Joe Cavaretta / AP
Thursday, April 10, 2014 | 2:01 p.m.
CARSON CITY — Nevada Republicans gathering for their party convention this weekend in Las Vegas are seeking to show unity to boost voter registration, raise money and elect more GOP candidates, goals that have proved elusive in recent years for a state party that has become known for its volatility.
The attempt at cohesion amid the polarization between staunch conservatives and establishment Republicans — a split that also divides the party nationally — comes in the spotlight of a midterm election season and an attempt to host the national convention in two years when the party nominates its next presidential candidate.
It's political laundry that party leaders would rather not air publicly, but such infighting is expected at state conventions — especially in Nevada.
"You still have the tension between the establishment wing and the base wing," said David Damore, a UNLV political science professor. "I don't see it going away anytime soon."
The split pits grassroots activists, who oppose taxes, believe in small government and view compromise on those matters as unacceptable, against more moderate Republicans, who are willing, at times, to make political concessions in the exercise of governing and attracting voters.
At play in the November elections are state constitutional offices, such as lieutenant governor, perhaps two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and control of the Nevada state Senate, where Democrats hold an 11-10 majority.
But the conservative-establishment rift has set up bruising primary battles that will drain money and resources that would otherwise be spent battling Democrats.
"No one's pure," said David McKeon, chairman of the Clark County Republican Party. "My whole theme is: We need to win elections, win majorities and turn Nevada red."
To do it, they'll need to overcome a yearslong disadvantage. Republicans have not led Democrats in registration numbers since 2006, when they held a 7,000 voter advantage. That evaporated in 2008, when Democrats took a lead of more than 100,000. As of March, the Democratic Party's edge was 64,000.
The party also may well battle during the convention over its platform, debating issues such as taxes, primary endorsements, gay marriage and abortion.
Conservatives are expected to take a strong stand. The best way to grow the party, they say, is to support their positions no matter what. "You don't build the party by throwing out your base. If you throw out the tea party, the evangelicals, the Mormons, the Ron Paul-ites, who in the heck is left?" asked Sparks Republican Assemblyman Ira Hansen at the recent Washoe County GOP convention.
Fred Lokken, a political scientist at Truckee Meadows Community College, says the stance shows that "Nevada Republicans are in the game of out-conservating the conservatives."
"A party rises or falls on its ability to maintain dialogue within its structure," he added.
Should the grassroots maintain its non-compromising posture, "we won't have a functioning Republican Party in Nevada for years to come," Lokken said.
The rift goes back to 2008 when supporters of former presidential contender Ron Paul outmaneuvered the establishment and were poised to win delegate slots to the national convention where Sen. John McCain won the party's presidential nomination. The Nevada Party, led at the time by Sue Lowden, a casino owner and former state senator, abruptly shut down the state convention to bitter howls of protest.
The Republican National Committee eventually brokered a compromise just days before the national convention and issued a blistering report condemning the "ineptness" of the state party.
Two years later, the Nevada GOP was humiliated when tea party favorite Sharron Angle won a crowded Republican primary in Nevada's U.S. Senate race only to be openly rejected by the party establishment. Angle was soundly defeated by Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader whose seat was most coveted by Republicans.
Bitterness persisted in 2012, when Paul supporters clinched the majority of Nevada delegates to the national convention despite Mitt Romney's caucus victory. Lacking grassroots favor, the Romney campaign set up a separate fundraising and organizing arm in Nevada, but failed to turn the Silver State red.
Gov. Brian Sandoval, a first-term governor popular with most except the conservative right, tried to exert influence over the party by backing a long-time GOP strategist, Robert Uithoven, for state party chairman last year. Uithoven is a lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands Inc., owned by GOP super-donor Sheldon Adelson. His bid for chairman came as Adelson threatened to withhold support from the state party, saying it wasn't focused on winning elections.
Uithoven lost to incumbent chairman Michael McDonald, a former Las Vegas councilman, who took the party's rein's in 2012 pledging unity.
"The finger-pointing ends today," McDonald said upon his election. "We go forward together as a united voice. We need to heal together today."
But wounds linger.
Resentment among some local party activists was re-ignited this election cycle when Sandoval and other Republican elected officials made early candidate endorsements.
"The body itself felt they were being ignored," McDonald said. "Several people were upset about the kingdom building."
In response, the state party central committee voted to make its own endorsements ahead of the GOP primary June 10, fueling infighting on what it means to be Republican.
"If you support pre-primary endorsements, you support helping elect better Republicans, not just more Republicans," wrote conservative activist Chuck Muth. "If you oppose pre-primary endorsements, you support electing Republicans who stand for nothing, will fall for anything and will vote with Democrats over and over and over again to raise taxes, grow government and spend more money."
Bob List, a former Nevada governor and Republican National Committeeman who lost his political post in the 2012 party takeover by Ron Paul loyalists, disagrees with early party endorsements. "I think it's wrong," he said. "I would hope that they back away from it."
Candidates were invited to seek the party's blessing through a questionnaire that rankled many incumbents, including Sandoval; state Sen. Mark Hutchison, the governor's choice for lieutenant governor; Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson; and Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey.
Ironically, Lowden, who drew fire for the 2008 convention, is seeking the party's nod in her race for lieutenant governor. The legislative leaders, Roberson and Hickey, both face primary challengers running far to their right on tax issues.
The central committee has delayed making endorsements, leaving it an open issue at this weekend's state convention, setting up a likely fight Saturday.
"The mainstream Republicans still seem to be at arms' length from their Republican Party," said Lokken. "And there doesn't seem to be a path out of it."