Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012 | 2 a.m.
If Mitt Romney has any hope of beating President Barack Obama, Nevada is the kind of state he needs to pull into his column.
Several factors make it a ripe pickoff target: The economy has been decimated by the housing crisis; the influx of largely politically unaffiliated residents; and the Republican Party has spent big to organize. The state also has a significant Mormon population.
Yet, recent polling in the state shows Romney still neck and neck with Obama, mirroring the GOP nominee’s struggle to overtake the president nationwide.
If Romney can’t put the state away soon, he’ll have to keep devoting money and time here — the two resources he also needs for larger, higher-stakes swing states such as Virginia and Florida.
Despite all the reasons Nevada should be a winner for Romney, the state also has a large Hispanic population hostile to his anti-immigration stands, an active union political base of well-organized casino workers, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s political machine, all mobilized to help Obama.
Democrats hold the edge on voter registration in the state: 463,000 active voters versus about 407,500 for Republicans. That gap has been growing again after the GOP succeeded in trimming what was once a 100,000-voter Democratic advantage four years ago.
Nevada political columnist Jon Ralston said the Republicans’ attempt to slim the Democratic advantage in voter registration and organization has been “a joke.”
“They’re getting out-registered by the Democrats every month,” Ralston said. “They have no clue what they’re doing. Republicans are trying to erect overnight something that needs a lot of structure and needs to be built up over time.”
Both campaigns are playing hard in the state.
Romney has traveled to Nevada for 24 events over 16 days since February 2011 — including last week on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to address the annual conference of the National Guard Association in the politically crucial Reno area.
Obama has traveled to Nevada 14 times as president, including seven times for four political events and six official events this year. He was in Las Vegas on Wednesday.
The conservative group Crossroads GPS is weighing in, as well, with a $1.4 million ad campaign, seizing on a 2010 speech during which Obama told a New Hampshire crowd that “you don’t blow a bunch of cash in Vegas when you’re trying to save for college.”
The race looks nothing like a repeat of Obama’s easy win in Nevada in 2008, when he beat Sen. John McCain 55 percent to 43 percent.
Obama supporter and veteran Nevada political operative Billy Vassiliadis said Democrats have reason to be concerned “given the struggle and trauma that Nevada has been through the last five, six years with this economy.”
“We’ve got a very unsettled and very concerned electorate,” said Vassiliadis, head of Nevada’s biggest advertising firm and a member of Obama’s Nevada steering committee who often is described as one of the most powerful unelected political figures in the state. “And that is something that causes obvious concern to the presidential campaign” and that of any incumbent.
Meanwhile, Republicans focused on taking on the Reid political machine have spent the past several years building their organizational strength.
They’ve also worked to overcome a heavily fractured state Republican Party, which in the past year has suffered a nasty split between mainstream GOP forces and Ron Paul supporters. That has forced the creation of an alternative Team Nevada structure, with GOP strategists Ryan Erwin and Mike Slanker and Romney’s Nevada campaign manager, Chris Carr, taking the lead.
“It’s bigger and badder than anything we’ve put in Nevada before,” said Slanker, a top strategist to Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller.
“The candidates get along, genuinely like each other, are willing to work together and help each other and understand are in many ways tied to each other,” said Erwin, who is Romney’s top Nevada strategist and an adviser to Rep. Joe Heck and other prominent Republicans in the state. “This is by far, without reservation, the most organized Republicans have been since 2004 and maybe more so than 2004.”
In polls, Obama’s lead over Romney in the state has slimmed to within the margin of error. A survey released last month by the Las Vegas Review-Journal showed Obama edging Romney 47 percent to 45 percent, the closest Romney has been since an NBC News poll in May. Another by Public Policy Polling had Obama leading by 3 points.
Still, Vassiliadis is optimistic for Democrats’ chances.
“Nevada has been fairly cyclical on who’s ruling the roost,” he said. “When is that cycle up again? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s this time.”
In seeking to retake the state, Nevada Republicans aren’t exactly trying to do the impossible.
Republicans hold the offices of governor and lieutenant governor, along with one of Nevada’s U.S. Senate seats and two of the three House seats.
The state’s unemployment rate — the highest in the nation outside of Puerto Rico — is a major problem, particularly in an industry dominated by service employees who often need to work multiple jobs. None of that sits well with a Hispanic community that came out strong for Obama four years ago and helped Reid’s 2010 re-election effort.
“I do believe that there is not the same enthusiasm that used to be four years ago for Obama,” said Otto Merida, a longtime leader in the Southern Nevada Hispanic community. He’s a Republican who voted for McCain in 2008 but supported Reid two years ago and backs Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in her challenge to Heller.
Merida said the conventional wisdom is that Obama’s popularity in the state will help Berkley’s chances. “But I think it will be the other way around,” he said. “If I’m voting for her, people are also voting for Obama.”
Merida represents both the unpredictability of Nevada voters — who often cross party lines — and their sense of loyalty to politicians who have been there for them often for many years.
Nevada was one of only five states where voters elected a Democratic governor and U.S. senator during the Newt Gingrich-led GOP revolution of 1994. It was also the only state to elect a Republican in an open-seat Senate race during the post-Watergate 1974 election, when Paul Laxalt beat Reid by 624 votes.
Nevada’s population is also largely transient, both enabling and challenging political teams to identify a host of new voters this cycle.
All that leaves some Republicans optimistic.
“Is there a lot of work to do? Yes,” former Republican Nevada Rep. Jon Porter said in August. “I think that Republicans have plenty of time to catch up if they choose to do so.”
Porter pointed to the Strip and the valley beyond from the top floor of Mandalay Bay. “I mean, looking out over the valley, we grew a million people in 10, 15 years?” he told Politico. “A lot of untapped potential.”
Porter — who lost his re-election bid in the politically swing Las Vegas suburbs in 2008 — acknowledged that Democrats then “certainly outmaneuvered us in registration.”
Another potential challenge for Democrats is that there may not be the same number of union boots on the ground this time.
One of the state’s leading unions — representing culinary workers — has been wrapped up in contract negotiations and a fight with one of the state’s largest casino companies. That struggle is sapping attention away from helping Obama, Berkley and other Democrats.
“We can’t do political work in the way we’ve done in the past,” said Yvanna Cancela, political director of Culinary Workers Union Local 226. Four years ago, this local chapter of the Unite Here labor movement had about 100 volunteers knocking on doors and helping to register voters in Southern Nevada from Labor Day to Election Day to help Obama. It fielded about 80 volunteers to help Reid in 2010.
If the union is unable to do so again this year, “it would certainty change the field landscape compared to the previous two cycles,” Cancela said.
But other unions say they are trying to more than make up the difference.
“We’ve hit the ground running,” Danny Thompson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada chapter of the AFL-CIO, said in August. Volunteers have registered more than 6,000 people statewide, according to labor officials.
Despite the favorable winds, it won’t be easy for Republicans to close the significant voter registration and organizational gap that Democrats have built here.
“We are the underdog,” Erwin said. “The truth is anybody who thinks that the Republican Party in Nevada is as organized as the Democrats doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And anybody that thinks that the Republicans aren’t more organized than we’ve been in the last decade doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
On voter registration, “we are not where we need to be yet,” Erwin conceded at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. “But the progress is there, the movements are there. There is a legitimate energy that’s coming together.”
Democrats didn’t always have the advantage here. Nevada Democrats got thrashed in the 2002 cycle, losing nearly every significant race.
“The modern history of the Democratic Party here was launched in 2003 by Harry Reid,” Vassiliadis said. “After 2002, Reid made the decision just not to continue like this.”
Vassiliadis said Reid and other Democratic leaders did what they set out to accomplish, and then some.
Now Republicans are looking to return the favor and use what Democrats did as a model.