Why Nevada Republicans want to imitate Harry Reid

September 24, 2013
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (AP Photo/Kevin Clifford,File) Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (Kevin Clifford/AP,File)

When Nevada Republicans meet on Saturday to elect their executive officers, the state’s two top GOP officeholders will place themselves in the unusual position of opposing the incumbent chairman — all because they want to emulate a model pioneered by Harry Reid.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) and Sen. Dean Heller (R) have both thrown their support to Robert Uithoven, a longtime party operative and consultant based in Reno who is running to chair the state Republican Party. Sandoval and Heller are backing Uithoven over Michael McDonald, a former Las Vegas city council member who currently heads the party.

Their goal, people inside the state GOP establishment say, is to reclaim control of a state party that has been run in recent years by fans of ex-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.).

Several state Republican Parties have undergone fractious contests in recent years as tea party members, Paul devotees and outsiders have challenged entrenched insiders in states ranging from Alaska to Maine, and from Arizona to Indiana. In Iowa and Nevada, where Paul backers took over the state parties, once well-run parties have devolved into disorganization, dysfunction and outright revolt by more established party operatives.

In Nevada, both the state organization and the Clark County party were in such disarray, according to GOP strategists, that the Republican National Committee took the extreme step of funneling its money through the Washoe County GOP, rather than through the state party.

And voter registration statistics show just how badly the Republican Party is falling behind in what is supposed to be a swing state. In 2004, when George W. Bush won the Silver State by fewer than three percentage points, there were 5,000 more registered Republicans than registered Democrats. By 2008, Democrats had built a 109,000-voter edge; Barack Obama won Nevada by 12 points that year.

(Note: Voter registration statistics come from the Secretary of State’s yearly October report, the last report before a general election. The 2013 numbers come from the August report of total voters, the most recent month for which figures are available.)

The Democratic voter registration boom came after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid installed his aides at the Nevada Democratic Party. Reid’s aides have run a sophisticated political operation through the party ever since, and the senator frequently involves himself in races for other offices, in hopes of avoiding complicated Democratic primaries. And it’s helped him, too: In 2010, when Reid narrowly survived the Republican wave that cost so many of his colleagues their seats, Democrats held a 104,000-voter registration edge.

Already, an establishment-backed candidate beat a Paul backer to retake the Clark County GOP. Now, Republicans close to Sandoval and Heller want to do the same thing at the state level.

“This is a clear case of the establishment versus the party crazies,” said Jon Ralston, the Nevada political watcher. Sandoval and Heller, he added, “are following the Reid model.”

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” said one GOP operative rooting for Uithoven.

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.
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