A decision by state and national Republican party bosses to anoint pistol-packing political upstart Michele Fiore as the favorite in a crowded congressional primary has some candidates and party members wondering whether GOP officials just shot themselves in the foot.
Until recently, Fiore's political ambition was confined to her Republican primary challenge of longtime incumbent state Sen. Dennis Nolan of Las Vegas.
That changed on the March 12 filing deadline when Fiore, who uses passion for pistols and off-road riding to bolster her outsider image, announced she had national party support to drop the state Senate bid and run instead for the congressional seat held by Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.
"When a job needs to be done, you pick the right person to do it. They chose me, and I'm doing it," Fiore said.
The choice by party officials came with a rarely issued "rule 11 letter." Such a letter is akin to an anointment for Fiore over other Republicans in the primary. It notifies national party bosses that state leaders won't object to national support for Fiore.
Former Nevada Gov. Bob List, now a Republican national committeeman, led the Fiore recruitment. State Republican Chairman Chris Comfort, who plans to resign soon for personal reasons, signed off on the letter with List and national committeewoman Heidi Smith.
"She would go toe-to-toe with Berkley and be the exactly correct contrast," List said of Fiore.
When asked whether he had hard data showing a female candidate would do better against Berkley than the Republican men in the primary, List said, "No. That was intuitive."
But the decision by List and the other GOP leaders to break from tradition and back a candidate in the primary has prompted second-guessing by Republicans of all stripes.
Some question why Republican officials would risk causing more infighting in a party that's already fractured, outnumbered and outspent by Democrats. Others are angry at party officials for jilting Craig Lake and other primary candidates who had been working for months to build support for their own campaigns.
"It is a bizarre misappropriation of prioritization," said Ryan Erwin, a consultant to former state Sen. Joe Heck who is running to challenge incumbent Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.
Nonpartisan political observers, and many Republicans, count Berkley's seat among the safest in the country. Active registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 134,969 to 74,717 in February, according to Nevada secretary of state's office statistics. And Berkley is serving her sixth consecutive term.
Erwin says the party would be better served concentrating resources on winnable races, such as Heck's push to challenge the freshman Titus, the campaign against unpopular Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the drive to keep a Republican in the governor's office.
"Our party ought to be focused on how we take these three races everyone is watching ... (and) win them," Erwin said.
Others acknowledge Fiore has traits that make her a strong primary candidate, but say the high-profile support from state and national party officials may hurt her campaign more than it helps.
The most energetic factions in the party are motivated by the anti-incumbent, outsider rhetoric that drives the Tea Party movement.
"The reality is, right now, with the current attitude, being branded as an establishment candidate is a pretty severe negative," said former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon, among the Republicans campaigning for governor.
Fiore's backers are steadfast in their rationale for the move. Fiore is the candidate with the best chance to beat Berkley, they say.
"I think she is smart, I think she is focused. I think she is articulate, I think she is philosophically in the right place," List said of Fiore.
The party's support has helped Fiore gain access to powerful circles.
She said she met briefly on March 17 with casino developer Steve Wynn, who along with former wife Elaine has given tens of thousands of dollars to Berkley.
A spokeswoman for Wynn said the meeting was polite, but added that Wynn "isn't supporting anyone in the primary."
Fiore will need whatever monetary support she can get, though.
Campaign finance reports show she reported just $500 in cash contributions in 2009 for her state Senate campaign, a contribution from herself. She hasn't yet reported contributions for the congressional primary.
Lake, her main opponent in the congressional primary, has already reported raising about $200,000 in contributions for his campaign, mostly in the form of contributions and loans from himself.
Berkley in her latest finance report from January reported more than $1.5 million in cash on hand.
Fiore says since the announcement she has been "dialing for dollars" and expects to report significant new support soon.
"The endorsements and the donors, they are all going to roll out in a week or two," she said.
And if she is bothered by the controversy, it doesn't show.
A native of New York City, Fiore, 39, moved to Nevada in 1993 and operates two home health care businesses she says employ 150 people.
Her campaign Web site emphasizes her personality as outspoken, hardworking and fun loving.
It's also heavy on personal photographs, including one in which Fiore poses with a Kahr 9 mm pistol on her hip, another taken with three enormous dogs and others with her mother and two daughters.
Fiore is quick to emphasize the decision was hers to switch races, and disputes characterizations she was manipulated by party officials willing to sacrifice her to Berkley in order to protect Nolan.
"As a businesswoman, I do not make decisions if you stroke my ego," Fiore said. "I stepped away from (the state campaign) to fry a bigger fish."
Lake, 26, says he knew party officials were looking for someone else to carry the Republican banner. He said Comfort asked him to drop his congressional bid and run for secretary of state. He would have considered stepping aside had leaders recruited a "big name" candidate to challenge Berkley.
Montandon and former U.S. Senate candidate Chuck Flume, who is now running in the primary to challenge Berkley, say they were approached before Fiore by party officials seeking candidates to run in the congressional primary.
Now that the filing deadline has passed and the candidates are locked into races, the challenge for Fiore and party officials is to persuade Republican voters to rally behind the GOP stance on the issues and move past political infighting.
That may be difficult to accomplish.
Swadeep Nigam, a former county Republican Party official, says the drama surrounding Fiore's move has many active Republicans unnerved.
"A lot of people have been talking about it, and not that many have been pleased by it," Nigam said.
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman @reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.