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The GOP’s long road back in Clark County

Quick political pop quiz: After U.S. Sen. John Ensign, who’s the most powerful elected Republican from Southern Nevada?

That such a simple question requires deep thought (if you can stop laughing) reveals just how far the GOP has fallen in Clark County. Right now, the housing market and gaming stocks have more value around here than the Republican brand.

To be sure, Republicans got their clocks cleaned from coast to coast on Nov. 4, but the slaughter was especially severe in the Las Vegas Valley. The handful of Republican incumbents who enjoyed some name recognition in these parts were sent packing, as were some the party’s most promising down-ticket candidates.

U.S. Rep. Jon Porter, who enjoyed a coveted seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, was trounced. State Sens. Bob Beers and Joe Heck were done in by a torrent of attacks from the Democratic Party. Longtime Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury yielded to term limits — and saw his seat claimed by a Democrat. The anti-Republican torrent even swept away Regent Bret Whipple.

So who’s left? A rundown of government bodies and offices shows the GOP’s cupboard is nearly bare in Clark County.

Of Southern Nevada’s 14 seats in the 21-member state Senate, only three are held by Republicans (one if you exclude tax-hikers Dennis Nolan and Warren Hardy). It’s just as bad in the Assembly. The county has 29 of the state’s 42 Assembly districts, but Southern Nevada Republicans were elected to only six seats. Because Democrats hold the majority of both houses, there are no Republican committee chairs.

Come January, Republicans will be shut out of the Clark County Commission. Even in the supposedly nonpartisan realm of municipal government, the GOP is nearly invisible. The Las Vegas City Council? All Democrats. Henderson has two Republican councilmen, Steven Kirk and Jack Clark, although Clark will leave office in a few months because of term limits.

Which brings us to North Las Vegas, home of Southern Nevada’s second-most-powerful elected Republican: Mayor Michael Montandon.

Yes, Montandon is the answer to our pop quiz. Alas, he’ll give up his No. 2 perch in the county party power rankings this summer, when term limits give him the boot. North Las Vegas Councilwoman Shari Buck, a fellow Republican, could jump into his spot if she follows though on her mayoral ambitions. Or Kirk could vault into the second position if he is elected mayor of Henderson.

If they both lose next summer, Clark County District Attorney David Roger would fall in behind Ensign by default.

Yep, Clark County Republicans, that’s it. Now you understand how much work Ensign has to do to rebuild the party.

In a Wednesday meeting with reporters in Washington, Ensign laid out the basics of his plan to recover from the butt-kicking Democrats delivered in the 2008 campaign.

“I am going to be spending a lot of effort over the next couple of years to try to turn our state around,” he said. “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.”

Right now, that infrastructure tilts too heavily toward the state’s 16 other counties. Gov. Jim Gibbons, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and Rep. Dean Heller are all Northern Nevadans. Washoe County and rural Republicans significantly outnumber their Southern Nevada colleagues in both the Assembly and the state Senate.

Given the voter registration gains Democrats have made in Washoe County — they’re now ahead of Republicans — and their absolute dominance in growing Clark County, the GOP no longer can expect to win major offices by staying close in Southern Nevada and romping in the rest of the state. And Reno and the rurals won’t preserve the party’s receding legislative power beyond 2011, when reapportionment will strip Northern Nevada of two or three Senate seats and three or four Assembly districts and redraw them inside the Las Vegas Valley — where they’re likely to turn blue.

Ensign needs to identify and cultivate Southern Nevada candidates who’ll appeal to the valley’s independents and moderates — and gain the trust of Northern Nevadans — by emphasizing business-friendly policies, tax restraint, fiscal responsibility and government accountability. There are 400,000 center-right voters in Clark County who still find those ideas appealing.

Democrats could help the cause greatly by dedicating the 2009 legislative session to record tax increases that guarantee the electorate nothing in return but the same old, same old — and perhaps a prolonged recession.

No doubt, some familiar Republican faces will be on the ballot in 2010. Porter, Beers and Heck aren’t likely to disappear from the party landscape anytime soon. Jon Ozark and Sean Fellows, who lost close Assembly races despite being superior candidates, should be encouraged to run again.

But if Krolicki makes good on his intention to challenge Sen. Harry Reid, and if Gibbons becomes even less popular than he is today, Ensign will have to find candidates for all six statewide constitutional offices, in addition to potentially competitive legislative seats that will be vacated by incumbents because of term limits.

Montandon already has stepped to the plate — he’s laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial bid.

It’s a start.

One thing is certain: If two years from now Ensign’s top local prospect is still a suburban mayor, the GOP’s road back to relevance will be even longer.

Glenn Cook is an editorial writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. E-mail him at gcook@reviewjournal.com.

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