Tuesday, May 3, 2016 | 2 a.m.
A group of Republican congressional hopefuls found themselves and their policies on the menu last week at a golf club restaurant in Henderson — at least figuratively speaking.
The issue is that Republicans’ appetites have been increasingly hard to guess during this election year.
In the same hour, the Republican candidates running to represent Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District paid homage to Ronald Reagan, a paragon of 20th century Republicanism, while pledging to support the eventual Republican nominee — even though some conservatives consider front-runner Donald Trump anathema to the Republican Party. He bucks traditional Republican dogma, railing against free trade one day and supporting the rights of transgender people to use whichever bathrooms they prefer. He also has no prior political experience.
The schism the party is feeling keenly on a national level may have implications for races here in Nevada, from this congressional primary down through many of the Republican primaries in the state’s legislative races.
One of the congressional candidates, in his closing remarks to the Southern Hills Republican Women last week, declared that the primary race would “determine the direction the Republican Party is going to go in.”
“You can go down one path, or you can go down the other path,” he told the crowd.
That candidate was Danny Tarkanian, businessman, philanthropist, and son of the beloved, late UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. He is the outsider candidate in the race, up against Michael Roberson, a lawyer, two-term state senator, and the majority leader of his party in the state Senate.
Tarkanian’s challenge is to overcome his lack of political experience. He ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2004, for secretary of state in 2006, and for the U.S. Senate in 2010. He successfully won the Republican primary in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District in 2012, but lost to Democrat Steven Horsford. (He also briefly threw his hat in the ring for the Board of Regents before withdrawing last year.)
But if it is truly an outsider’s year — as some are suggesting due to Trump’s popularity — 2016 could have a different outcome for Tarkanian.
“(Voters) are upset at the establishment politicians who haven’t been honest to them,” Tarkanian said in an interview. “The fact is that I’m running against the guy who is the poster boy of the establishment.”
Similarly, Roberson’s biggest strength also is his greatest weakness. His record lends him credibility while also painting targets on his back, depending on who’s judging. Arguably the biggest of the targets is the role he played in getting Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $1.5 billion package of new and extended taxes through the state Legislature last spring, a move that infuriated some of the state’s most conservative of conservatives.
“You want people in office who are going to make tough decisions. The tough decisions might not be the most politically popular, so you’re going to take the heat,” Roberson said in an interview. “I’m the only one in this race who has had to make tough decisions throughout my career in office.”
• • •
Roberson and Tarkanian are in a field of seven candidates, but those two are considered the front-runners in the Republican primary to replace Republican Rep. Joe Heck, who is running for U.S. Senate. The National Republican Campaign Committee has included both Roberson and Tarkanian in its “Young Guns” program, which essentially means the candidates are both on track in terms of fundraising and organization needed to get their message out to voters.
Political observers say it would likely take a donation of several hundred thousand dollars from an outside group to propel one of the other five candidates into the running against Roberson and Tarkanian. Those candidates are Air Force veteran Kerry Bowers, state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, businessman Sami Khal, former conservative think tank president Andy Matthews and physician Annette Teijeiro.
The district, which covers Summerlin, Henderson and the southern portion of unincorporated Clark County, has been represented by a Republican for every term except one since it was created in 2003. But voters in the district narrowly voted for President Barack Obama during his re-election campaign in 2012. As of April, Democrats had a little over 4,000-person voter registration advantage in the district.
The race has consisted of pitches to local conservative groups, scathing missives sent out by the campaigns attacking each other and a dash of advertising. But the real battle is expected to heat up in the next couple of weeks before early voting begins on May 28 and ahead of the June 14 primary election day.
And it’s a battle shaping up over what kind of conservative voters want.
“In this kind of topsy-turvy political climate, do Republicans in CD3 want somebody who has experience in the legislative process and understands how to get things done, or do they want someone who has never been elected and who comes to it with a very different set of experiences?” said Republican consultant and lobbyist Greg Ferraro.
Roberson frequently refers to himself as “the most accomplished conservative” while Tarkanian describes himself “a conservative working for the people — not the politicians.”
But both of those characterizations speak more to the candidates’ backgrounds than to their brand of conservatism.
Tarkanian couches himself as a Constitution-following, Ronald Reagan-loving conservative, but doesn’t consider himself “extreme.” He says he doesn’t, for instance, carry a copy of the Constitution around in his back pocket. He also thinks there should be more focus on national security and the economy than on social issues. “Some are far more to the right than I am,” Tarkanian said. “I think my positions are pretty basic and common sense.”
Tarkanian eschews the Tea Party moniker, though he has said in past campaigns that he supports the values of the Tea Party movement, including reducing the role of the federal government and limiting government spending.
It’s a sore spot for the candidate, whose 2010 U.S. Senate primary loss to Sharron Angle came after the Tea Party Express, one of the organized arms of the grassroots movement, pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Angle’s campaign.
While the Tea Party has earned a reputation for obstructionism, Tarkanian said he wanted to negotiate for Nevadans on such issues as national security, an overhaul of the tax system and limiting government regulation.
“I’m not the kind of guy that’s going to say, ‘If we can’t get exactly everything conservatives want, we’re not going to pass anything,’” Tarkanian said. “We’re going to fight and get the best deal possible and hopefully it will be favorable.”
Roberson characterizes himself as both conservative and pragmatic, pointing to such legislative accomplishments as reforms in collective bargaining, education and entitlement. He also noted the 78 percent lifetime score he received from the American Conservative Union last year — higher than the 65 percent score the incumbent Heck received in 2014.
“I’d like to think my record reflects someone who’s been pragmatic and thoughtful, someone who’s exhibited leadership which has, I hope and I believe, resulted in a better Nevada,” Roberson said.
• • •
The insider vs. outsider fight has also been evident in the barbs the campaigns have traded against one another. Tarkanian's campaign has zeroed in on Roberson’s legislative record and picked apart his votes, while Roberson’s campaign sought to discredit Tarkanian by picking apart his business history and highlighting lawsuits against him.
Tarkanian is counting on some of the anger with the Republican establishment seen in the presidential race to carry over to the congressional primary — and for voters to consider Roberson a part of that establishment.
“That’s why you see a guy like Donald Trump in first place,” Tarkanian said. “Why is he so popular? People are tired of politicians that lie to them. Roberson is a poster boy of that person. He is exactly the kind of person that the voters are so frustrated with and upset about.”
If Republican voters are upset with what happened last session in Carson City, that may bode well for a candidate like Tarkanian, said Robert Uithoven, a Republican campaign strategist who ran Sue Lowden’s campaign against Tarkanian for U.S. Senate in 2010.
“If they have a job, a roof over their head, believe their kids are getting an adequate or better education, it would tend to fare better for Michael Roberson,” Uithoven said. “If there’s a true disdain for what happened in the Legislature and people are feeling insecure about the future, that would tend to support a challenger, somebody like a Danny Tarkanian.”
Tarkanian’s campaign has focused on Roberson’s record, notably in shepherding Sandoval’s omnibus tax plan through the Legislature. Roberson and other proponents of the tax increase, hailed as the state’s largest ever, say it had to be done in order to bolster funding for Nevada’s K-12 schools.
Roberson signed an anti-tax pledge in 2010 when he was first running for office, but later repudiated it as a “special interest” pledge.
“After being in the Legislature and serving on the finance committee, you learn a lot about the budget and the needs that Nevada has,” Roberson said. “I was there. I served for the last six years. I knew we needed to invest more money in education.”
Chuck Muth, a GOP consultant whose group Citizen Outreach backs the anti-tax pledge in Nevada, hopes the tax issue is a stumbling block for Roberson, specifically with the more informed voters who participate in the Republican primary.
“Your average Republican primary voter pays a lot more attention to these issues and is aware of this,” Muth said. “When I talk to other Assembly candidates who are walking door to door and talking about their opponents who also voted to raise takes, they’re telling me that the people at the door know about it, and they’re furious.”
But Roberson has a second line of defense when it comes to the tax increase: the governor.
He compared attacks on his legislative record as tantamount to attacks on Sandoval, who is among the most popular governors in the country and continues to enjoy high approval ratings, in the mid- to high-60s.
“What they’re really doing is they’re attacking Brian Sandoval. His record and my record are the same,” Roberson said. “If they think they can be successful attacking the most successful governor in the history of this state, good luck to them.”
Minutes after Roberson announced his candidacy in a tweet in early July, Sandoval tweeted his support for Roberson, calling him a “proven leader” who had fought for education, jobs, and a “strong Nevada.” Sandoval makes a cameo in Roberson’s first television ad.
Even Tarkanian knows the governor may make the tax increase more palatable even to those who oppose it.
“Gov. Sandoval is a very likable person, and people like him. When he talks positively about the need for the tax plan, it helps,” Tarkanian said. “The fact that he’s helping Roberson, will that help him? Sure.”
Roberson also added that the federal government was in a “vastly different situation” than Nevada and that he supported tax cuts to make U.S. businesses more competitive across the globe.
But taxes aren’t the only part of Roberson’s record that Tarkanian’s campaign has focused on: They’ve also targeted immigration, Common Core and legislative transparency.
For instance, the campaign highlighted a bill that Roberson and other legislators passed on the last day of the legislative session, clarifying a law that grants legislators immunity from public records requests. In a radio ad, the campaign called Roberson a “Hillary Clinton protege” after its records request was denied by the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s legal team.
Roberson said the bill “essentially restated existing law” and that Tarkanian was just trying to “muddy the waters” in bringing up the issue. But he agreed that the next Legislature should revisit the issue. “I think that merits a fuller discussion next session,” Roberson said. “If I’m in the Legislature next session, I will certainly participate in that discussion.”
At the same time, Roberson’s campaign has sent out a series of memos to the media, a couple of them highlighting allegations made by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in the wake of a failed real estate deal that resulted in a $17 million judgment against Tarkanian and several of his family members.
Among the allegations, the FDIC accused Tarkanian of making “materially false statements and representations” in securing a loan he later defaulted on, having “questionable recordkeeping” practices, and moving around assets “with the intent to defraud, hinder, or delay” paying his creditors. The allegations were dismissed when Tarkanian settled with the FDIC in 2015 for a little over $500,000.
Years later, Tarkanian describes the real estate deal as a “bad investment with a guy that stole money from us, left us holding the bag, and we paid the price.” (Tarkanian ended up filing bankruptcy last year.) He also called the FDIC’s allegations “ridiculous” saying it had no factual basis and were designed to run up attorney’s fees.
“People that have lived through the Great Recession here in Las Vegas understand how difficult it was for all of us during that time,” Tarkanian said. “When you’re in private business, you have good times and you have bad times … Well, you know there’s time that you have a downfall and you pay a price for it.”
The campaign also highlighted a malpractice lawsuit against Tarkanian, which eventually was settled by his insurance company for about $35,000.
Roberson’s campaign also paid for a series of online ads highlighting an “F” rating that Tarkanian received from the NRA during his 2006 campaign for secretary of state after he was endorsed by the gun violence prevention organization the Brady Campaign. Tarkanian said someone on his campaign applied for the endorsement without Tarkanian’s knowledge and that when he found out about it, he immediately repudiated it.
• • •
How the next few weeks play out will largely depend on how well the candidates are able to get their messages out to voters: both on the airwaves and through door knocking.
“We are now at the moment where campaigns, if they haven’t already, will be spending all their money and putting out all their best messages,” Ferraro said. “We’re on the threshold of them defining themselves and defining the opponent.”
That’s why Roberson’s and Tarkanian’s fundraising war chests are consequential: Roberson ended the last quarter with $685,000 in the bank to Tarkanian’s $555,000. (Tarkanian has said that the campaigns are “virtually tied” in cash on hand, if money that can only be spent in the general election is subtracted out.)
But experts say there’s still room for a third candidate to break through at the last moment, especially if third-party funding comes through, like what happened with Angle in her Senate race in 2010 to defeat both Tarkanian and Lowden.
“Given the money that both have raised and are able to spend is close, seeing how they’re both trying to distinguish themselves — far more than Danny was able to in 2010 — provides a new dynamic to this race,” Uithoven said. “It will really come down to each candidate’s ability to turn out their voters.”