CARSON CITY — Robert Uithoven knew election night was lost for Republicans just after 11 p.m.
That was when Clark County, Nevada’s largest urban hub and Democratic voter stronghold, posted its first batch of election results.
The numbers were jarring for Republicans: Nearly every statewide GOP candidate trailed in Clark County by double digits. Uithoven, political consultant for Republican governor candidate Adam Laxalt, knew there weren’t enough votes left to count to make up the difference.
“We won rural Nevada by more than 50,000 votes. But we lost Clark by more than 80,000, and you can’t overcome that,” Uithoven said last week.
In the days and weeks since that night, Uithoven and other Republican candidates, officials and consultants have repeatedly asked the same question: What happened?
The party felt bullish going into the Nov. 6 election. Midterm elections had historically been kind to to the GOP, which had helped the party maintain control of Nevada’s Governor’s Mansion for two decades.
And this year, the Republican National Committee had made an unprecedented investment in the Silver State in hopes of batting back the Harry Reid machine and defying a national Democratic wave.
But by the morning of Nov. 7, few of the party’s torchbearers were victiorious.
Laxalt, the Nevada political legacy seen as a rising national GOP star, fell to Democratic Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak. And Dean Heller, who had never lost a race in his 30-year political career, was unseated by a candidate whose name was barely a whisper in political circles three years ago in Democrat Jacky Rosen.
Democrats also strengthened their control of the Legislature, coming just 24 votes shy of having a supermajority in both houses.
What exactly went wrong for Republicans is up for debate, with explanations for the walloping varying from poor messaging to shifting demographics in the state and the ever-present “Trump factor.”
The state party is working with the Republican National Committee on a postmortem to analyze the losses, and Assembly Republican leader Jim Wheeler said he is soliciting information from consultants and candidates for the same purpose.
But Wheeler, R-Minden, offered a simple explanation.
“We got our a— kicked, that simple,” he said.
Nevada no longer purple?
To Uithoven and others like longtime Republican consultant Sig Rogich, the losses come down to simple arithmetic.
“I really think the lean is strong-blue right now,” Rogich said.
In the decade or so before the 2008 election, the number of registered Republicans and Democrats in Nevada was always relatively close. But 2008 and the Harry Reid machine altered the landscape significantly, as Democrats went into that election with 100,000 more registered voters than Republicans.
The number has varied election-to-election since then, but that Democratic registration lean has been the norm in Nevada ever since. And while the RNC and state Republican Party focused much of their efforts on trying to close the gap, their efforts fell short, and Democrats took a roughly 75,000 voter advantage into this year’s midterms.
“When you start voting, and the scoreboard is 75,000 to zero, you need better-than-equal turnout. Otherwise they’ll win,” Uithoven said.
Wheeler pointed to the state Assembly District 31 race between Republican Jill Dickman and incumbent Democrat Skip Daly. Republicans in that district outnumber Democrats by more than 2,300, but Dickman lost by 3 percentage points.
The overall results have Republicans wondering whether 2018 represents a turning point in which Nevada sheds its label as a purple swing state status in favor of a darker shade of blue.
“I worry now that we can become a noncompetitive state,” Uithoven said. “We are certainly blue and not purple, as far as our elected representation.”
Compounding the problem for Republicans has been the ever-growing group of unaffiliated voters. Since 2008, the raw number of nonpartisan voters in the state has nearly doubled, and they now represent more than one-fifth of Nevada’s registered voters, creating a key voting bloc that each side must court.
And to longtime Democratic consultant Billy Vassiliadis, that growing group should send a message to both sides of the aisle.
“If I was both parties, I would probably be keeping an eye on the increasing nonpartisan registration and the increasing disgruntlement with partisan politics,” Vassiliadis said.
But given the cyclical nature of politics — it was just in 2014 when Republicans swept the statewide races in Nevada — it may be premature to altogether dismiss Nevada as a swing state.
“Definitely still a purple state,” said Alana Mounce, executive director of the Nevada State Democratic Party.
Mounce pointed to the historical trend that Republicans tend to fare better than Democrats in midterm elections and said victories for Democrats in Nevada this year took “unprecedented” ground game and outreach efforts that included knocking on more than 1 million doors in the three weeks preceding the election.
“I don’t think you have to have that kind of operation in a state that is controlled by Democrats,” Mounce said.
The Trump factor
But registration numbers don’t tell the whole story.
President Donald Trump’s name wasn’t on any ballot this year. But it might as well have been right at the top given the amount of time that campaigns on both sides dedicated to the president and his policies and how often Trump and his family were in Nevada in the final weeks of the cycle.
That Trump presence, according to longtime Republican political consultant Greg Ferraro, spilled over into the Nevada election results.
According to Morning Consult, Trump’s approval rating in Nevada was -7 as of October. Heller and Laxalt lost by 5 and 4 percentage points, respectively.
“I don’t think you have to dig too deep into the data. This election in 2018 was about Donald Trump,” Ferraro said.
Ferraro said that the focus on Trump also made it difficult for candidates to focus on local issues. Rather than talking about their plans for Nevada, they often had to talk about about his policies and tweets.
“I think it was very hard to keep the voter focused on local community, regional, state issues when the dialogue was overwhelmingly a reaction to what the president’s tweets were that day,” Ferraro said.
Rogich, who worked on campaigns for former Nevada. Gov. Paul Laxalt as well as presidential campaigns for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said the Trump factor “muddled” the message of Republicans.
“It harkened back to the Mueller probe, went into Hillary too much,” Rogich said.
Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald, however, said the losses would have been worse without Trump’s involvement. But McDonald does think messaging, especially in regards to health care, was an issue.
The party’s top stars took major hits with the losses, and the likes of Laxalt, Heller or others haven’t indicated whether they plan to make future runs in Nevada.
Uithoven said he believes that candidates like Laxalt, who turned 40 in August, and attorney general candidate Wes Duncan will stay engaged politically and be on future ballots. But as for the others, like the 58-year-old Heller, Uithoven’s not as sure.
The 2018 losses left Northern Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, both of whom won re-election, as the faces of the Nevada GOP for the near future. Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore, a former state assemblywoman, is one of the highest-profile elected Republicans in Southern Nevada.
And while the Democratic shift and recent losses make the immediate future seem bleak to some in the party, they are holding out hope that the pendulum will find its way back to the middle.
Come 2020, there will be no U.S. Senate or governor’s race on the ballot, meaning that much of Republican success two years from now will teeter on Trump.
So how do Republicans bounce back before that election? Uithoven says a lot of that starts with courting defectors.
“Go find people who left the Republican Party and became nonpartisan and get them back into the party. Find out why they left, find out what we’ve done,” Uithoven said.
But many agree that to compete with Democrats, Republicans need to do better at being more positive and inclusive, with tighter focuses on more traditional fiscal conservative issues like job creation and wage growth as opposed to social issues.
That kind of messaging became the hallmark of outgoing Gov. Brian Sandoval’s eight years in office, and Sandoval’s popularity with both parties remains high as he prepares to hand the office off to Sisolak.
Ferraro said Sandoval’s style should be emulated by Republicans if they want to match his political triumphs.
“I think Republicans would be wise to look at the success of the Sandoval brand going forward, which was a message of inclusion, either bipartisan or nonpartisan or both, and practical not political,” Ferraro said. “One that appeals to Nevadans in a message of Nevada first.”