Fight for heart of Republican Party emerges in endorsements

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are legitimate points on both sides of the latest skirmish in the civil war now rending the Nevada Republican Party.

The insurgent conservatives in the party’s central committee changed the rules to allow endorsing Republican candidates before the primary election. They say the seal of approval should go only to those candidates who submit themselves to the party’s vetting, ostensibly so the “real” Republicans get the nod.

Establishment Republicans, who have unsuccessfully tried to re-take the party following the Ron Paul revolution of 2012, are dismissive of the new endorsement scheme, arguing — reasonably enough — that because all registered Republicans vote in the primary, there is no better way to choose a party’s standard bearer than the primary election. Primary-surviving candidates will have the organization, fundraising ability and political skill to perform in a general.

Republican leaders including Gov. Brian Sandoval, state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson and Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey say they will not participate in the state party’s endorsement process, which under the bylaws means they are automatically excluded from getting the party’s official support. And party Chairman Michael McDonald has washed his hands of the entire matter, saying he personally supports the party’s already-elected incumbents but won’t stop members from endorsing in the primary.

Conservatives argue Sandoval is hypocritical, having himself endorsed state Sen. Mark Hutchison for lieutenant governor within minutes of Hutchison’s announcement in July that he’d seek the post. (Undaunted, former state Sen. Sue Lowden is running an aggressive campaign against Hutchison. Lowden may be the primary and perhaps only real beneficiary of the early-endorsement process.)

Establishment types argue conservatives are short-sighted, having created a process where ideologically pure candidates will win the party’s endorsement, but nothing else.

Conservatives argue the Republican Party shouldn’t give its blessing even to popular incumbents such as Sandoval, because the governor extended a package of taxes that otherwise would have expired, because he led the way in establishing a state health insurance exchange and expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, because he agreed to grant driver authorization cards to immigrants who came to the United States illegally and because he signed off on allowing local governments across the state to raise other taxes.

Establishment types argue it’s insane for the state party not to endorse its proven winners, and that it has descended into farce, which is why the party sits mostly on the sidelines rather than raising money and building get-out-the-vote machines like the one created by the Nevada Democratic Party under the leadership of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (It’s notable that, notwithstanding some philosophical differences, Nevada Democrats don’t have the robust intraparty debates that Republicans engage in.)

Conservatives blame Sandoval and his top advisers for the lack of fundraising, saying he’s thwarted the party’s efforts to raise money after his attempt to take over last year failed. Establishmentarians reply that donors can’t be expected to give to a party that refuses to get behind its own elected officials.

Conservatives (including activist Chuck Muth, who has been pushing for pre-primary endorsements for years) say candidates who have voted for tax hikes or failed to uphold campaign promises shouldn’t get and don’t deserve the party’s endorsement. Muth’s mentor, Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist, has been heard to say that tax-voting Republicans damage the GOP brand like a rat head in a Coke bottle would hurt the soft-drink maker.

Establishment Republicans argue you can’t advance conservative principles if you don’t win seats. And they point to Sandoval’s tenure in the governor’s mansion as thwarting plans to impose a sweeping admissions tax, raise the payroll tax or pass The Education Initiative in the 2013 Legislature. (All three proposals were spurned in part because of the fact that Sandoval would have vetoed them, and Republicans held enough seats to block their passage in the first place.)

Conservatives fire back that embracing any taxes should disqualify anybody from the official approval of the Republican Party. They ask: What’s the use of a Republican winning if he or she votes like a Democrat?

Speaking of, Democrats are mostly silent, following the old political maxim that when your opponents are committing suicide, don’t interfere.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.