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September 3, 2015

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Memo From Carson City:

Senate Republicans took moderate tack, but did it work?

State Senate Republican candidates moved to the center in this election, supporting candidates — including in Republican primaries — who adopted a message of no more cuts to education, even if it angered the anti-tax base.

It was a marked shift for a caucus that two years ago stripped Sen. Bill Raggio of his caucus leader position because of his moderate stance on taxes and where a majority of members voted against Gov. Brian Sandoval and the tax package he agreed to in 2011.

So, did the strategy work?

Republicans won 3 of 5 of the state Senate seats. But they fell short of winning the majority back by one seat — Senate District 09, which the Republican candidate lost by 301 votes.

Senate Republicans saw the overall results as a vindication — at least partially — of their strategy. But it fell short enough to further fuel the fight against taxes by the “movement conservatives.”

“In a very difficult year for Republicans, where we were running in districts that were significantly upside-down in voter registration, we held serve and came within 300 votes of taking the majority,” Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, the assistant majority leader, said. “I think we did well.”

Republicans in Nevada had a hangdog expression Tuesday night, with the party's presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, getting swamped 52.3 percent to 45.7 percent and Republican Sen. Dean Heller eking out a 12,000-vote win over Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley.

But the establishment said that their strategy worked and provided a possible roadmap for future Republicans, particularly in Clark County, where registered Democrats hold a significant registration advantage over Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, said: “Look at how our candidates did compared to the top of the ticket. I think you’ll see they outperformed (the top candidates) by double digits.”

But that doesn’t mean the conservative wing in the state is going to roll over. Roberson, after all, promised that he’d retake the state Senate from Democrats.

Chuck Muth, a conservative activist who has been critical of Republicans’ compromise on taxes, noted that the most moderate candidate, former Henderson City Councilman Steve Kirk, had the largest defeat.

“The battle for the soul of the Republican Party will continue to rage on,” Muth said. “Conservatives will not sit back quietly and allow Roberson to move to the center without objection.”

Data on how those Republican state Senate candidates did compared with Romney and Heller in their districts will be available this week, according to the Clark County Election Department.

But in Clark County, Romney lost by 99,774 votes to President Barack Obama; Heller lost by 60,600 votes to Rep. Shelley Berkley.

That makes Clark County — where the entire County Commission is Democratic — inherently tough territory for a conservative Republican candidate to succeed in.

Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, known as one of the more conservative lawmakers in the caucus, expressed concerns about extending the sunsetting taxes. But, he said, “representatives need to be representative of where their districts are.”

And in reality, Settelmeyer said, some Republican candidates have expressed strong conservative credentials, including Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, who took the state’s case against the Affordable Care Act.

On election night, Roberson offered a blunt assessment of how Republicans are going to win elections in Clark County. First, he said, Republicans need an organization to match what Democrats have.

“We've got to get to work developing the type of machine Harry Reid and Democrats have,” he said. “There are a lot of Republicans in the state not registered to vote.”

Second, he said: “We have got to do a better job appealing to Hispanic voters in Nevada. ... If we don't, it'll be increasingly difficult to win elections in Clark County.”

And that, rather than a more hard-line position on taxes, is how Roberson believes Republicans can retake the majority in 2014.

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