By BRENDAN RILEY
Associated Press Writer
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) -- David Towell, a Republican unknown who was a surprise winner in a 1972 Nevada congressional race thanks to the popularity of then-President Nixon and to help from a Democrat who lost the seat in a bitter primary, died Wednesday in a Reno hospital. He was 66.
A Washoe Medical Center spokeswoman confirmed Towell's death. The former one-term congressman and real estate salesman from Gardnerville, a small northern Nevada town, had been in failing health and was hospitalized recently.
Towell's 1972 victory was helped by the Republican Party's national domination, led by Nixon's landslide victory over Democratic challenger George McGovern.
Towell, active in state Republican Party politics since the late 1960s, said he told prominent Nevada Republican Paul Laxalt of his plans to run for what was then Nevada's lone seat in Congress -- but Laxalt told him he couldn't win.
But in the 1972 Republican primary, he defeated four other contenders, and went on to beat Democrat Jim Bilbray, the odds-on favorite, in the general election. Aided by former Rep. Walter Baring, who Bilbray defeated in a bitter Democratic primary a few months earlier, Towell got 94,113 votes to Bilbray's 86,349 votes.
"His endorsement may have been a bigger boost to me than Nixon," Towell said during a 2000 Reno Gazette-Journal interview in describing Baring's support.
It was a far different story two years later, when Democrat Jim Santini defeated Towell by a margin of more than 32,000 votes. Santini targeted Towell's voting record and his low rating from lobbyist groups representing the elderly, labor, the environment and consumers.
Towell also was an indirect victim of the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon to resign in 1974 and hurt other Republicans with ties to the president.
Towell made one more bid for office, running for U.S. Senate in 1976. But the powerful Democratic incumbent, Howard Cannon, trounced him by a 2-to-1 margin, and he returned to Gardnerville and real estate. He described his career as a rocket ride that "went straight up and straight down."
"I was proud to serve the state of Nevada," the Bronxville, N.Y., native told the Gazette-Journal. "I would like somebody to say, 'He did a good job for the short time he was there.' That would be nice for my grandchildren."