First there was the tea party takeover of the Republican Party in Nevada.
Then there was the Ron Paul Revolution that split the party at the Republican National Convention where the presidency was at stake.
Republicans are hoping this new election cycle will be marked by the comeback of the GOP establishment, which is taking back the reins of a wandering party that had lost its focus on winning elections and had difficulty raising money because of constant infighting.
The shift began Wednesday night when Dave McKeon, an establishment favorite, was voted in as the new chairman of the Clark County Republican Party. He ousted Cindy Lake, the chairwoman who last year had taken over the local party with other supporters of Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012.
Although McKeon said he won the chairmanship on his own by wooing grass-roots Republicans, the unseen hand of Nevada’s top elected officials could be felt, from the Governor’s Mansion to Congress.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval will be at the top of the 2014 ticket and he needs a robust party to help him ensure he’s surrounded by other Republican state officers, particularly the lieutenant governor.
Sandoval already has endorsed Mark Hutchison, a GOP state senator in his first term, for lieutenant governor, a highly unusual move so far out before an election and during the primary stage. If Hutchison wins, this would free Sandoval to make other plans come 2016, including a possible U.S. Senate run against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., or a Cabinet post if a Republican is elected president.
Sandoval said he has no such designs but it would be difficult to quit his job and allow a Democratic lieutenant governor to take his place if Hutchison isn’t there to succeed him.
OTHERS NEED A ROBUST PARTY
A strong GOP also is in the interest of U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who narrowly won election in 2012. He needs a robust party to ensure Nevada remains a battleground state where Republicans can win.
Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., especially needs a strong party in 2014 to stave off a challenge from Erin Bilbray, a Democrat who enjoys the support of Reid and the state’s other top Democrats. She’s the daughter of former Rep. Jim Bilbray, D-Nev.
For now, Republicans are getting their house in order at the local and state levels to gear up for 2014 when they’ll also be targeting the Nevada Senate for takeover.
At present, Democrats hold a slim 11-10 majority in the upper house.
The big prize is the White House in 2016.
President Barack Obama easily won Nevada twice thanks to a deep, community-based organization that worked hand in glove with the Nevada Democratic Party and Reid. Obama visited the state two dozen times.
Previously, Nevada twice backed George W. Bush for president when Republicans dominated. Before that Bill Clinton scored two victories.
Sandoval’s political team was pleased by the move for new leadership within the Clark County Republican Party, the largest in the state.
“Gov. Sandoval and Sen. Heller are both focused on growing the party, recruiting candidates, and raising the resources it takes to win,” said Mike Slanker, who is a political consultant for both men. “The GOP team is focused and working very well together. I think you’ll see wins up and down the ticket in 2014. Stay tuned. We’re just getting started.”
HURDLES TO CLEAR
There are plenty of obstacles to overcome. The first question is whether the tea party followers and Ron Paul backers can get along with the more moderate Republicans.
McKeon, fresh off his victory, said he believes he can reach out to the many factions of the splintered party and unite them with the argument that Republicans must gain or maintain majorities in the Legislature and in Congress in order to impose more conservative ideas such as limiting taxes and government spending and intrusion.
“I’m willing to work with anyone who is willing to work with me,” McKeon said in an interview. He said he won election by meeting with dozens of Republican groups — the grass-roots of the party.
“I want to grow the party,” he said. “I want to rise above all our differences. I want to win elections.”
Raising money is another challenge. The Clark County GOP has $40,000 in the bank. Money is so tight that at Wednesday night’s meeting at South Point, organizers didn’t want the hotel staff to move tables around, fearing the casino would charge extra.
McKeon said he met informally a few months ago with a representative of Sheldon Adelson, the deep-pocketed Las Vegas Sands Corp. chairman who contributed more than $100 million in the last election. State party leaders also have met with the GOP supporter and have been wooing him.
McKeon is wasting no time in getting together with all the other county party chairs, he said.
Bill Carns, the Nye County GOP chairman, got the first call. He said the county parties plan to coordinate more and do more recruiting of credible candidates.
As for the direction of the Republican Party, Carns notes the GOP in Clark County historically was more moderate than the rest of Nevada, particularly rural parts of the state where Democrats have long been an endangered species.
“The party is just getting back to business as usual,” Carns said.
ATTENTION TO DEMOGRAPHICS
David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said business as usual isn’t enough to revive the GOP. Demographics are rapidly changing in Nevada so Republicans need to appeal to more minorities and youth, who tend to lean Democratic. Nevada’s population is about one-quarter Hispanic and Latinos make up about 18 percent of the electorate.
“I think you’re going to see the waning of the tea party and Ron Paul people,” Damore said. “But they’re still dealing with a shrinking base” of Republicans.
Immigration reform is an issue that could sink Republicans’ hopes in both 2014 and 2016, according to Damore. Having Nevada’s first Hispanic governor on the top of the ticket helps, but doesn’t do much for future elections, he said.
The Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive bill that could lead to granting citizenship to 11 million immigrants now living here without legal documentation. But the GOP-led House is balking, mostly conservative members who rode the tea party wave to Congress.
Opponents of comprehensive reform say border security should come first and that there shouldn’t be one omnibus bill passed.
Heck faces the biggest challenge here. He said he favors immigration reform, but also puts a premium on border security.
Damore said Heck’s is one of 24 congressional districts where Hispanics are a growing population. Heck and two other vulnerable Republicans already are the targets of Spanish-language ads criticizing them on immigration, according to Politico. The Democratic House Majority PAC plans to spend $175,000 airing the ads, including in Las Vegas, the publication said.
Heck, who barely won re-election in 2012, represents the sprawling 3rd Congressional District, which has nearly 10,000 more Democrats than Republicans. Yet he has always done well among minority voters. By voting age, the district population is about 14 percent Hispanic and about 13 percent Asian. Heck gets about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to several public polls, and does better than 50 percent among Asian voters.
Sally Minster, a Republican activist, is an example of a GOP member who is tired of the bickering. She considers herself a tea party member and was a friend and supporter of Cindy Lake. But at the last minute she cast her ballot for McKeon.
She said it saddened her that the contentious Clark County GOP election had “turned friends into mortal enemies” as it played out. Now, however, she believes relations will be repaired and people will work together. Her son works for Heck, for example.
“I just said to myself, ‘OK, we need a change,’ ” Minster said. “We’re all Republicans. You’re always going to have a molting or shedding. But then I think we all can unite — at least 50 percent of the time.”
Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal .com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.