WASHINGTON — Sen. John Ensign vowed Wednesday to resurrect the Nevada Republican Party, which has fallen into deep disarray and was overwhelmed by Democrats in this year’s elections.
Although he is a senior Republican office holder in Nevada, Ensign was largely absent from state party activities in recent years. In 2006, he focused on his own re-election. For the past two years, he was largely out of state as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Now, he said, he is back.
"I am going to be spending a lot of effort over the next couple of years to try to turn our state around," Ensign said in a meeting with reporters in Washington. "We are going to be organizationally recruiting candidates, recruiting a bench at all levels in our state, for assembly, for judges up and down. I am going to put a lot of effort into rebuilding our state party infrastructure."
Ensign spokesman Tory Mazzola said later in the day that nothing is happening yet, but that Ensign "is laying the groundwork and doing the planning."
Not just in Nevada, but all around the region, Republicans cannot afford to let Democrats cement gains they made this year in areas where the GOP historically has been dominant, Ensign said.
"We have a lot of work to do in my state and other intermountain states," Ensign said. "We cannot afford, where a lot of the population is moving, to let the Democrats continue what they did the last two years. We have to turn that around."
President-elect Barack Obama won Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada by solid margins, while Democrats captured Senate seats from Republicans in Colorado and New Mexico. Democrats also picked up House seats in Nevada, New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado and Arizona.
Democrats led by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, Ken Salazar of Colorado and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson made a concerted effort to organize in the region, including arranging for the Democratic National Convention to be held in Denver.
In Nevada, Republicans’ fortunes have fallen from their high point in 2002, when the GOP won all six statewide constitutional offices, a sweep that prompted Democrats to regroup.
Republican dominance looked set to continue after President Bush won the state in 2004 and Republican Jim Gibbons took the governor’s mansion in a close race in 2006.
But since then, Democrats, with the active involvement of the powerful Reid, have mounted an aggressive push that has resulted in increased organization and membership.
As of the close of registration for the general election this year, there were more than 100,000 more Democrats than Republicans on the active voter registration rolls maintained by the Nevada secretary of state.
Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 23 of this year, the state Democratic Party raised more than $3 million, while the Republican Party raised less than $600,000, according to financial disclosure statements.
Combined with the impressive operation put in place by President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign, the Nevada Democratic Party got results on Election Day. Obama won the state by 12 percentage points. Republican Rep. Jon Porter lost to Democrat Dina Titus; two Republican state senators lost to Democratic political newcomers, giving the Democrats the majority in both houses of the Legislature.
Democrats also netted one seat in the Assembly and two seats on the Clark County Commission.
On Wednesday, asked about Ensign’s plans for a Republican comeback, Reid said: "Heaven knows they need one."
"Let’s put it this way, I am not going to loan him my playbook," Reid said.
Reid said it is no secret that leading Republicans like state Sen. Bill Raggio concede the party "has become far too conservative. There is a long line of Nevada Republicans who have spoken out about the party being nothing."
Republican activists complain privately of a leadership vacuum within their party’s organization. Gov. Gibbons, whose approval rating is mired at levels lower than Bush’s, has shown no desire or ability to take the reins of the party. Ensign, they complain, may be speaking up now, but has been virtually absent from state politics since his re-election in 2006.
"Ensign is blaming everybody else now, but where has he been?" said a Nevada Republican operative who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Nevada GOP is also riven by internal squabbles. The state convention in April, which was shut down after being nearly taken over by supporters of former presidential candidate Ron Paul, laid bare the lack of organization within the party.
Gibbons spokesman Ben Kieckhefer rejected the idea that the governor has abdicated a responsibility that should be his as a top Republican elected official.
"He hasn’t been doing a lot of politicking because he’s been busy leading the state," Kieckhefer said. "The governor has been focused on what he was elected to do, which is focus on the problems and issues facing the state and the taxpayers."
Nevada Republican Party Executive Director Zac Moyle said the party welcomed help and ideas from Ensign or anybody else.
He said Ensign had not contacted the party.
"We feel we did the best job with the tools that were available," Moyle said. "We’d always like to have more tools and more money to work with. This election was an eye-opener for us and for Republicans in general."
In his meeting with reporters, Ensign said he plans to support whoever runs against Reid, who will be up for re-election in 2010.
But Ensign said under a long-standing agreement with Reid he will not attack the Democrat or criticize him publicly.
Ensign said he has not spoken with Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who has declared interest in running against Reid.
Ensign said he expects other Republicans will be checking out the opportunity, based on polls that suggest Reid might be vulnerable.
He said Rep. Jon Porter, who lost re-election this month, remains a possibility.
"Losing a race doesn’t mean you are not a viable candidate," Ensign said, offering himself as an example. He lost a Senate race against Reid in 1998 then came back and won two years later when Democrat Sen. Richard Bryan left.
"I am sure there will be several Republicans taking a look simply because of the polling data," Ensign said. "When I ran against Sen. Reid I only got his negatives to 38 percent, and his negatives now are higher than that."
Ensign said he would advise Republicans to settle on a candidate against Reid in the next six to eight months, since Reid "is going to have a huge amount of resources" for the race.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Contact Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Molly Ball at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919.