Sunday, July 17, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Neglected for nearly eight years by Nevada’s top Republicans, the state GOP needs a savior.
Depending on who emerges from next year’s primary, it could be the Republican presidential nominee who builds the party infrastructure that has been virtually nonexistent since George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.
Nevada’s top Republicans — Gov. Brian Sandoval, Sen. Dean Heller, former Sen. John Ensign — have proven they can get themselves elected but have shown little interest in the precinct-level organizing key to developing party strength up and down the ticket.
That dynamic might be poised to change. With the budget fight and legislative session behind him, Sandoval has more time to devote to party building — a task he has recently said he will engage in wholeheartedly.
“The Republican Party has to step up, and as the governor and a member of the party, it is incumbent upon me to be part of that effort,” he said. “I will put all my ability to help with that.”
Although Sandoval will play a key role in fundraising for the party, his name won’t be on the ballot next year.
It’s traditionally the top-of-the-ticket candidate who, along with the party when its healthy, drives the statewide organization effort to recruit volunteers, register voters and invest in a network to get them to the polls.
Four years ago, Republicans hung their hopes on Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. But he failed to deliver, moving much of his regional staff out of Las Vegas and virtually giving up on campaigning in the state. (Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Nevada with a majority of the vote since John F. Kennedy in 1960.)
So who’s best positioned to be the Nevada Republican Party’s savior?
It’s difficult to predict who would keep the focus on Nevada enough to heavily invest in the party infrastructure. A simple early interest in the state — which is sure to be a battleground in the general election — doesn’t necessarily mean that focus would carry through a general election campaign. McCain, for example, included Elko on his announcement tour.
But so far, only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has both paid staff in the state and a fairly healthy network that has survived since his 2008 presidential run.
That network was tapped in 2010 to bolster the campaigns of Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., and a bevy of Republican legislative candidates. Many of those lawmakers, as well as Heck, have signed on to endorse Romney.
“I think Romney proves the Nevada Republican Party’s best chance to have a presidential campaign make that a focus in Nevada,” said Grant Hewitt, Heck’s former campaign manager.
Still, the field includes some sleeper candidates.
Rep. Ron Paul’s supporters, who fought for him to the bitter end in 2008, have remained active in party politics, winning seats on county and state central committees. Paul also has a staff member in Nevada.
Herman Cain also has a paid staff member in Nevada and has campaigned here.
Although his primary strategy rests on winning Florida, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has also expressed an early interest in Nevada that could carry into the general election should he win the nomination.
And Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has yet to announce a presidential bid, has reached out to Nevada political operatives in search of a staff.
Other top-tier candidates, including Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have focused on winning Iowa. They’d likely have little time to pivot to Nevada if they win the Hawkeye state.
Still, political operatives agree it will fall to the party to maintain the infrastructure built by a presidential candidate.
They say the best scenario is Sandoval takes the task seriously.