Monday, July 15, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Nevada Republican Party officials sound like confessors and repenters these days.
After a fractious 2012 election season, the party higher-ups are vowing that they’ve changed — that months of quiet reflection on their mistakes have made them clear-headed and ready to help lead Republicans to victory in 2014.
“Where we’re working is to make sure that we don’t make the mistakes we made in the past,” said Michael McDonald, the chairman of the Nevada Republican Party.
While the health of a political party might seem parochial, a well-functioning organization can help conservative causes in a national swing state, and a dysfunctional Republican party can help Democrats coast to victory in a state that already has 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
“Elections matter. So if elections matter, the organization matters because without organization, you cannot win elections,” said Robert Uithoven, a political consultant with the Las Vegas Sands Corp., whose CEO, Sheldon Adelson, is a major Republican donor. “It's more difficult and requires more funding if you don't have organization.”
Democrats in Nevada have that organization. Over the years, Nevada’s Democratic Sen. Harry Reid has built the state party into a machine that gets Democrats elected through candidate recruitment, voter registration, donor solicitations and voter turnout efforts.
Sure, good candidates can still win without that structure, and poor candidates can fail despite it.
“What lies in the middle is kind of the fruits of the Reid machine where the Reid machine may help pull some lackluster candidates to the finish line,” said Ryan Erwin, founder and president of Red Rock Strategies, a political consulting company that works with Republican candidates.
Republicans who usually have nothing good to say about Reid appreciate, sometimes begrudgingly, what the Senate majority leader has done to win elections.
They don’t see that same type of figure taking the reins of the Nevada Republican Party.
“There is no Harry Reid in the Republican Party pulling the party together and raising the money,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative commentator and former executive director of the Nevada Republican Party.
Meanwhile, Republican party members clashed with one another in 2012. In doing so, they lost the trust of some big Republican donors who have preferred to give money directly to candidates and third-party groups working for candidates.
McDonald said the party lost sight of its goal in 2012.
“At the end of the day, we have to get Republicans elected, and in the past that’s where we fell short,” he said. “In the past, other agendas, selfish agendas, let’s call it what it is, outweighed that.”
Most candidates have not worked with the party, which Clark County Republican chairwoman Cindy Lake said was “disorganized” in 2012.
"In the past, the party has been kind of bypassed by a lot of candidates,” Lake said. “Few candidates came to the party for resources or joined the central committee or had volunteers on board to walk and call. Everything has been a little disorganized and done a little haphazardly, and now we’re going to have our processes in place so we can help candidates across the board as far as finance, strategies, volunteers go.”
For instance, it wasn't even clear last year who was supposed to pay for the 2012 Clark County GOP annual Lincoln Dinner, a gala that featured big name Republicans such as Lt. Gov Brian Krolicki and U.S. Rep. Joe Heck at a reliably Republican venue, Adelson's Venetian.
Lake said then-county party chairman David Gibbs led her to believe Adelson would pay for the dinner as an in-kind political contribution to the party.
But when Gibbs resigned, the leadership at Sands didn't like the new county party leadership, "so they decided to charge the (county) party because it had never officially been in-kinded," Gibbs said.
Lake, surprised to get an $83,000 bill the day after Gibbs resigned, said she worked hard to reduce the bill to $62,500 and paid Las Vegas Sands for the dinner, noting that she was at least able to save the party some money in the transaction.
A Las Vegas Sands spokesman declined to comment on the event.
"That's not an area I'm going to delve into," said Rob Reese, a spokesman for Las Vegas Sands.
But party officials say such incidents are a thing of the past.
Last weekend, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., hosted a fundraiser for the state party. An email advertising the event at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas symbolically called it the “Unity Starts with ‘U-N-I’ Summer Fundraiser.”
Another recent email from the Clark County Republican Party issued a call for volunteers to help register Republican voters in several state Senate districts.
Efforts like these point at a new direction for the party, McDonald argues.
But it remains to be seen whether top Republican candidates in Nevada will want to work with the party this year and in 2014 as they compete in key races for governor, Congress and the state Senate.
Many Republican campaigns declined to talk about the state party for this story.
The Sandoval campaign declined to comment, as did Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, who is leading efforts to wrest the state Senate from Democratic control.
Erwin, whose company does campaign work for Heck, said, “I traditionally decline to talk about that internal party stuff.”
Although Republicans like Heck and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., beat Democrats in 2012, they largely divorced their own campaigns from the state and Clark County Republican parties, which were busy making mostly negative headlines.
Here’s just one example: The county party censured the national GOP’s chairman for supporting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
The party also fought among itself at a divisive state party convention last year in which Romney supporters essentially battled supporters of libertarian-minded GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.
There wasn’t much good news reported at the convention, but Republicans say it could’ve been worse.
“We staved off them doing a resolution against (Republican National Committee chairman) Reince Priebus and (Republican Gov.) Brian Sandoval,” said Jesse Law, political director for the Nevada Republican Party.
After observers saw that Ron Paul supporters had seemingly usurped control of the party, “Romney didn’t want to have anything to do with our state party leadership,” Law said.
Given that record, other candidates might look askance at the party operation just as a general might while considering an alliance with unruly mercenaries. While leading these troops into battle with Democrats, would they desert the general? Would lieutenants lose sight of the goal at hand and squabble with one another?
In an attempt to assuage such concerns, McDonald said he’s meeting with Priebus often and said candidates such as Sandoval will do fundraisers with the party.
Not surprisingly, Democrats said such signs signify nothing.
“Every election cycle, Nevada Republicans outsource their turnout operation to Washington, D.C., operatives who parachute into Nevada in the final months before an election and try to cobble together a field program,” said Zach Hudson, spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party. “Nevada Republicans' spin that this election will be different is the same song set on repeat.”
Many Republican campaigns, however, also appear to again be working outside of the Republican Party structure.
Republicans in elected office rarely attend party functions, and donors may again prefer to donate directly to third-party political groups.
“The donors don't have something they're willing to invest in,” Uithoven said. “The donors are not willing to invest in party leadership as it exists today.”
Republicans in Clark County are again fighting among themselves, this time in a race between Lake and challenger Dave McKeon, son of U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif.
The race to elect the county chairperson Wednesday has split local Republicans as documents have circulated about Dave McKeon’s messy divorce proceedings and subsequent child custody battles.
Dave McKeon did not return a request for comment for this story.
Party officials say this is a blip on the radar, not a sign of continued intra-party bickering.
“After this county party in Clark gets their elections over with, people don’t necessarily have to fight as much, so we’ll see people kind of get in line with the state party,” Law said. “I think a whole lot of that disunity will go away.”
If he’s right, Republicans will have plenty of time to prepare for a 2014 election that should favor them. Political observers say Democratic turnout dips during nonpresidential election years. The party of a second-term president also historically does poorly during a nonpresidential election year. And Republicans have a popular figure in Sandoval at the top of the ticket.
But not everybody is optimistic.
“Obama is not on the ticket, there’s no U.S. Senate race, and Sandoval is probably going to walk back to the governor’s office,” Muth said. “It’s a good opportunity for Republicans to pick up seats and win some close races — and it’s an opportunity they’ll blow, as usual.”