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Nevada GOP’s goal: to get its house in order

Times Staff Writer

The Nevada Republican Party hasn’t had a very good run of luck lately.

In January, state Chairman Paul Adams was ousted after taking sides in a nasty congressional primary fight that ended up in court. He was replaced temporarily by Vice Chairman Paul Willis, who in turn was savaged by bloggers and party activists over his close ties to a Pahrump, Nev., brothel owner facing federal wire-fraud charges.

Then news reports surfaced that newly elected Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons -- who removed Adams -- is under federal investigation over gifts he received during his five terms in Congress.

Meanwhile, the state’s Democrats came up with the idea of pushing their traditionally late and irrelevant presidential caucus to Jan. 19, 2008 -- second only to Iowa, and forcing the Republicans into a political version of keeping up with the Joneses or risk letting the Democrats bask alone in the national spotlight.

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“We were green with envy that the Democrats had thought of it first,” said Sue Lowden, a casino co-owner and former state senator and Las Vegas TV news anchor who was elected last month as the new state Republican chairwoman. “For us to sit back and watch the Democrats do it and not get involved, we were really losing ground. I mean we felt it. And we had to fight back.”

The turmoil in the party follows several years of political success, and it is Lowden’s job to try to reclaim some of those glory days.

Getting the Republican house in order in time for the caucuses could be crucial in determining whether Nevada becomes a major player in the 2008 Republican nomination battle or a political punch line -- and whether Republicans can keep the Democrats at bay in a state that has sided with the winner in every presidential election but one since 1912.

“It does increase the pressure,” Lowden said. “We know that the whole country will be watching. But that’s why we’re doing it -- we want to be noticed.”

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But not necessarily for the sorts of things that make Nevada stand out. The lifeblood for the state’s economy is gambling-based tourism, and prostitution is legal in 11 counties -- neither of which sits well with the social conservatives who dominate Republican politics nationally.

Yet the more libertarianoriented Republicans in the desert and mountain areas -- locally known as “the rurals” -- dominate the party here, and presidential contenders will likely find that winning Nevada takes a different message than what they might push in South Carolina.

“It’s going to be an interesting balancing act for candidates of both parties to mesh a national message with what they say here,” said Ryan Erwin, a political analyst and former chief executive for the Nevada and the California Republican parties. “Nevada is a different kind of state. There’s a different mentality, and traditional messages don’t always work here.”

Lowden, who with her husband owns the Pioneer Hotel & Gambling Hall in Laughlin, believes Nevada Republicans aren’t that different from Republicans elsewhere, but she also admits to some local idiosyncrasies.

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“This is Nevada,” Lowden said, “and you can be friends with a brothel owner.”

Under the current calendar, Nevada holds its caucuses five days after Iowa -- the first contest in the country -- and three days before the New Hampshire primaries. Florida recently moved its Republican primary to Jan. 29, adding to the roster of states that vote before Feb. 5, when about 20 states, including California, hold primaries and caucuses.

But Nevada Republicans are already months behind the Democrats in laying the groundwork.

Peter Ernaut, a Republican consultant and fundraiser in charge of finding the $2 million the caucuses are expected to cost, said the party is hiring Hans Gullickson, executive director of the Colorado Republican Party with experience in the Iowa caucuses, as caucus director. The state Democrats hired two Iowa veterans to direct their caucuses.

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The Democrats are trying to build a broad caucus with potentially hundreds of precinct sites and a computerized reporting system, but Ernaut said the Republicans will probably hold each county’s precinct caucuses at one central site.

Historically, political control of the state has swung between the two major parties, though for much of the last decade Republicans have dominated statewide elections.

The parties are fairly evenly split in the state: 403,000 Republicans to 396,000 Democrats during the November 2006 election. But seven in 10 Democrats live in union-strong and fast-growing Clark County, which includes Las Vegas. Republicans hold sway in all but one of the state’s other 16 counties.

In the November governor’s race, Democrat Dina Titus won Clark County by more than 23,000 votes, but lost every other county to Gibbons, who prevailed by more than 23,000 votes.

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The influence of rural Republicans on the presidential caucus could bring to the forefront more traditional Republican issues -- smaller government and lower taxes -- than such hot-button social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.

“We have more old-school Republican conservatives that are more focused on fiscal conservatism than moral or evangelical conservatism,” Ernaut said.

Nevada Republicans “are different just because of the gambling and the brothels,” said David Damore, a University of Nevada Las Vegas political analyst. “Prostitution is never really an issue -- it’s just kind of the way it is.”

What is an issue is the perception that the state Democrats are organizing as never before, while the Republicans try to shake off what Damore called a “national malaise” lingering from the 2006 midterm election.

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“They haven’t organized what you’ve seen the Democrats do with the healthcare debate” in March among presidential nomination contenders in Carson City, Damore said. Republican candidates come through Nevada and hold “basically a town hall meeting and then go to a fundraiser that’s closed to the public. It will be interesting to see if they can get this together.”

Ernaut believes Lowden’s election as chairwoman signals the end of the internal turmoil. Lowden, who has a reputation for organization and the kinds of connections that can raise money, was recruited by Gibbons, with whom she served in the state Legislature along with Ernaut.

Ernaut and others say the proof that the state Republican Party remains strong can be found in the 2006 election results. Nevada Republicans won an open governor’s seat and an open congressional seat, as well as reelected U.S. Sen. John Ensign.

“Nevada was probably the only state in the country that bucked the national trend of this last election,” Ernaut said. “I think we proved beyond any doubt that we were organized, well-funded and able to turn out our voters.”

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But Democrats came within 4,000 votes of unseating incumbent Rep. Jon Porter in the district that covers most of the Las Vegas suburbs, and took four of the six statewide down-ticket seats that had been held by Republicans. Those results have invigorated Democrats.

Chuck Muth, a Carson City-based Republican political consultant and former executive state director, has a blog called Muth’s Truths that was instrumental in organizing pressure on the party to move the caucus date to match the Democrats’.

Muth said Lowden has already made strides. A week after she took over, she held a Las Vegas fundraiser that Muth said made $40,000 and “took the party out of the red and into the black.”

And though preparing for the caucus will be a challenge, party faithful believe the Republicans will be ready for their close-up.

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“I don’t think it’s as bad as everybody else is saying it is,” said Dan Burdish, a former state Republican executive director. “If you’ve got the funds, you’re going to be able to organize. Most of it is going to be to make sure the candidates know what they have to do within the state, and getting them to have their people show up.”

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scott.martelle@latimes.com


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