Will Reno lose its godfather?

RENO -- To some residents here, Bill Raggio makes John McCain look pretty spry.

The octogenarian seeking yet another term in the state Senate may be an iconic figure in Northern Nevada, but he is feeling the pinch of the Republican Party despite his years of service.

You cannot escape Raggio's mark here. From his bust in the airport to his name popping up on a variety of educational facilities, the face of Raggio equates with visionary leadership.

But on the ground, Raggio is the most prominent potential victim of a changing political world that respects neither moderation nor experience.

"It's time for him to go," said Sparks resident Jennifer Acosta. "He's just another vote for big government."

Raggio, whose service stretches back to 1972, has received a number of boosts leading up to today's primary. By most standards, that assistance should be plenty to help him stave off a challenge from fiercely conservative Sharron Angle, a former assemblywoman known mostly for saying "no" to just about everything.

But this is a summer primary in a year when turnout might not even surpass 15 percent. In such a Republican primary, those who typically come to vote are the staunchest conservatives -- people still reeling from Raggio's decision in 2003 to support $836 million in new taxes.

"He's a traitor," said John Plummer of Reno. "He's the walking, breathing definition of a Republican in Name Only. I hope to make the RINO extinct."

Plummer said he's voting for Angle because he does not need to question her bona fides. "When she says she'll be a no on taxes, I can take that to the bank," Plummer said. "When Raggio is going around saying it now, it seems like he's just trying to keep his seat."

Last week, the Nevada State Education Association began robo-calling the Senate district on Raggio's behalf. The move was designed to turn out Republican voters on Raggio's behalf, but some are questioning whether the union's support doesn't in fact undermine Raggio's move to the right.

Moderation is not a favored trait, and any Republican receiving the support of a union reviled by the right cannot be readily seen as a conservative.

At last that's why Acosta has turned on him. "It just shows you who his bedfellows are," she said.

Raggio has shown the kind of campaign spirit this primary that has long been missing. The 82-year-old has actually gone out and knocked on doors, and nearly everyone working with his campaign will tell you that fact -- over and over.

And his personal visits may actually be credited with saving him today should he prevail.

But today's primary hinges on the lowest possible denominator: a few hundred Republicans whose turnout could signal the political death of Northern Nevada's godfather. It's as hard to imagine a state Senate without Bill Raggio as it is to think of a Corleone-less "Godfather."

This past weekend, the political establishment in Reno rallied to Raggio's side irrespective of party affiliation or business before the Legislature.

Sheila Leslie, an Assembly Democrat widely regarded as one of the most liberal lawmakers, told the Reno Gazette-Journal that she expected Raggio to win because the residents of Northern Nevada have better sense than to lose his clout. Leslie's statements were instantly derided in public comments posted on the Gazette-Journal's Web site. Having a friend from the left just seemed to prove Angle's overarching point -- Raggio is too moderate to lead the district.

On paper it seems crazy that a lifetime of public service can be a liability. In reality, today's voters want change. They want to kick the bums out. They want new blood.

The clout argument may save Raggio's seat today. But Nevada's political world will turn upside down if Raggio is sent to join his lovely wife in retirement. The North would no longer be able to rise again against the growing tide of political power from the South.

Politicians like to diminish North-South factions in Nevada as pabulum from pundits. But we southerners know all legislative roads still must travel through Raggio.

During the recent special session on the budget crisis, Senate Minority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, challenged Raggio for the first time. He lost badly and was immediately embarrassed by the godfather for his political posturing.

This was more North vs. South than Republican vs. Democrat. These battles largely disappear if Angle wins.

At least for now, Reno still has its godfather.


Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.