Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The penthouse of the downtown Reno resort had all the cheer of a funeral Tuesday night, though one with an open bar.
The Republican Party establishment had gathered to watch election returns for state Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio. What they witnessed was a punch from the right in the Nevada Republican primary that knocked out several incumbents and almost took down one of the state’s most powerful legislators for the past quarter-century.
Raggio won, but by a scant 500 votes, over former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who had pounded away at him for not being conservative enough.
Veteran Republican Assemblyman John Marvel, seeking his 16th term, was defeated, largely on the back of a campaign highlighting his 2003 vote to raise taxes.
Republican incumbent Assembly members Francis Allen and Bob Beers fell to opponents who attacked them for being too cozy with Democrats. Don Chairez, a former District Court judge and conservative, came within a couple of thousand votes of taking a spot on November’s runoff for the state Supreme Court.
Each race, of course, had its own dynamic. But it became clear that the party’s most conservative members asserted themselves in a combination of Ron Paul fever, President Bush fatigue and malaise in the moderate wing.
“The right wing of the party is making a rear-guard action,” said one veteran consultant at Raggio’s campaign party. “They’re throwing out those who would compromise, who they thought didn’t have pure blood. That leaves a lot of moderates for the Democrats.”
After hours of watching results trickle in and his lead dwindle, Raggio was called to one of the suites at the El Dorado to give a champagne toast. He looked his 81 years.
Asked whether this felt like a victory, he paused and said, “I’m just glad to get it behind us. It’s important for us to close ranks now.”
Interviews with Republican operatives show that may not be an easy thing to do.
Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant who advised Raggio, said some are trying to shift the Republican Party, as demonstrated in the Raggio-Angle race and the one between Marvel and former Assemblyman Don Gustavson.
“The two races show that in the Republican Party, there’s a struggle,” he said. “Voters went different directions. But the struggle is apparent.”
“What you found in Republican primaries, the more conservatives — those that lean libertarian — want more representation in the Republican Party,” said Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert.
Wayne Terhune, a Ron Paul supporter and Sparks dentist, said a lot of anger stemmed from the failed state party convention in April, when Paul supporters felt the establishment tried to manipulate the process. The convention adjourned after the former presidential candidate’s libertarian supporters threatened to take it over.
Even some who, like Angle, were not involved with the Paul movement benefited from its anger.
Not that the entire Republican establishment had to sweat. James Smack, a Paul supporter whose campaign Terhune managed, got just 14 percent of the vote against one-term incumbent Rep. Dean Heller.
Some of the other races that Republican incumbents lost had other significant factors. (Weeks before the primary, Allen was alleged to have stabbed her husband, though a judge later dismissed the charge.)
At the Raggio campaign gathering, after the victory was in hand, political consultants gave variations of this line: “You know what you call a senator who won by one vote? Senator.”
And former Gov. Kenny Guinn said, “An election isn’t like horseshoes. Close doesn’t count.”
But the jokes were followed by questions about whether the party would be unified before the general election: Would the Paul supporters and hard-line conservatives work with the Republican Party establishment? Would they rally around presidential nominee John McCain, whom many see as a moderate?
Gansert considered those questions carefully.
“It’s important to recognize he (McCain) is the choice,” she said. “For many, that task has been more difficult than in the past.”