Nevada GOP could give Democrats fits in 2012
Las Vegas Sun
September 2, 2011
In 2008, the state Republican Party was a painful joke.
The GOP had a governor (Jim Gibbons) who was a national laughingstock, and a senator (John Ensign) who was, ahem, otherwise occupied. The party had no money and no credibility.
Result: Barack Obama won Nevada by 12 points as Democrats down the ticket swept to victories, powered by a formidable Democratic machine that also helped drag Harry Reid to victory in 2010 (yes, Sharron Angle helped).
As 2012 looms, with Nevada again potentially pivotal in the presidential race, another nationally watched Senate seat in play and control of the Legislature at stake, this is not your Gibbons-Ensign GOP. Indeed, both men have been forcibly retired and early harbingers are that the Democrats will not have the field to themselves next year.
Why? The elected officials and the political pros — what, in the GOP? — are very different.
Let’s break it down.
The man who replaced Gibbons, Gov. Brian Sandoval, has promised to help the party raise money. When Gibbons dialed up the folks, especially on Las Vegas Boulevard South, he might not have had his calls returned. But when Sandoval, nearly universally liked on the Strip, dials the gamers, he will not only have conversations, he will extract cash for the GOP. (Yes, it is a coincidence that the governor appoints gaming regulators, who oversee casinos.)
The man who helped force Ensign out of the Senate and took his seat, Dean Heller, has a lot invested in 2012 success. Heller knows he is not just running against Rep. Shelley Berkley but the frightening Harry Reid machine, which grinds up Republicans into tea leaves. Heller, too, will assist the GOP fundraising efforts and few will say no to him. (Reid will, inevitably, try to cut off money from the Strip — mirror, mirror on the wall, he is still the scariest one of all. But the gamers cannot say no to the Sandoval-Heller GOP.)
Don’t forget, too, that skillful GOP consultants Pete Ernaut and Mike Slanker, who know how to win elections, are the top advisers to both men. Ernaut has ties to most of the state’s major business interests and Slanker, having escaped Ensignworld, has a stellar track record.
Below those two relatively popular elected officials, the GOP has begun to do something it has not done in years — if ever: Professionalize the party. It is a classic case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, as the GOP is mimicking — as it did in ’08 by moving up its caucus — what the Democrats have done.
It augured well when the party hired a pro, David Gallagher, as executive director, a great backstop for new Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian. Tarkanian, whose husband, Danny, lost to Sharron Angle in that GOP Senate primary last year, was seen as the choice of the grass-roots faithful when she defeated Patrick McNaught, who was seen as a stalking horse for his friends at Gondolier Numero Uno Sheldon Adelson’s adjunct GOP headquarters.
But Tarkanian is sending a message — surely with Gallagher’s help — that she knows what it takes, hiring experienced folks to run the Nevada presidential caucus. Alan Philp has worked for the Republican National Committee and his partner, Gentry Collins, is a former RNC political director. Another key player, Cory Drumright, worked for the Mitt Romney Nevada campaign in 2008 and knows the state.
The combination of the Sandoval-Heller rainmaking and the experienced hands on the ground could change the state dynamic that has favored the Democrats for several cycles. Money begets organization begets voter registration — it’s a redoubtable formula.
So is a Republican resurgence nigh? Let’s not get carried away — at least not yet. Republicans still must shuck their tendency to eat their own. And there’s always the possibility that the presidential caucus becomes a non-event, with the national media ignoring poor lil Nevada and Romney winning in a rollover.
The Democrats also won’t just raise a white flag. I don’t think Reid owns one.
And Rebecca Lambe, the de facto head of the party, is one of the country’s better political operatives. The state GOP has no one to match her, although she will not be as laserlike as she was for Reid in 2010 because she has become a national player with a new super PAC. But the Democrats still have an unparalleled infrastructure and some top talent, not to mention a head start.
It’s also early to tell what the national atmospherics will be, how Heller-Berkley will develop and what in the world the congressional races will look like (we may get lines one of these months). But 14 months away from the general election, Nevada Republicans are serving notice that they are no longer a joke and plan to inflict plenty of pain on the Democrats in 2012.
Nevada GOP could give Democrats fits in 2012