Las Vegas Sun

June 17, 2019

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State GOP prepares for ideological battle over taxes

Party’s split over fiscal policy is prompting Republicans to gird for primary fights

We must destroy the party in order to save it.

That seems to be the view of Nevada conservatives, who are ready for ideological combat across a series of Republican primaries next year.

Conservative candidates, mostly from the state Assembly, are talking about running in Senate primaries next year against Republican candidates who they consider insufficiently conservative and ideological.

Republican pragmatists, including party and Senate leaders who in some cases hand-picked their own candidates, warn that these primaries will bankrupt and bloody the eventual Republican primary winners, leaving them at a disadvantage against Democrats, who control the Senate and need just two seats to have a two-thirds majority.

But conservatives say it’s time to finally settle the argument about whether a Republican can vote for a tax increase and still be the nominee of his party.

Robert Uithoven, a Republican consultant and a believer in the potency of the anti-tax message, acknowledged that the next cycle could be difficult for Republicans given Democrats’ overwhelming registration advantage and the prospect of competitive Republican primaries.

He said it is time to have the debate, however.

“There’s a battle within the Republican Party that needs to take place,” he said. “If voters put their stamp of approval on Republicans who support higher taxes, people like me can shut up.”

There are hints — if not outright pledges — that conservative Assemblymen Ty Cobb, R-Reno, James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville, Chad Christensen, R-Las Vegas, and Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, will run.

Cobb would face Ben Kieckhefer, who has been a reporter and then a communications aide in state government. Kieckhefer is favored by the seat’s outgoing occupant, moderate state Sen. Randolph Townsend.

Conservative activist Chuck Muth, who is something of a political guru to this right-leaning caucus, said he is interested in finding a candidate to face Assemblyman Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, who has been tapped by the recently retired state Sen. Warren Hardy of Las Vegas as his successor. (Hardy and Hardy are not related.)

Christensen is said to be interested in taking on state Sen. Dennis Nolan of Las Vegas in a primary.

Which way forward?

The ground was seeded for this fight — both here and nationally — during the past two elections, when Republicans were trounced and finger-pointing began.

The battle in Nevada could well be a microcosm of the direction of the national party.

Conservatives, including Uithoven, think Republicans lost because voters became disenchanted with the party for not living up to conservative principles. They think voters eschewed President George W. Bush’s adventurous foreign policy, his handling of the Iraq war and the expansion of federal Medicare and education programs during his tenure.

A group of Republican reformers disagrees. This group, including a small set of Washington intellectuals such as Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, think the conservative message of decades past has lost its relevance and needs updating.

Former Sen. Hardy has said Nevada Republicans must adapt to the new reality — that Nevada is a Democratic state — and need to determine how to appeal to moderate Democrats and nonpartisan voters. Hardy supported the compromise budget package this legislative session that closed a massive budget gap with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. The assemblyman Hardy endorsed to succeed him, Joe Hardy, did not support the package but he did back a smaller hotel room tax hike.

“I think fiscal conservatism is the way to go, and I believe I was a fiscal conservative,” Warren Hardy said. “The choices last session were tough.

“I was not going to be a part of dismantling higher education,” he said, referring to Gov. Jim Gibbons’ proposed 36 percent cut in higher education spending, which legislators rejected by opting for about $1 billion in tax increases instead.

Hardy led a majority of Senate Republicans in supporting the budget compromise after winning concessions including a clause to have the taxes expire after two years, as well as long-term fiscal reforms of public employee retirement and health benefit programs, which will save the state money in future decades.

He said the conservative ideologues are not Republicans, but, rather, libertarians.

“They invoke (President Ronald) Reagan, but Reagan raised taxes because he had to,” Hardy said. “He won the Cold War with massive defense spending.” Reagan is known as a tax cutter, but he raised taxes in 1982 to cut the deficit and in 1983 to save Social Security.

Joe Hardy, who is a family physician, sidestepped the question about any coming internal Republican battle, saying his goal is to lay out a plan to create consumer and business confidence in Nevada.

“If the voters decide I should not be there, I get my life back,” he said with a chuckle.

Cobb, of Reno, said he is strongly considering running for Townsend’s seat against Kieckhefer, who has been tapped by Townsend to be his successor.

Cobb is clear about the issues. “I’m completely confident the race will boil down to taxes and spending,” he said. “There will be a lot of races where the main focus is going to be taxing people more and more.”

He said he assumed Kieckhefer supports higher taxes because he has the backing of Townsend and Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno. “They’re looking for a candidate predisposed to raising taxes,” Cobb said.

Raggio, who has been in the upper chamber for nearly four decades, has been openly contemptuous of Cobb and his ilk.

“The Republican Party is not united,” Raggio said. “It’s having fights among itself, calling each other names. As long as it’s fighting, it’s not a party that is going to win elections.”

Kieckhefer pointed out that Cobb sought the endorsement of Raggio and Townsend in 2005, after both voted to raise taxes during the 2003 session.

“The notion that anyone can guess how I would come down on an issue based on who endorsed me is anti-logic,” Kieckhefer said. He said his supporters “trust me as a person to be who I am, and focus more on policy than politics.” Besides Townsend, Kieckhefer is endorsed by Raggio, Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, and the Republican mayors of Reno, Sparks and Carson City, as well as leading Northern Nevada businessmen.

He backed off any suggestion that he’s part of a larger battle for the heart of the Republican party, but then went ahead and joined the fight: “If the premise is that you can only be a Republican if you swear not to raise taxes ever in your life, even if that means releasing prisoners, letting roads fall into disrepair and closing schools, it’s going to be a small party,” he said.

Principles matter

Each side of the debate claims the mantle of Ronald Reagan, just as Democrats once claimed the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

Raggio has said he represents old-school Reagan Republicanism, including a conviction that once an election is finished, it is time to govern; Reagan cut deals with Democratic Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill when he had to, just as Raggio did with Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas.

“When an election is over, you put your issues together and address the needs of the state,” Raggio said. “That’s what we did last legislative session. We did exactly what we needed to do for the state to provide essential services.”

As for criticism from fellow Republicans, Raggio said, “If you’re just going to say ‘No,’ just going to vote no just to say so, I don’t think you’re fulfilling your oath as a legislator ... I took an oath, ‘So help me God.’ Not, ‘So help me Republican Party’ or anyone else. I took an oath to do what’s right for the state.”

Cobb, who is beloved in conservative circles for being the only “nay” vote in the election of Democrat Barbara Buckley as Assembly speaker in 2007, echoed Uithoven and said the Republican party needs to have this debate.

“Republicans win elections by standing on principle,” he said. “We lost our way on the national scene and to a certain extent on the state level by not being the fiscal conservatives we claimed to be.”

(Polling data tell a different story, with Americans, and especially younger Americans, moving to the left on a range of issues.)

Nathan Taylor, a longtime activist who owns a consulting business and sides with the moderates, said conservatives will destroy the party if they proceed.

Some veterans are less concerned, noting that all the fierce talk about primaries may dissipate once candidates try to raise money and realize there is none in the current economy.

Pete Ernaut, a veteran Republican political consultant, said both parties endure infighting after suffering defeat and being relegated to the minority.

“Parties go through a cannibalistic phase, when the extremes try to take over the middle and fight for the soul of the party,” he said.

“It’s the cycle of politics. The circle of political life.”

Rick Perlstein, who is working on the third volume of his authoritative, three-volume history of the modern conservative movement, agreed in an interview, “When things are bad, there’s a lot of distrust and factionalism.”

Ernaut said the fighting usually ends when a candidate emerges for a higher office whom the factions can rally around.

Previous political battles

Indeed, Democrats went through a long period of senescence after Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and then-President Jimmy Carter engaged in a brutal primary campaign in 1980, with Kennedy representing a liberal coalition and Carter owning the center.

Bill Clinton, a party centrist with keen political skills, managed to unite Democrats in 1992, just as President Barack Obama has now.

Conservatives, however, seem to have a special affinity for taking on the role of the aggrieved minority fixing for a fight — a “martyr complex,” as Perlstein called it.

As Thomas Frank noted in his book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” even when conservatives controlled Congress and the White House and had the support of nearly every major industry in the country, they still acted as if they were under siege from a liberal establishment.

Now, Perlstein said, Republicans face a difficult choice: “Obviously there is a debate to be had about the extent to which forming a crystalline, rock hard, easily identifiable brand identity can help in the longer term,” he said, referring to the call by many conservatives to return to first principles and purge the remaining moderates.

The downside, however: “No party gets elected without a coalition,” Perlstein said.

It is a choice Nevada Republicans might be forced to make next year.

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