At September’s San Gennaro Feast, where wine flowed liberally and fragrances from Italian sausage and pizza wafted through the air, a political conflict brewed behind the scenes.
The Nevada Republican Party was registering voters. And so was a new conservative organization, Engage Nevada, whose stated goal is to educate voters.
At some point, the party accused an Engage Nevada worker of taking its voter registration forms. The dispute was later ironed out, but it pointed to potential conflicts between the official party and the conservative group, including competition for the same GOP dollars.
Sands Corp. boss Sheldon Adelson already has donated to Engage Nevada, according to several GOP sources, although the group by law doesn’t have to disclose its donors.
Adelson, who donated an estimated $150 million to conservative causes and candidates in 2012, has plenty of money to spread around. But big money donors like Adelson and others on the Strip will have to decide how to spend their money as the Nevada GOP struggles to pay its bills.
GOAL: ENGAGE MORE VOTERS
Publicly, the party and the president of Engage Nevada say there’s a need in Nevada for Republicans and conservatives to expand their voter base to compete against Democrats, who long have relied on outside groups to grow voter rolls.
“Our goal is to engage more voters, especially like-minded conservative voters in the political process,” said Chris Carr, president of Engage Nevada and former chairman of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s Nevada campaign in 2012. Carr also has worked for the Republican National Committee.
He noted that Nevada has one of the highest percentages of unregistered voters, about 47 percent of the voter-age population.
Engage Nevada wants to tap into that group, registering Republicans, nonpartisans and even Democrats who are conservative.
Engage Nevada has contacted 90,000 voters since June 1. It uses petitions, including one calling for defunding Obamacare and another to protect the Second Amendment of the Constitution, or the right to own guns.
Engage Nevada has 10 to 15 hourly workers in Southern Nevada and about 10 in Northern Nevada, along with paid managers at both ends of the state.
It has raised more than $500,000, a drop in the bucket but money the party desperately needs to keep its offices open and staff on salary. It is registered with the state and the IRS as a 501c4, a nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose donors.
WELCOMED BY SOME
Jesse Law, political director of the Nevada Republican Party, welcomes the help.
“I think there is great value in having some of these other groups out there,” Law said. “I don’t think the Republican Party should be the only game in town.”
Still, Law expressed disappointment that the state party doesn’t get more support from elected leaders, including Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.
The governor’s political consultant, Mike Slanker, has praised Engage Nevada and has since last year’s election promoted the idea of forming the nonprofit conservative group.
“I think we need more and better leadership out of our elected officials,” Law said. “We’re there for them.”
Sandoval’s campaign manager, Jeremy Hughes, confirmed the governor approves of Engage Nevada, saying, “Yes, we are supportive of their effort.”
Robert Uithoven, a Sands political consultant, ran against Nevada GOP Chairman Michael McDonald in September and lost. Sandoval backed Uithoven.
Uithoven said he doesn’t believe the state party could attract big donors such as Adelson, because they have lost confidence in the GOP organization.
“I don’t think the state party was able to raise money before Engage Nevada; and if Engage Nevada went away tomorrow, the state party wouldn’t be able to raise money because of a lack of trust,” Uithoven said. “There’s not a level of confidence in the state party.”
James Smack, the national GOP committeeman from Nevada, said Republicans should welcome any support to compete against Democrats.
“I’m kind of all about any group that wants to change the dynamic and help register Nevadans,” Smack said. “The state party will be doing its thing, and Engage Nevada will be doing its thing. And so that’s good.”
Smack said Carr reached out to him before launching Engage Nevada.
BAD MEMORIES OF 2012
Still, bad memories from 2012 and continued infighting among Republicans point to a rough road heading into the 2014 midterm elections, with Sandoval at the top of the ticket.
Last year, the Republican National Committee and establishment Republicans in the state grew so frustrated with state GOP ineptitude that they launched their own operation, Team Nevada, which ran the ground game for Romney and helped other Republicans.
Carr said Engage Nevada is not meant to go around the party apparatus. But many Republicans remain skeptical.
“The spirit in which it was set up is to bypass the state party,” said one GOP operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid criticism by party regulars.
Still, the source added, “I’m impressed with their work. It’s a marketing business and they fill a need.”
Democrats scoffed at Engage Nevada as another work-around GOP group.
“It’s sad that the Nevada Republican Party, which Brian Sandoval is the titular head of, is so dysfunctional that Republicans have to ship in a shadowy third-party group to bail them out,” said Zach Hudson, spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party.
“Setting up a Republican front group might allow Republicans to hide who is funding their voter registration efforts, but it will not change the fact that next year Nevadans will again reject Republicans’ pro-Wall Street, anti-middle class agenda.”
Democrats have long relied on outside groups to help register voters, including unions and organizations such as Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that registered more voters than any group during the last election cycle.
DEMocratS STILL LEAD IN VOTERS
Republicans have a long way to go to catch Democrats, who hold a nearly 100,000 registered voter advantage statewide over the GOP, according to the Nevada secretary of state’s website.
Neither party made any progress over the summer and fall, with both seeing declines in voter registration as people moved or registrations expired. Between June 1 and Oct. 31, Democrats lost 3,010 registered voters compared to a loss of 1,271 for Republicans.
At the end of October, Democrats had 530,760 registered voters (42 percent of those registered in the state) compared to 433,722 for Republicans (34 percent).
Meanwhile, nonpartisan voter registration grew by 2,491 between June 1 and Oct. 31, for a total of 223,707 registered voters, or 18 percent.
Engage Nevada officials said they hope to capture those nonpartisan voters by focusing on conservative issues and not party registration.
Some things might be out of the hands of the parties and partisans, however.
Widespread displeasure with President Barack Obama’s health care law may sway more voters as people become frustrated with the flawed rollout, for example. Republicans are counting on it, while Obama and Democrats are focusing on damage control.
Republicans took most of the blame for the fall government shutdown, however, handing the Democrats an election year hammer to bang. Engage Nevada thinks it can win on the issues and boost conservative voter action.
“This is primarily a voter education and registration effort,” Carr said.
Contact reporter Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.