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Nevada GOP seeks new start, rethinks its tactics

Two events bookended the first post-election meeting of Nevada Republican Party leaders – a “shotgun scramble” golf tournament for the group and a “defensive handgun course” in Pahrump, a gun rights bastion where they met.

During the Nevada GOP central committee meeting itself, however, most of the target practice Nov. 17 seemed to be aimed at one another.

There was an attempt to remove Washoe County Republican Party Chairman Dave Buell from the Nevada GOP executive board because his group accepted national party money that might have gone to the state party.

U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, a former chairman of the state GOP, was nearly censured. His sin: allowing party rules to be changed so Nevada delegates to the 2012 national convention were bound to vote for the presidential candidates who won the most support in Nevada’s Feb. 4 GOP caucuses.

Behind the effort were backers of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who lost to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The Paul supporters, who lead the Clark County Republican Party, ultimately agreed not to censure Amodei. But they passed resolutions objecting to the state rule change and to the Republican National Committee revising rules at the national convention to prevent the Texas congressman from being nominated from the floor.

“It’s something called principles,” Clark County GOP Chairwoman Cindy Lake said, explaining objections to the rule changes and to Republicans who don’t adhere to pure conservative policies. “We can’t keep on blindly supporting what R’s do. We want to be the county party that holds our representatives accountable.”

The meeting in Pahrump focused mostly on old business and fresh wounds following an election season where the Nevada GOP was in disarray, sidelined by the national party, which ran a “Team Nevada” ground game that in the end failed to block President Barack Obama’s win here on his way to re-election.

Republicans did score some key victories on Nov. 6: U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., held onto his Senate seat, narrowly defeating U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who was weighed down by a House ethics investigation. Voters also returned Republican U.S. Reps. Joe Heck and Amodei to Congress, while Democrats won Nevada’s two other House seats and maintained control of both houses of the Nevada Legislature.

But it was the GOP candidates and campaigns – not the misfiring GOP machine – that made the difference.

GOP INSIDERS SEEK BETTER WAY

Republican insiders in Nevada are so frustrated with the state party and GOP infighting that serious discussion is under way about creating a separate nonprofit entity to collect big-money donations to help GOP candidates, in effect permanently going around the Nevada Republican Party and its endless drama.

Mike Slanker, a political adviser to Heller and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, is said to be at the center of discussions, according to several GOP sources. Slanker did not comment when asked about such plans, but is looking to hire a political operative at a six-figure salary, said a Republican familiar with the job offer.

Sandoval, who has announced he’s running for re-election in 2014, already has a separate New Nevada PAC, which raised nearly $890,000 during the 2012 election cycle, mostly from gaming, mining and other business interests.

The New Nevada PAC donated more than $700,000 to GOP efforts to elect Republican state senators, including by directly giving the maximum $10,000 each to five candidates. Three of those GOP contenders won, not enough to regain control of the state Senate, where Democrats hung onto their 11-to-10 seat majority.

Still, it was a demonstration of the popular governor’s ability to raise money and influence elections.

If a new, separate entity is created, it could be formed as a 527 organization, or tax-exempt political action committee that can accept unlimited donations, although they must be reported. Or the organization could be set up as a 501c4 group, which doesn’t have to disclose who contributes to the organization.

And Nevada has plenty of major GOP donors to tap, including Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson, who contributed about $70 million in 2012, and Wynn Resorts Ltd. Chairman Steve Wynn, another multimillion-dollar casino donor.

One GOP insider said the private political model is based on what happened in Colorado when wealthy progressive leaders banded together to create a fund­raising group outside the state party to back Democratic candidates and build a better grass-roots organization. The effort helped turn the state blue, starting with Democratic victories in the 2006 election cycle and continuing with Obama wins in 2008 and 2012. The strategy is the subject of a book, “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”

“If the party in Nevada can’t get its act together, outside organizations may put something together,” said one GOP insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks. “I don’t think it depends on the donors. I think it depends on whether they put together a product the donors will want to invest in.”

BIG DONORS FAVOR PARTY REVIVAL

Wealthy Silver State political donors would prefer to operate through a revived Nevada Republican Party, according to one Republican familiar with the thinking of big contributors, but might not if Slanker or others put together a private political organization that might be able to do a better job of winning elections.

“I think they’d all rather go through the party,” said the Republican operative.

Another possible model for rebuilding the party from within instead would be for Sandoval and his political team to handpick operatives to run the Nevada GOP machine. That’s what U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., did a decade ago when he revived the Nevada Democratic Party by putting in his people to run the show. Reid also has his own personal political action committee, the Searchlight Leadership Fund, that has raised and spent millions of dollars for local, state and federal Democrats in Nevada and nationwide.

Michael McDonald, chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, would have to cooperate and work to bring the fighting factions together, a challenging job with Clark and Washoe counties still bickering.

“Michael has a tremendous opportunity,” said Jesse Law, a GOP operative who has worked closely with McDonald, who did not return a call seeking comment. “If history is a predictor, though, it’s a huge opportunity that can be blown. I happen to think turning the car is a lot better than turning toward the crash.”

Buell, the Washoe County chairman, said he would like to sit down with party leaders after the holidays and put together a specific plan to rebuild the party and raise money to compete with Democrats, who went into the 2012 elections with a 90,000 registered voter advantage over Republicans statewide.

“I think these elected officials and donors will come forth if we have a plan and can make it work,” Buell said.

CLASH OVER CASH FLOW

For now, however, Buell is on the outs with Republicans in the Clark County and state parties for filing papers this year with the Federal Election Commission so Washoe County could accept contributions to use in federal races – money that in normal circumstances would have passed through the Nevada Republican Party.

According to FEC reports, the National Republican Senatorial Committee transferred $43,000 to the Nevada Republican State Central Committee between August 2011 and June 2012. But the NRSC ended contributions to the state party and switched to the Washoe County Republican Party, transferring $638,000 to Washoe County between July and October of 2012. The bulk of that, $593,000, came in September and October.

The money transferred to Washoe County was used mostly to pay for direct mailings prepared by Majority Strategies of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., which the NRSC hired to help Heller win.

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, was stingy with money it transferred to the Nevada Republican Party as well. In the last half of 2012, the RNC sent more than $360,000 to the Nevada GOP coffers, including a $167,000 chunk of money in late July to pay for a voter registration drive.

However, other state parties, particularly in battleground states, got regular six-figure checks throughout the fall from the RNC, including Colorado, which like other neighboring states paid to send election mailers into Nevada.

James Smack, vice chairman of the Nevada GOP and the new national RNC committeeman, said he was offended the national party sent money to Washoe County and other states and starved the Nevada party. But he also said the time for finger-pointing has passed and he would prefer to focus on “rebranding the Republican Party in Nevada.”

“The main thing the Republican Party needs to do right now is we need to brand ourselves, tell people what we stand for,” said Smack, who supported Paul during the Republican primary season, but then backed Romney as the GOP presidential nominee. “I don’t think that branding is necessarily a Ron Paul agenda, but I don’t think that branding is a moderate agenda. That agenda is going to be a conservative agenda, especially on fiscal issues.”

Republicans’ fate in 2014 might depend on GOP efforts to counter the strong Democratic machine. And in 2016, the stakes will be sky high with another presidential election and the powerful Reid up for re-election.

EYES TURN TO 2013 LEGISLATURE

In the short term, all eyes will be on the Nevada Legislature, which convenes Feb. 4 for a 120-day session, and on how Sandoval and the GOP minority deal with the budget as the first test for Nevada Republicans.

Already, Sandoval has said he wants to extend a $600 million tax package for another two years and state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, has said he’ll back the governor.

Republican conservatives, particularly those in the Clark County GOP, already are criticizing Sandoval for what they see as raising taxes while Nevada businesses and citizens are suffering in a recovering economy.

Lake, the Clark County GOP chairwoman, said it may be tough to support Sandoval for re-election as a result.

“I’m not writing off that we’re going to support Gov. Sandoval, but we’re going to hold him accountable,” Lake said. “We haven’t even heard from the governor and that’s also been hard.”

Smack, too, said he opposes any tax extension, but he added he would work for Sandoval’s re-election in 2014 no matter their policy differences because “a Democratic governor would be much worse.”

At the same time, Smack said there’s talk among some county parties of forcing the governor to address their concerns by offering endorsements at the 2014 party conventions. Voters in the primary election would still decide Sandoval’s fate, but he could face a lesser-known GOP challenger endorsed by upset members of his own party.

Amodei, the most prominent elected official to attend the Pahrump GOP central committee meeting, said the Republican Party members need to start fighting Democrats and stop battling one another. Amodei said he wants to help rebuild the party, starting by increasing voter registration and broadcasting a message to Nevada voters that Republicans are on their side. He said the GOP “lost the message war” with Democrats in 2012.

“It’s time to dust yourselves off, put Band-Aids on your knees and try to keep it from happening next time,” Amodei said of GOP losses and internal party battles. “We can do better.”

Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal
.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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