Las Vegas Sun

May 22, 2019

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Activists’ fury steepens grade of Republicans’ climb

Sun Coverage

The forces have almost aligned. Republicans can almost taste it — a rebuilt party that can once again compete with the Democrats.

A popular Republican governor in Carson City. The upper ranks purged of the scandal-ridden. A Democratic president with job-approval problems. And a raucous GOP presidential primary with the potential to invigorate the base.

All Republicans have to do now is, well, act like Democrats.

But — and perhaps this is an obvious point — Republicans are not like the Democrats.

That fact came into sharp relief last week when party activists convinced GOP leadership to reverse its decision to allow same-day voter registration for its presidential caucuses.

Letting voters register Republican on the same day they participate in the caucuses is straight out of the Democrats’ playbook that yielded them the presidency, the Senate majority leader and control of the state Senate in recent years.

Republican leaders have been doing their best to mimic the Democrats’ use of the 2008 caucuses to build the party into a formidable campaign machine.

On caucus day 2008, Democrats registered about 30,000 new voters who were drawn to the excitement of the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

As Republicans work to organize their upcoming caucuses, the advice has been: Do what the Democrats did.

But among Republican activists — who hold sway over the party organization and are adept at being the squeaky wheel — the term “same-day registration” is verboten. For them, it conjures images of voter fraud — out-of-state or even foreign impostors stealing elections.

GOP Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian and other executive committee members were inundated with angry emails and phone calls. Conservative operative Chuck Muth took up the anti-same-day registration mantle.

Soon, the executive committee reversed itself, voting to submit rules to the RNC to disallow same-day registration. The party central committee will vote next month on whether to seek an amendment to reverse that rule.

“There is genuine disagreement within the party,” said Mike Slanker, a Republican operative who is helping the GOP raise money for the caucuses. “Is it a make-or-break deal? Probably not. Is it a good idea? Sure. But there are those who are concerned about the long-term implications.”

Slanker, also an adviser to Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller, is among the cadre of professional political consultants who support the move. Those consultants, however, are often at odds with the activist wing of the party.

Sandoval and Heller have voiced support for same-day registration. They note that caucuses are not government-run elections; they are party-run activities to select a nominee.

Slanker acknowledged the distinction may be lost on some.

Iowa Republicans have allowed same-day registration since the state Legislature allowed Election Day registration in 2007.

“You’re going to get quibbles,” Iowa Republican Party spokesman Ryan Gough said. “But we haven’t had any problems. We have pretty safe elections here.”

A Republican National Committee spokesman said the party won’t know if other states will allow same-day registration until all of their rules have been submitted. The national party hasn’t taken a position on the practice.

Still, the urgency remains for Nevada Republicans to boost their numbers. Democrats have maintained a voter-registration edge since 2008. The GOP hasn’t had the organization or funding to compete.

That makes same-day registration all the more important.

“If we had a voter registration operation under way, this would be a completely moot point,” one Republican strategist said. “But as it is, it’s the only available vehicle to register voters. That has some people supporting it who maybe wouldn’t otherwise. It’s a reflection of the lack of a substantive plan.”

Indeed, if Republicans truly were copying Democrats, they would have already been increasing their numbers. Democrats ran a registration campaign for months before the caucuses.

Perhaps more importantly, the campaigns themselves drove much of the registration efforts. And so far at least, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry haven’t been running at near the level Obama and Clinton did four years ago.

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