected to a second four-year term in 2010. Cortez Masto’s family is well known in Nevada; her father, Manny Cortez, is widely credited with transforming the Las Vegas strip into a prominent tourism destination while he was the head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
As Attorney General, Cortez Masto worked to combat the use and distribution of methamphetamines in the state, and worked to strengthen laws preventing sex trafficking and violence against women. Nevada is still recovering from being hit particularly hard by the housing crisis in 2008, and Cortez Masto has made this issue front-and-center in her campaign. She points to the state’s “historic” $1.9 billion settlement with big banks that she helped secure as Attorney General as evidence that she will be able to continue to help the state’s housing market recover. By emphasizing her past accomplishments and service, Cortez Masto hopes to present a competitive contrast to Joe Heck’s record of experiences as a Nevada state senator and then U.S. Congressman.
The apparent strategy of both candidates thus far has been to equate their opponent with an established national party figure. Representative Heck has tried to cast Catherine Cortez Masto as the second coming of Harry Reid. But Harry Reid has served Nevada for 30 years and has balanced his role as partisan leader of the Democrats with strong advocacy for the state of Nevada. Heck may gain traction by emphasizing that Masto, like Reid, is a Democrat but it will be hard to produce enough negatives about Reid to swing the election.
Cortez Masto has drawn some associations of her own between Heck and Donald Trump: “Congressman Dr. Joe Heck says he has ‘high hopes’ for Donald Trump to be our next President; I have high hopes Nevadans will reject Congressman Heck and the Trump-Pence ticket in November,” she said in an August Facebook post. In a state with a surging Latino population, and with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump highly unpopular with that voting demographic, Masto is hoping that the association proves costly to Heck. Harry Reid is also backing up Masto’s attempts to tie Heck to Trump stating that Heck “had an opportunity to be courageous. Instead he gave a big bear hug to Donald Trump.” Heck has responded by actively trying to shift the focus away from Trump – he refrained from a formal endorsement – and back to Heck’s impressive resume of service. But as with several other GOP candidates for U.S. Senate this year, disassociation from the top of the party ticket is proving to be a challenge.
The Nevada 2016 election is likely to be a close one; polling averages show Heck and Masto separated by fewer than 3 percentage points which is typically the margin of error in standard polls. The candidates and outside groups have already spent, and will continue to spend, a lot of money to gain an advantage. Fundraising hauls thus far have been nearly even, with a slight advantage to the Democratic side. Cortez Masto has raised $8.7 million and spent $5.2 million, while Heck has raised $7.4 million and spent $2.6 million. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has committed $6.3 million to aid Heck, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – with the help of Harry Reid – has raised $12 million to help Masto defeat Heck.
Just as Senator Reid comfortably won reelection throughout his Senate career, Senator John Jones was able to keep his seat for several terms without a serious challenge. But when long-serving U.S. Senators retire, the dynamics of the next Senate election change considerably. This year’s candidates, mired in a contest that will likely be decided by a small margin, are lacking the inherent advantages associated with being an incumbent. Without the established fundraising connections from a previous Senate run or the ability to highlight previous U.S. Senate experience, Heck and Cortez Masto have tried to earn the trust of voters and donors alike by framing the race in terms of their own strengths while attacking their opponent.
The political career of Francis Newlands offers some insight into what these candidates can do to be successful. After his unsuccessful bid to unseat an incumbent in 1899, Newlands learned about the advantages of running for an open seat through that experience. With a more “level” playing field, Newlands was able to play to his strengths to win the Senate seat in 1903. While money certainly provided the deciding advantage for Newlands over 100 years ago, vying for an open seat was also crucial to his success; 100 years later, open seat Senate races also still require astute campaign strategies but this one is also strongly influenced by the presidential nominees.
Historical Political Ambition – Francis Newlands
When John Jones retired from the Senate in 1903 after serving for 30 years, Francis Newlands finally had the opening to wage a successful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. The senatorial career of Francis Newlands provides a stark example of how ambitious individuals could parlay their own wealth into a U.S. Senate seat in the age of indirect elections. Though the Democrats have a slight fundraising advantage in 2016’s Nevada Senate race, in the age of direct Senate elections, it is unlikely that a fundraising advantage will yield such a singular advantage in the way that it did for Nevada Senator Francis Newlands throughout his political career.
Before entering politics, Francis Newlands was an attorney who inherited great wealth as a result of his marriage to the daughter of a California banker named William Sharon. Sharon himself briefly served as a U.S. Senator from Nevada – he was elected in 1875 and served one term – laying the foundation for his son-in-law’s future political career in the state. Newlands entered politics by backing the Republican and Silver parties. The Silver Party advocated a monetary standard that would allow the use of silver in addition to gold as backing for the dollar. This was advantageous for western states that had a lot of silver deposits, including Nevada, which is nicknamed the Silver State. The more established wing of the Republican Party, backed by banking and manufacturing interests, opposed the free coinage of silver.
But despite his support for free silver, Newlands was able to win the Republican nomination for Nevada’s at-large House of Representatives district in 1892 through an effective use of money: he bought influence with key newspaper editors and made several contributions to the campaigns of other party members running on the same ticket. By his own account, Newlands spent a total of $50,000 (about $1.3 million in 2016 dollars) to win election to the House.
In 1899, Newlands decided to launch an electoral challenge against Senator William Stewart, who was well-entrenched in Nevada politics. One of the elements working in Newlands’s favor was his effort to magnify his own public voice through the purchase of several state and regional newspapers, including the Nevada State Journal. Using these press outlets as a megaphone, Newlands flooded the public with his argument that Stewart was no longer an effective advocate for Nevada. But Stewart was able to use his established political connections and skill to convince Nevada state legislators that he was a candidate who represented a wide array of interests, including silver. After losing the support of the pro-silver activists who migrated to Stewart, Newlands dropped out of the race.
Newlands gained new political life when he ran successfully for the House in 1900 as a Democrat and worked in Congress to pass a major irrigation bill that became known as the Newlands Act. With that accomplishment under his belt, Newlands decided to run for Senate again when Senator Jones announced his retirement. Newlands realized that he had to unify Democrats and Silver Party members in order to win control of the state legislature. His well-funded efforts paid off, as he defeated a challenger that was hand-picked by Senator Stewart. Newlands won the seat on the first ballot by a vote of thirteen to four in the Nevada Senate and thirty to five votes in the Nevada House. See the roll call vote here. Once Senator Jones, an established political figure, retired from the U.S. Senate, Newlands’s wealth and political experience (which was largely possible in the first place because of his wealth) won him the open seat.
If Francis Newlands were alive today, he might have some political wisdom for the Nevada Senate candidates who are each well-funded and have adequate political experience. Newlands would have recognized the changes in the voting demographic in Nevada and advised Cortez Masto to emphasize her government experience in the context of being a Latina and a woman in a state that has never elected either to the U.S Senate. And he might advise Heck to distance himself even further from Trump and play up the range of his public service to Nevada, from military, to medical, to legislative. Both candidates have demonstrated their ability to win an election decided by a wider constituency than Newlands faced when Senate elections were indirect. But Newlands knew enough to emphasize what he had done for the state and how he would be different from the towering long-serving Senator whose seat he was trying to win. In that same way, in 2016, the winner of the open seat in Nevada may be determined by which candidate more successfully highlights their own past and emerges from the shadow of prominent figures within their own party.
Wendy J. Schiller is a professor of political science and international & public affairs and the Chair of the Department of Political Science at Brown University.
 Molly O’Toole, “Meet Joe Heck, the GOP One-Star General Who Could Take Reid’s Senate Seat,” Defense One May 31, 2015. Accessed on August 4, 2016 .
 Andrea Drusch, “Meet the Woman Harry Reid Wants to Replace Him in the Senate,” The Atlantic, March 27, 2015. Accessed on August 4, 2016.
 Burgess Everett, “Inside the GOP’s Campaign to Snatch Harry Reid’s Senate Seat,” Politico, June 5, 2016. Accessed on August 4, 2016.
 Burgess Everett, “Inside the GOP’s Campaign to Snatch Harry Reid’s Senate Seat,” Politico, June 5, 2016. Accessed on August 4, 2016.
 Wendy J. Schiller and Charles Stewart III, Electing the Senate: Indirect Democracy before the Seventeenth Amendment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 93.
 Ibid, 94.
 William D. Rowley, Reclaiming the Arid West: The Career of Francis G. Newlands (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 68-69.
 Ibid, 95.
 Ibid, 95-96.
 Ibid, 96.