The Nevada Progressives emerged in the wake of a profound reconfiguration of the state's political parties. Following a brief flirtation in the 1890s with the Silver Party, quickly hijacked by the old guard, Nevada political sentiments shifted when the central Nevada mining boom after 1900 halted the long depression linked to the decline of mining. Support from workers streaming into Tonopah, Goldfield, and other new mining towns made the Democrats the new majority party, replacing the long-dominant Republicans. This rise of Nevada Democrats deviated from the national trend of Republican dominance after the realigning election of 1896. Two new political parties briefly surfaced in this period of upheaval, the Socialists and the Progressives.
In Nevada, as in California, the Progressives had roots that predated their emergence as a separate party. When the 1910 election approached, two Goldfield attorneys formed a Lincoln-Roosevelt League at a large meeting. These two were a disparate pair in all but ideology: “Lighthorse Harry” Morehouse, an aged Confederate veteran recently practicing in California; and George Springmeyer (the author's father), the twenty-six-year old son of German immigrant ranchers in northwest Nevada's Carson Valley. After losing a bid for attorney general in 1906, Springmeyer had gained a reputation as a reformer while serving as an assistant district attorney in Goldfield. In 1910 he ran as an insurgent against the Republican Party machine under the slogan, “The Unspiked Rail in the Path of Railroad Domination.”
The new league endorsed various Progressive reforms, including the direct primary, recall, and popular election of U.S. senators, but the primary purpose declared in its constitution was “to overthrow this evil power in the Republican party”—the Southern Pacific Railroad political machine. Although intending to back the insurgents in the same way that California's league of the same name supported Hiram Johnson's drive for power, the Nevada league failed to build an organizational base.
Springmeyer won the primary by a hair (thirty-four votes out of nearly 6,000 cast) and, consequently, a place on the state Republican Party platform committee. There he wrote the strongest reform platform the party had produced for a generation. The platform affirmed standard Progressive issues such as initiative, referendum, recall, and free textbooks. It also combined the state's railroad commission and the board of assessors into an elective public service commission with broad powers. Springmeyer hoped to cut the symbiotic relationship between the Southern Pacific Railroad political machine and the party. Election and centralization, both articles of faith among American Progressives, would abolish multiple pressure points for railroad influence. The convention considered the alternative of battling the “Unspiked Rail” on the stump and unanimously accepted the platform.
On the eve of the general election, Republican U.S. Senator George Nixon invited Springmeyer to a private dinner at his Reno mansion and told the young attorney that because he was too independent to work with the machine he would be defeated. Springmeyer protested that in the primary he had beaten “the railroad, the machine, and everything else singlehanded.”
“This time you're going to be defeated,” Nixon repeated. “We've turned loose a river of gold against you.” The senator did not exaggerate. He referred to the half-million-dollar war chest amassed to hire an army of campaign workers and undertake “extensive bribery,” according to future Democratic Senator Key Pittman, who went down to defeat. So too did Springmeyer, who lost by sixty-five votes out of nearly 20,000 cast.
In 1912 the development of former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt's candidacy for president would soon shift the insurgent liberal wing of the Nevada Republicans away from attempting to change the party's direction by boring from within, to transforming themselves into a separate party. “Out-generalled by the machine at every turn,” as Springmeyer ruefully wrote, they proved unable to capitalize on the popularity of the charismatic former president. At the Republican state central committee meeting in March, reformers successfully stopped the regulars from immediately selecting delegates instructed to support President William Taft for the national convention, but Springmeyer lost his bid to let the voters make the choice. When Roosevelt decided to run for the presidency as head of a new political party, the insurgent liberals formed a Nevada Progressive Party to support him. However, such serious factionalism erupted at their convention that even the most scurrilous Republican newspaper editors considered some remarks unprintable.
The Democratic candidate for president, Woodrow Wilson, won the state, but Roosevelt, now a Progressive, outpolled Republican candidate Taft in every county, showing the clear preference of Republican voters. Lacking money, unity, and press support, Nevada's Progressive candidates for major state offices were dismally defeated, although they had a significant effect on the issue orientation of the state Republican Party. After this rout, Progressivism in Nevada was almost finished.
In 1914 the Progressive and Republican parties agreed to merge. The Republicans would endorse Springmeyer and several Progressive candidates for minor offices, and Richard McKay, already chosen Republican candidate for attorney general, would withdraw. One small hitch developed. McKay's name could not be removed from the ballot, an outcome by no means displeasing to the Democratic attorney general who engineered it. The resulting split in the Republican vote ensured a Democratic victory. Springmeyer never again sought elective office, though he remained a Progressive until the party disintegrated after Roosevelt's return to the Republicans in 1916. Springmeyer was appointed U.S. attorney in the 1920s.
Viewed as a protest movement that influenced issues, the Progressive Party was more effective than at the ballot box. Those 1910 platform planks enacted into law owed their success primarily to Democratic legislators who claimed, with some justice, that they were the true progressives. Nonetheless, the liberal movement had altered the issue stance of a conservative party, made Southern Pacific Railroad domination a topic that could no longer be ignored, and shown the Republicans how badly they needed to accommodate the liberal wing.
Springmeyer's leadership over three successive elections gave the Nevada Progressive movement the only continuity it possessed. Without him, it probably would have been only a brief flurry around Roosevelt's candidacy. The strengths and weaknesses of liberal Republicans mirrored Springmeyer's own: scanty financial resources and inability to combat machine tactics; many, however, also shared his idealism and his courage against great odds. Beneath the bronze portrait of Roosevelt that always hung in his law office, was engraved the motto: “Fearless fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.”
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