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What does it mean to be a Nevada Republican now?

Resurgent Dems, party infighting, the president’s tattered coattails—it’s not easy being right. But is the state GOP poised to come back strong?

Damon Hodge

There’s an odd bit of empty wall space above pictures of Republican politicians in the lobby of the party’s state headquarters on Sahara and Durango. Above portraits of Gov. Jim Gibbons, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, U.S. Sen. John Ensign and Reps. Dean Heller and Jon Porter are four, nail-sized holes—two sets of two about six inches apart, each perfect for mounting a photo. From the looks of it, someone has climbed the wall and removed the pictures. Which is precisely what happened. “A man came in and took down the pictures of President Bush and Dick Cheney,” says party chairwoman Sue Lowden. “The police came. He had a gun in his car. It made the news. Ever since then, we lock the doors at all times.”

That anecdote is richly symbolic: in the way it starkly illustrates the tumult within the state party, and points to the GOP’s national leaders as part of the problem; even the locked door has a certain resonance when you’re considering a party in transition.

What does it mean to be a Nevada Republican in 2007? The answer most certainly differs from what it would’ve been just a few years ago, when the party’s control of much of state government appeared solid, stable, safe; and the Democrats, fresh off a thorough shellacking in the 2002 elections, were on their heels.

The Dems couldn’t even field a strong gubernatorial candidate. Gaming critic Sen. Joe Neal was the sacrificial Democrat in the race against then-Gov. Kenny Guinn, who was so confident of re-election that he—get this—stopped raising money. Guinn coasted with 68 percent of the vote. The GOP shrunk the Dems’ lead in the Assembly by four people (from 27-15 to 23-19) while lengthening its gap in the Senate by one, to 13-8. Democrats lobbed terms like “wake-up call,” “lack of coordination.” Sen. Harry Reid was the heavy: He didn’t craft a cogent message, raise enough funds or champion the right candidates. Talk was of a generation of GOP rule and the possibility of Republican controll of all branches of state government.

Now, just five years later, conversation veers toward the state GOP’s long-term viability.

Media-fueled perceptions are of a party in turmoil, fractured by internal divisions (claims that grassroots activists ran the party), upended by sudden leadership changes (last week Assembly Minority Leader Garn Mabey was ousted, Reno’s Heidi Gansert took his place) and hurt by the weakening of the national parent group.

Meantime, the Democrats, under the guidance of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have shaped up nationally and locally. The state party has money in the bank and, for the first time in a decade, outnumbers registered Republicans in Nevada.

At any other time, GOP disunity might only be cause for concern within the party.

But with Republicans and Democrats both holding presidential caucuses on January 19—giving Nevada a political stage unlike any it’s ever had—the performances of both parties will be under scrutiny. Generally viewed as coordinated and motivated, the state Democratic Party is expected to hold its end up. Though the Dems may not want to hear it, the state GOP’s performance could ultimately determine whether Nevada becomes a player in presidential politics or if this a one-time shot at glory.

As political pundit Jon Ralston noted in an August 10 article: “The key to Nevada remaining interesting to candidates is not the Hispanic vote or the labor constituency, but its ability to portray itself as a Western bellwether ... The real goal for Nevada’s Democrats and Republicans should be to ensure it is the Hertz of the West.”

How the mighty fell

Oh, for the days of 2002, when Republicans held all six state constitutional offices and had a solid majority in the Senate. The Democrats controlled the Assembly, their hold strengthened when lines were redrawn in 2001, making it nearly impossible for the GOP to win a majority. Since the redistricting occurred under the watch of Guinn and the GOP-controlled Senate, Republicans bear some of the blame, says Erik Herzik, a professor and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The easiest of the state GOP’s identifiable problems is also the biggest: the trickle-down-effect of the Bush administration’s unpopularity.

Once the very images of Republican strength and virility, Bush and Cheney have become big GOP liabilities, turning the party of Lincoln into the party of scandal: The many and continuing mishaps in Iraq. The bungled response to Katrina. The troubled tenure of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Tom DeLay’s indictment. The sex scandals of Florida Congressman Mark Foley, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter and Idaho Sen. Larry Craig. Republican insiders say the fallout has hurt fund-raising and mobilizing at the state level.

Were the Nevada GOP’s base inspired and united, its coffers full and candidates ready to run for local and state offices, such national calamities might not loom so large. As it is, they compound the infighting and factionalism that has cracked the Republican veneer of discipline and jettisoned Reagan’s precept of thou shall not diss another Republican.

When she lost to Dean Heller in the Republican primary for the Second Congressional District last year, Sharron Angle filed a court challenge, alleging that some voters might’ve been prohibited from casting ballots. After state controller Kathy Augustine (now deceased) was charged with using her office for political gain, then-party chairman Paul Adams pushed through a measure prohibiting party support for indicted candidates. In a letter to Frances Allen’s constituents, Adams called the Republican Assemblywoman a liar for misusing one of his statements. Shortly before the 2006 midterm elections, a party staffer ticked off Hispanic voters by sending an e-mail promoting a rally for the Minutemen, who oppose illegal immigration.

The practical effects of this Republican house divided against itself played out in the 2006 elections. At the national level, Republicans lost control of Congress. Locally, state Democrats raised more money (in one cycle, raking in $1 million to $50,000-plus for the GOP), recaptured four of the six constitutional offices, upped their Assembly advantage to 27-15 and narrowed the GOP’s Senate advantage to 11-10. In other words, a complete reversal from 2002.

Lowden steps into leadership

It will be up to Lowden to manage a difficult two-step of restoring the state GOP to its glory days while simultaneously avoiding shrapnel from the national party wreckage. Her office is toward the back of party headquarters, past the missing portraits of Bush and Cheney. It’s fairly quiet back there; just the hum of a computer and footsteps in the hall.

A lifelong Republican—“I don’t remember why exactly why I become one, but I haven’t looked back since,” she says—Lowden has the refined look of a chief executive. The shoe fits. She and husband Paul once owned the Sahara hotel. She’s on first-name, phone-call-away basis with captains of the industry. She’s confident, analytical, on an even keel, funny. Not a smidge of Ann Coulter in her. Bombarded with the facts about the state party’s recent troubles, she says things are going fines.

“If you read the press reports, you’d think we’re in disarray. I certainly did,” says Lowden, a former Channel 8 newscaster who was elected to lead the party in April and has received  praise as the right person to resuscitate Republicanism in Nevada.

“I stepped into the office and everything was in place. We didn’t have a chairman for a couple of months, so the vice chairman stepped up. Meetings and fund-raising went on as usual. I couldn’t believe some of the points I’d read. Republicans don’t talk about inner turmoil.” She jokes: “I guess it could’ve been [activist] Chuck [Muth] doing the complaining.”

Muth might be both the best and worst person to poll about Republican politics in Nevada. Why the best? Because he’s a former state chairman who’s spent the past 12 years building infrastructure, recruiting candidates and financing campaigns. Why the worst? Because he’s no longer a Republican. Muth quit the party in April, posting an epitaph on his on his web site on April 25th: “It’s official. I finally cut up my GOP membership card. As of this afternoon, I’m officially registered as a non-partisan.

Might even have a ‘leaving the party’ party this weekend. I’ll be having beer, though; got tired of drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Muth is more relaxed these days. Freer. Because for the first time in years, he can bad-mouth Republicans without being branded a turncoat. Former chairman Paul Adams and grassroots activists hurt the party, he says. “The best and most recent example was probably when vice chairman Paul Willis, backed by a band of inexperienced, nonprofessional grassroots activists, took over the Nevada GOP last January and when then-chairman Paul Adams refused to quit and refused to allow Sue Lowden, the governor’s pick to be the new chair, to take over until the end of April. We lost almost the entire session without Lowden’s services and experience while the party drifted leaderless.

“It was no coincidence that the Gibbons folks started finding their sea legs and winning some of the political battles at the end of the session once Lowden was in the party’s driver’s seat. She did a hell of a lot more for the governor and the party behind the scenes in those final days than most people know about. The grassroots activists involved in blocking Lowden were the same group who fought moving the GOP presidential primary up to January 19. These dunderheads actually thought holding a caucus two days after Super Tuesday was better than being, at the time, second in the nation.”

For his part, Willis says he was in the unfortunate position of guiding the party through a difficult transition: “Everybody is going to have criticisms. You’re never going to please anybody all the time.”

With Lowden now in charge, Muth says the state GOP has a better chance at raising money and recruiting candidates, areas of strength that have suffered in recent years.

“Those gaming people with a lot of money, those are her peers,” he says. “She’s won campaigns. She’s learned how to play hardball. She understands the media. She’s getting the right people behind her.”

What’s it mean to be a Nevada Republican?

Perhaps because he’s inside the machine, George Harris doesn’t see Muth’s problems as problems. Harris is Nevada GOP finance chairman and editor of Liberty Watch magazine. There was nothing wrong with the state GOP to begin with, he says. Lowden didn’t inherit a fractured entity. “We’re in good shape.”

Problem is that the sins of the national party are being visited upon the Nevada GOP. In the June issue of Liberty Watch, Harris notes that contributions to the state party are down due to voter discontent with the national Republican agenda. “Well over 70 percent of the responses we are getting from base Republicans is: ‘I’ll give you money when you secure our borders’ and ‘get us out of the wars’.”

“Until the White House figures out what to do on Iraq, terrorism, immigration and homeland security,” Harris told the Weekly, “all Republicans will be guilty by association. We’re the party of protection, of protecting America, but everyone—Democrats, Republicans and others—is frustrated.”

The party’s biggest challenge, he says, could come if presumptive Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton doesn’t win the nomination. “She’s the best turnout model the Republican Party has.”

Clinton is among the parade of top-tier Democratic candidates who seem to be in Nevada every other week, hoping to win the January 19 Democratic presidential caucus. Barack Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson, among others, have been coming for months and hitting up places like Elko and Reno,  traditional Republican strongholds, whose constituencies the eventual Democratic nominee will need in order to win in Nevada.

And where are the Republican candidates? Except for John McCain, they’ve been infrequent guests.

“They’re really lucky to have their presidential candidates coming to town so much,” Clark County GOP chairman John Hambrick says of Nevada Democrats.

Clinton, Edwards and Obama promised to walk the picket lines if contract negations between the 60,000-member Culinary Local 226 and MGM Mirage failed (the two sides struck a deal covering 21,000 employees late last month.) You can’t pay for press like that. And you won’t find many better-oiled turnout machines that the Culinary. Should the Democratic candidate obliterate his or her opponent in traditionally blue Clark County and be competitive in the rural parts of the state, he or she could conceivably win Nevada.   

On Hambrick’s mind these days is negating, as best he can, the numerical advantage Democrats (290,000 registered Democrats) have over Republicans (250,000 registered) in Clark County.

“I have to take some of the hit as the county chairman for those numbers. We haven’t done an adequate job. We’ve got to work harder and smarter and get our registrations up,” Hambrick says. “We have a tough road ahead of us. No question."

All the Democrats need to do to capitalize on the advantage, and make it harder for the eventual GOP nominee to walk away with Nevada is find that magical candidate to get Clark County voters to come out, Herzik says, and continue courting the folks in the rural parts of the state, where voting is seen as a duty not a privilege.

“You go to Douglas County and I think people make it a holiday to vote there, it’s in the high 80s [percentages] and overwhelmingly Republican. You pick up 10,000 votes here, 5,000 votes in Lyon County; pretty soon, that’s your margin of victory. If the Republican party doesn’t function at the county level or there’s discontent or apathy among rank and file, that could spell trouble.”

Democratic presidential candidates seem to be making a good-faith effort to burrow into rurals. So far, the GOP appears to be taking support in the 15 counties (traditionally Republican strongholds) outside Clark and Washoe for granted.

Not the case, Lowden says. Republicans from all over the state are working together to ensure Nevada goes red (for the third consecutive time) in 2008. And they’re reuniting for conservatism’s sake. City slicker, suburbanite or rural dweller—no matter your locale, Lowden says—you’re still a Republican.

And a Nevada Republican is ...

“Someone who thinks he or she can decide how best to spend his or her money,” she says. “That’s a basic, core issue. Most people agree that immigration is good for Nevada, but that it should be legal and that our borders should be strengthened. Republicans from Las Vegas to Ely believe this. There are core issues that supersede where you live.”

Up in Washoe County, which twice went for Bush, Republicans outnumber Democrats (84,000 to 67,988 as of February). It’s but one set of numbers Washoe GOP chairwoman Heidi Smith is relying on to deliver the county a third time. Her database also includes projections for new registrations, overall registration goals, precincts where voter registration needs to be improved and lists voters who didn’t cast ballots last time and need to be contacted. All this in preparation for January 19. “We’re taking nothing for granted.”

Nor should they. Reno-Gazette Journal political reporter Anjeanette Damon says Washoe County isn’t as reliably Republican as it once was. “It’s not a red county or a blue county,” she says, “it’s a purple county.”

Democrat Jill Derby pushed Dean Heller (losing by five percentage points) in the race for the Second Congressional District seat in 2006. In 2004, John Kerry actually led Bush in Reno and Washoe County before losing in both places and conceding the state. State Sen. Dina Titus actively campaigned outside of Clark County, her twangy voice more rural Georgia than Southern Nevada, and yet she didn’t win a single rural county in her 2006 campaign for governor against Jim Gibbons. In the past, Democrats simply haven’t been able to connect to rural folks, says Republican strategist Robert Uithoven, who managed Gibbons campaign.

“Rural residents don’t want a candidate talking about Social Security reform so much as they want them to talk about the viability of the mining and agriculture industries. Those are kitchen-table issues in the rurals. I’m not sure the Democrats can do that.”

Caucuses a litmus test?

Ah, the January 19 caucus.

Sara Pompei, regional press secretary for Mitt Romney’s campaign, says the former Massachusetts governor, recognizing the importance of Nevada’s caucus, plans to come here more frequently. Romney visited Elko after winning the Iowa straw poll. If he wants to play here, Damon says, that might draw other candidates.

Paul Lindsay, regional press secretary for the Republican National Committee’s western operations, says Nevada is an important state for any candidate running for president; status an early-primary state only strengthens its profile.

It was bold, moving the caucus. “Risky,” says Lowden, admitting it was done to match state Democrats.

The Republican National Committee promised to bring its wrath down on states holding their  caucuses before February 5. Rules enacted in 2004 give the RNC chair the power to strip 50 percent to 90 percent of a state’s delegates to the national convention, thus muting its influence.

A high-ranking national Republican operative told the Weekly: “Rules for the GOP provide window between February 5 and July 28 to hold a caucus. Nevada is an important state. We don’t want to do anything to hurt that, but rules are rules.”

In the end, Iowa and Nevada escaped punishment because the states hold nonbinding caucuses, not primaries, while other renegade early states—Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Wyoming—hold primaries and, therefore, will lose delegates.

The gamble paid off.

To get the caucus moved up, Lowden and others had to win over the party’s central committee, those Republicans outside Vegas and Lake Tahoe. They wanted assurances that candidates would spend time in the rurals, not just pop in for a look-see. Eventually, they bought in. “We proved we could unite Republicans for a common goal,” Lowden says.

The state GOP shouldn’t run a victory lap just yet, Uithoven cautions. “We’re not Iowa. It’s going to take awhile to get respect.” Plus, the chronology of the early-state primaries remains unsettled. And, he says, some things we won’t know until after a new president has been elected. Such as: Does being an early caucus state drive up turnout? If so, are higher voter turnouts solely the result of early mobilization?

“I’m not sure there’s actually any correlation between partisan turnout in primary elections and general elections as it relates to early caucuses,” state Sen. Bob Beers says. “Nevada has a very large percentage of voters who belong to neither major party. People who are not D nor R are likely to decide the race.”

The bigger obstacle, says political pundit Jon Ralston, is getting all the GOP candidates take Nevada seriously. “Especially with South Carolina’s move,” he says referring to GOP lawmakers there moving its primary to January 19. This could push presidential balloting in places like New Hampshire (which moved its date up a week) and siphon interest here.

Life behind the caucus

Once January 19 has come and gone, another challenge looms for the state GOP: Keeping the factions united. Democrats must also rally all their disparate factions, but they’ll do so without lugging the baggage of a national party in disarray and a local party on the mend.

“Even in the right wing,” Herzik says, “you’ve got divisions—anti-taxers, social conservatives, moderate Republicans. There’s disarray. It’s organizational and ideological.”

Says Harris: “Who’s to say that the different types of Republicans aren’t together? I don’t know that there is such a thing as a Nevada Republican. You have different types of Republicans. The important thing is that to win, people have to look at the big picture.”

Damon Hodge is a Weekly staff writer.

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