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October 23, 2017

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Emerging GOP primary fights belie effort to organize the party



Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval delivers the State of the State address at the Legislature in Carson City, Nev., on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013.

Wrestling a political party into shape ain’t easy, apparently.

After a couple years of watching the dysfunction of the Nevada Republican Party apparatus mostly from afar, Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller have begun an attempt to remake it into an organized machine that can earn the trust of donors and elected officials alike.

They chalked up one small win in that effort: establishment-backed Dave McKeon ousted Chairwoman Cindy Lake from the Clark County GOP this year. But the state’s two top Republicans went on to lose a bid to install a new chairman of the state party.

Perhaps more problematic for the party, however, is the number of Republican primary contests developing in key races throughout the state.

Part of the Nevada Democratic Party’s success is that, under the patronage of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, it has largely been able to avoid damaging primary races pitting two strong Democrats against each other.

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One way Rebecca Lambe helped rebuild the state Democratic Party after 2002 was to get Democrats to run for local offices, which she saw as steppingstones to future state races.

In the Democratic Party, potential candidates often refer to “the call from Rebecca” — the moment when Reid operative Rebecca Lambe signals whether the party machine will be behind the candidate or delivering the message that it’s a no-go.

More often than not, the potential candidate listens — as there is either a carrot or a stick behind the demand to stay out of the race. Sometimes the carrot is a promise to clear the field for a future race; often the stick is a promise to make the campaign as difficult as possible for the candidate.

For instance, in the 2012 U.S. Senate race, Democrat Byron Georgiou ignored the call and tried to launch a primary campaign against former Rep. Shelley Berkley. Georgiou ran full-throttle into the stick of Reid’s opposition research machine and his candidacy didn’t last long.

Republicans have no one like Lambe, a fact that is often lamented by some GOP operatives.

Still, in the run-up to the 2014 election, Sandoval and Heller are making an effort to clear the field for the Republican candidates they consider the strongest.

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Senator Mark Hutchison of the 77th (2013) Nevada Senatorial District.

Most notably, Sandoval and Heller have thrown their support to lieutenant governor hopeful Mark Hutchison, a scrappy state senator seen as a competent successor to Sandoval should the governor choose to leave office mid-term.

Sandoval has also voiced his priority of helping Republicans take over the state Senate. To do that, the party would have to win three races in competitive districts where voter registration is essentially even. That can be more difficult in the aftermath of a primary fight.

But on both counts, the Republican establishment has been unable to prevent primary contests from developing.

Former state Sen. Sue Lowden is running against Hutchison in the lieutenant governor’s race.

• Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson has pulled a primary challenger from the ranks of the Ron Paul Republicans — information technology manager Carl Bunce.

• Senate Republicans have backed lawyer Becky Harris to take on Democrat incumbent Sen. Justin Jones, but Republican physician Vick Gill also wants in the race.

“The downside is it has the potential to divide voters, the potential to expend resources that could be utilized to win a general election, and, probably the most significant piece, is that you can end up with candidates who appeal to a very small portion of the electorate and who may not have the ability to appeal to a much broader cross section of voters,” said Ryan Erwin, a Republican consultant based in Las Vegas, on the downside of primaries.

Erwin grudgingly admitted there’s a benefit to Democrats’ ability to avoid primary fights.

“When you look at Democrats as a whole, candidly, they’ve been a lot more successful since they came under Harry Reid’s thumb than they were prior to that,” Erwin said.

Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant and adviser to Sandoval, said it’s still early enough that some of those primary challengers may end up deciding against the race. Candidate filing is in March.

But he acknowledged that may be wishful thinking.

“For Republicans, it’s been more tradition that they don’t get involved in a lot of primary races,” Ferraro said. “But I don’t think we’ll see a lot of that going forward.”

It may not be all bad news for Republicans, however. Primary fights sometimes can produce a candidate battle-tested enough to be successful in the general election.

And the downside for “establishment” Republicans who try to organize the party is they run the risk of alienating segments of their fractured base.

Just as members of the Nevada Republican Central Committee bristled at Sandoval’s candidate for chairman, they may bristle at his “meddling” in primary races.

“They are people who are idealists, they are purists when it comes to their ideology, so they are looking at it from an entirely different position,” said Grant Hewitt, a Las Vegas based Republican consultant.

Erwin echoed the point.

“A lot of people complain that Republicans don’t have a Harry Reid to bring discipline, but then you get complaints when a little bit of discipline is brought,” Erwin said. “So you can’t win on that.”

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