In 1936, 25-year old Walter Baring (1911-1975) was elected to the Nevada Assembly as a New Deal Democrat. Despite his support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he would in the very next year speak out against his “court packing plan” early, which initially landed him in some hot water. Although this would be his first significant dissent from liberal Democrats, it would portend his antagonism towards the ideology of his own party later in life.
Baring’s first election to Congress was in 1948, riding President Truman’s shock election wave and defeating Republican incumbent Charles Russell by 761 votes. He was for the most part a supporter of President Truman and the Fair Deal during this time. However, once again there were some signs of future trouble for his adherence to liberalism. In 1952, Baring began to oppose foreign aid and that year he voted to override President Truman’s veto of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act. That year, he narrowly lost reelection to Republican Cliff Young as Dwight Eisenhower won the presidency in a landslide. Baring was not one to give up though, in 1954 he tried again only to lose by a greater margin. But after Young decided to give up his House seat to run for the Senate, Baring tried once again and won, and this time he would stay.
Baring remained a staunch anti-communist domestic liberal but had taken to consistently voting against foreign aid. He appealed greatly to rural Nevadans who saw no direct benefits of foreign aid and appreciated his frankness as well as his commitment to constituent service. Although Baring initially supported President Kennedy and his New Frontier programs, by 1962 he was having second thoughts and by the next year he was a full-fledged opponent of him and liberal Democrats generally. Baring’s shift also appeared in his words when he said before the Reno Chamber of Commerce in 1962, “I am seriously concerned over the foreign aid give-away programs and the constant spirit of defeatism which has existed over the last 10 years…The constantly increasing federal controls through centralization of government activities are extremely detrimental to the American way of life” (Evans). Nevada’s delegation was all-Democratic in the 1960s, with Senators Alan Bible and Howard Cannon, while not being rubber stamps for Democratic presidents, backing them on many significant issues, but with Baring his hostility to the national Democratic platform was all too apparent. His shift also came about on civil rights. Baring had previously backed a mandatory Fair Employment Practices Committee during the Truman Administration and had supported the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, but he became a foe of most such measures, voting against the comprehensive Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opposing other measures to combat racial discrimination in employment and housing. That vote nearly cost him renomination. Baring was not above using racial appeals in his campaigning, and in the 1964 primary, he distributed leaflets of his opponent, Ralph Denton, pictured next to Dr. Charles I. West, a black physician and civil rights activist. His campaign also distributed a flyer in white neighborhoods that read, “The colored people are calling for the defeat of your congressman, Walter Baring, because he has the courage to stand up and vote against the unconstitutional civil rights bill. He warned that if the bill were passed, there would be riots and unrest in this country. Congressman Baring stood up for us, now let’s stand up for him” (Nevada Public Radio). Baring even opposed a measure protecting minorities from violent interference in the exercise of their civil rights in 1967 and hinted his support for George Wallace’s candidacy in 1968 when he stated, “Wallace is the only candidate on the presidential level who is talking Americanism” (Evans). Although he believed that the civil rights movement had been inspired by communism and thought Martin Luther King Jr. was in league with subversives, he made exceptions to this opposition to civil rights in his support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Jury Selection and Service Act of 1968. In 1965, Baring voted against the Immigration and Nationality Act, which ended the national origins quota system.
Baring clashed with both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations as well as Senators Bible and Cannon. In 1962, he fought a proposed establishment of the Great Basin National Park as it would reduce land for grazing for Nevada’s ranchers and seemingly because of an announced increase in grazing fees by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. Baring supported his own plan which gave much more leeway to ranchers as well as mining interests and would be inconsistent with standards for national parks. According to Gary Elliott (254), as a consequence of Baring’s antagonism as well as the subsequent Sagebrush Rebellion, “In 1985 Nevada was the only state that had failed to pass a wilderness bill as provided for in the national Wilderness Act of 1964. In 1986, more than a decade after Baring’s death and Bible’s retirement, Nevada finally secured the Great Basin National Park. It consists of 72,000 acres with guaranteed mining and grazing rights”. Baring’s antagonism of President Johnson also caused a delay in the southern Nevada water project in 1965 and although Johnson made it seem like he might kill the project the truth was that Senators Bible and Cannon remained his supporters so he signed it. His antagonism wasn’t limited to political figures, calling east coast liberals “egg-headed atheists” and denouncing left-wing anti-war activists, supporting the idea that “beatniks, pacifists, and draft-dodgers be sent to Moscow” (Elliott, 248). However, Baring would keep winning renomination and reelection by appealing to rural areas and gaining significant Republican crossover support. His personal motto was, “Nobody likes Walter Baring but the voters” (Evans). He also backed federal money for Nevada and was a consistent supporter of increased funding for highways.
By 1972, Baring had become increasingly vulnerable. Majorities in Clark (Las Vegas) and Washoe (Reno) County would vote against him in his primary elections and those areas were growing. Worse yet for him, his health problems were growing too. Baring weighed 250 pounds and he was a heavy smoker. Rumors of his ill health sprung from a hospitalization during the campaign and contributed to his primary defeat by James Bilbray, who was considerably more liberal. Baring, however, had the last laugh. He endorsed Bilbray’s Republican opponent, David Towell, who went on to win a single term. He had ideas to run for governor in 1974, but these were dashed with his emphysema diagnosis and his weakening heart. On July 13, 1975, Walter Baring died during an operation for surgery on his hip as his heart and lungs gave out under the stress. His lifetime MC-Index score is 55%, with his score before 1963 being 22%, while 1963 until his renomination loss is 88%.
1964 Election, Part 1. (2015, January 17). Nevada Public Radio.
Elliott, G.E. (1991). Whose Land Is It? The Battle For the Great Basin National Park, 1957-1967. Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, 34(1).
Evans, K.J. (1999, February 7). Walter Baring. Las Vegas Review-Journal.