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November 28, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Republicans nationally can learn from Nevada GOP … at least in some respects


Leila Navidi

Mitt Romney supporters watch Romney give his concession speech during a GOP election night watch party at the Venetian in Las Vegas on Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

Election Night 2012 Across the Country

Supporters of President Barack Obama Shauna Harry, left, and Alana Hearn celebrate by leaping in the air at New York State Democratic Headquarters following Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. Launch slideshow »
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Tuesday was a disaster for the national Republican Party, as President Barack Obama won an election that secured a new governing majority and the Senate remained in Harry Reid’s hands. Elizabeth Warren, pot and gay marriage were just salt in the wounds.

In Nevada, however, it wasn’t so bad. Just as Democrats created a sea wall here against the Republican 2010 wave, so, too, did Republicans hold their own this time, despite being outnumbered by 90,000 registered voters.

Sen. Dean Heller won, giving him a full term after his appointment by Gov. Brian Sandoval. Rep. Joe Heck was easily re-elected in what should have been a closely contested Congressional district. Republicans narrowly lost their bid to take control of the state Senate, but they can take solace in knocking off the incoming Democratic Assembly Speaker, Marcus Conklin.

The formula isn’t that complicated, but it might be worth a look by Beltway Republicans.

“A little moderation goes a long way,” says Pete Ernaut, the Republican lobbyist and former chief of staff for late Gov. Kenny Guinn.

Former Republican State Sen. Warren Hardy, now a lobbyist, has been saying since the 2008 debacle that Nevada is a Democratic state, as evidenced by the lopsided registration numbers, and so Republicans must appeal to independents and even some Democrats to win. He told me Tuesday is just more evidence for his argument, which would now seem to apply to large swaths of the country, not just Nevada.

“Gov. Brian Sandoval is the template for successful Republicans in the state of Nevada,” said state Sen. Michael Roberson, the incoming minority leader who managed the GOP Senate effort.

Sandoval ran hard to the right in 2010, which was the rational response to that electorate, but has governed as a moderate. He allowed the continuation of taxes that were about to die and has announced he’ll do so again in the next legislative session.

Republican elites also have avoided the full crazy on immigration, unlike Arizona Republicans and the many states that have enacted voter ID laws.

Roberson’s state Senate candidates followed Sandoval’s lead, sounding a little like Democrats as they talked about refusing further cuts to education. They ran in districts that were Democratic leaning or roughly even, and their talk on education probably sounded reasonable to suburban voters, especially women. Republicans won three of five key races, coming up just short of a majority.

“We ran fairly centrist campaigns,” Roberson said. “To be successful, we have to do a better job of capturing the center. We can be center-right, but we have to understand most people don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat. They want you to solve the problems, be reasonable and thoughtful.”

Dean Heller, who as a congressman in the conservative District 2 became a strident conservative, was on the wrong side of immigration issues, including birthright citizenship. But at least he softened his rhetoric during his 2012 race. He outperformed Mitt Romney among Hispanics, according to CNN exit polls, which may have saved him from the challenge from Rep. Shelley Berkley.

Roberson and Hardy emphasized the need to do more to win Hispanics, which is so obvious it’s almost banal. Hispanics constituted 18 percent of the electorate, and Obama won nearly 70 percent of them, according to exit polls, which actually may have underestimated his totals, according to some analysts.

What’s fascinating is that Roberson, like Heller, had formerly been a partisan bomb thrower. Both seem to have seen the writing on the wall, and both apparently prefer winning to losing. They know the arithmetic.

“My view was driven by mathematics,” Ernaut said. “When you have 90,000 more Democrats than Republicans, it’s hard to beat the other guys.”

Ernaut, a Sandoval advisor, hopes national Republicans look to Nevada as a model. “I’d love to think they’d see Brian Sandoval as a model for a winning Republican message going forward. Will national Republicans be able to do that? I remain hopeful,” he said, not sounding at all hopeful.

Nevada Republicans have a big advantage over their national counterparts in one key respect: Nevada is socially liberal, and evangelical conservatives hold no sway. Nevada Republicans face no litmus tests on abortion rights and gay rights and so are free to join the emerging liberal consensus on those issues.

There’s one thing national Republicans should not emulate about the Nevada GOP: the useless, dysfunctional state party. For years now, the Nevada Republican Party has been largely non-existent, more like the collection of warring factions in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”:

“We’re the People’s Front of Judea!”

Without a functioning party, candidates fend for themselves in the important ground game while Democrats continue to maintain a lethal machine.

“The results speak for themselves,” Ernaut said. “Candidates who built a ground game for themselves did well. Statewide, there wasn’t an effort sufficient to compete.”

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