In 1902 local Democrats urged McCarran to run for office, and he was elected to the state legislature in 1903. He read law on his own and in 1905 passed the state bar exam. McCarran then served as a county prosecutor, chief justice of Nevada, and chair of the Nevada State Board of Bar Examiners. After two previously unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate, he won a Senate seat in 1932, the same year that swept the Democrats and Franklin Roosevelt to power.
Although a Democrat, McCarran was a conservative in the mold of many such politicians from the Southwest. He was often critical of President Roosevelt's New Deal program and helped defeat the president's court-packing scheme in 1937. McCarran was an able and effective legislator, having sponsored important bills such as the 1938 Civil Aeronautics Act and the 1945 Federal Airport Act. But the rather reclusive senator would be best known for his virulent anticommunism, which he stoked with a vengeance after the end of World War II.
McCarran was certainly one of the most important figures in the Red Scare and McCarthyism that emerged in the late 1940s. He headed the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which had investigated both the Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman administrations. In 1950, just as Senator Joseph McCarthy was launching his anticommunist witch-hunt, McCarran sponsored the Internal Security Act (also known as the McCarran Act) in September 1950. This legislation required that all communist or communist-inspired organizations in the United States register with the U.S. attorney general. In June 1952, McCarran and fellow Senator Francis Walter introduced the McCarran-Walter Act, which imposed stricter regulations on immigration and tightened laws relating to the admission and deportation of "dangerous aliens" as defined by the Internal Security Act. McCarran died in Hawthorne, Nevada, on 28 September 1954, but his legacy as a significant contributor to Cold War anticommunist hysteria would live on for decades.
Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.
Ybarra, Mike. Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt. Hanover, NH: Steerforth, 2004.