Presidential campaign machinery comes hot and early to Nevada

Behind the scenes, one prominent GOP political consulting company in Nevada has had discussions about working with every potential Republican presidential candidate but two so far.

Another GOP operative based in the Silver State had a private meeting with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., this past week for what really was a job interview as various White House hopefuls build teams to compete in the battleground state that holds the first presidential caucus in the West.

As for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., he’s got a ready team of volunteers and potential staffers who have been working the ground here for a year to build a coalition to support his likely presidential bid. Most of them worked for his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, but are picking up backing beyond libertarian-minded voters as well — those who didn’t cast a presidential ballot for Paul the elder in either 2008 or 2012.

“It’s kind of a ghost campaign at the moment,” said Carl Bunce, who directed Ron Paul’s Nevada presidential campaigns and plans to work for the son as well, although likely in a behind-the-scenes role. “In this ghost phase, we’re trying to build as big a coalition as we can.”

Paul is expected to formally announce his presidential campaign April 7 in Kentucky, then travel to the four early-voting states to spread the word. He likely will stop in Nevada on April 11 for an event, Bunce said.

While Republicans are jockeying to hire the most talented staff in the early-voting states of Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Democrat Hillary Clinton, too, is building her organization.

The Clintonites are waiting in the wings for the former secretary of state to formally announce she’s in the race as soon as April.

Clinton has chosen as her Nevada director Emmy Ruiz, a veteran of President Barack Obama’s campaign who has experience here with Clinton, too, according to several Democrats familiar with her operation.

Meanwhile, prominent Nevadans who backed Clinton’s 2008 campaign against Obama already are jumping in to support her second run at a time when she’s the prohibitive favorite among potential Democratic hopefuls.

TITUS, OTHERS STUMP FOR CLINTON

U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., has been the most active, working for the “Ready for Hillary” group, helping to raise money for the pre-campaign and traveling the country to tout her as the next American president.

“I said early on, I’m ready for Hillary,” Titus said in an interview.

In 2008, Titus led a Clinton group called “women of the West” to promote her among that key demographic, which could make the difference between winning and losing for Clinton. She would be the first female U.S. president if she won the 2016 contest.

“There is still a gender gap between Democrats and the Republicans,” Titus said, adding, however, that Clinton’s campaign is about protecting all of the middle class, not just women who often are primary breadwinners.

“She’s not just going to be a women’s candidate,” Titus said. “There are young people, minorities, labor. … I think she can win Nevada.”

In 2008, Clinton and Obama split the Democratic delegates, although the former first lady and U.S. senator from New York won the popular caucus vote.

That Democratic primary campaign sharply divided the nation and Nevadans, with leaders and voters having to choose sides. At this point, it doesn’t appear Clinton will face much of a primary challenge unless some candidate emerges from the liberal wing. Titus said that’s fine with her.

“Primaries are for vetting candidates,” Titus said. “She doesn’t need any toughing up.”

Rory Reid, a former Clark County Commission chairman who chaired Clinton’s 2008 campaign, said he’s ready to jump in to help her again.

State Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, walked door to door with Clinton as she and Obama fought over the labor vote. Kihuen can help Clinton with the Hispanic vote, now nearly one-fifth of the Nevada electorate.

“The Hillary Clinton campaign has reached out to me and have asked (me) to play a key role if/when she announces,” Kihuen said. “This is an important election cycle that will shape our country for years to come, and I look forward to playing a role in that process in one way or another.”

GOP POLITICKING HOT, HEAVY

On the Republican side, the competition is fierce to emerge from the pack even before any major candidate officially has announced.

Nevada has seen recent visits from the first tier of potential contenders, including Paul, Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a friend of GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, who could play a decisive role in the race.

In 2012, Sandoval endorsed former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is considering another run, but after Perry dropped out Sandoval backed the eventual GOP nominee, Mitt Romney. It’s unclear what Sandoval will do this time.

Sandoval’s top political adviser, Mike Slanker, has been talking to various GOP contenders but has not yet been hired, he said.

Ryan Erwin’s Red Rock Strategies represented Romney. He twice won the GOP presidential caucuses in Nevada with 50 percent of the vote. That makes Ryan the state’s top adviser with the most experience in putting together a winning strategy. He said he isn’t on anyone’s team yet but has talked to nearly every potential GOP contender.

“Almost all of the Republicans are trying to build a team here,” Erwin said “Building an organization is difficult. Some of these folks will do it well, and others won’t.”

Red Rock Strategies did help Bush put together a March 2 visit to Las Vegas, when he spoke at a senior center in Sun City Summerlin.

Bush plans to return to Las Vegas on May 13 to be the dinner speaker at the Clark County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner.

Last week, Erwin’s Las Vegas-based firm announced the hiring of a new chief executive officer with vast political experience. The Red Rock hire, Dana Walch, is a former executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party and political director of the Ohio Republican Party.

The key to victory in early states is knowing how the local electorate thinks and acts — and having a key list of reliable GOP voters to tap.

Traditional early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire have vast experience, whereas Nevada is still getting its feet wet. That means anyone with Nevada experience is a hot commodity.

Several candidates or campaign operatives for politicians have contacted James Smack, the former Republican national committeeman from Nevada and a longtime Ron Paul backer, for local advice and help. They include Rand Paul, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, Smack said. He recently took a job in the state controller’s office, however, that would prevent him from getting involved in campaigns beyond volunteering.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, is scheduled to be the dinner speaker Saturday at the Nevada Republican Party’s spring meeting in Carson City, making his first foray here, Smack said.

It appears the GOP candidates are reaching out to a wide array of political operatives in Nevada, especially those with recent caucus experience.

Niger Innis, an African-American GOP operative who lost a primary congressional race in 2014, has worked in Nevada about half a dozen years now. He worked on Herman Cain’s campaign in 2012.

Last week, Innis met with Rubio, but he hasn’t committed to anyone.

“I’ve been approached by several campaigns,” said Innis, a frequent radio and TV talk show guest who also works on national politics.

THE ADELSON FACTOR

One other reason Nevada is a popular political hot spot is because of the big donors on the Strip, particularly Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. In 2012, he contributed $100 million to GOP caucuses and candidates, keeping Newt Gingrich’s campaign alive long past its due date. Adelson later financially backed Romney.

The Sheldon Adelson primary will kick off this year April 23-25 at the spring meeting of the American Jewish Coalition at The Venetian, one of Adelson’s properties. By tradition, the meeting hosts GOP presidential candidates and wannabes, who give hawkish speeches related to protecting Israel. Adelson is usually in the audience.

This April, the speakers list includes White House hopefuls Texas Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as well as U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who flirted with the idea of a presidential bid but decided to run for re-election instead.

Nick Phillips, the political director of the Clark County Republican Party, said Nevada is lucky in that voters here get to see the candidates up close thanks to its early caucus and swing-state status.

“They’ll all be coming here sooner or later,” Phillips said.

Bunce, the veteran of two Ron Paul campaigns, saw his candidate finish second and third in Nevada’s two previous GOP presidential caucuses. He said it takes a lot of work to organize the party gatherings.

In 2016, he said candidates will be competing for all those Romney voters who made up 50 percent of the caucus-goers during the past two campaigns. That could give an edge to folks such as Bush, who is targeting former Romney backers at the ballot box and financially.

“Those will be clear and present targets,” Bunce said of the Romney caucus voters, who Rand Paul volunteers already are wooing.

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.

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