LAS VEGAS — In 2010, as the tea party rose to prominence, the movement splintered in Nevada and helped nominate Republican Sharron Angle in one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country.
Angle lost to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D) in the general election. But even after that disappointment, the state’s powerful tea party movement is no more united in this year’s GOP presidential nominating contest.
Just as last time, influential conservative leaders are all over the map. Chuck Muth, a prominent operative, is working for a group that supports former House speaker Newt Gingrich. An army of local tea party activists is supporting Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.). And Angle has endorsed Rick Santorum, former Senator from Pennsylvania.
As a result, Mitt Romney is far ahead in the polls and not nearly as vulnerable as he would be if his opponents were less divided. Within the tea party, there is little support for Romney, the front-runner whose moderate record as Massachusetts governor has fueled an “anyone-but-Romney” movement among some Republicans. But there is also little unity about whom to support in his place.
“The problem in Nevada is that the tea party is completely divided,” Muth said. “It’s the same problem they had in 2010. Some groups supported Sue Lowden. Some supported Danny Tarkanian. There’s just no unified agreement in Nevada that this is the candidate we’re getting behind. Not only are the groups divided, but they’re divided within the groups.”
Gingrich, more than his rivals, arrived in Nevada with hopes of winning the wild card of tea party support. He has been reaching out to the movement since its inception in early 2009, and he performed well among tea partyers in Florida’s primary Tuesday.
But Gingrich has done little to reach out to conservative activists in Nevada. On Wednesday, Laurel Fee and Jeri Taylor-Swade, partners in a group called Tea Party and Republicans Uniting Nevada Conservatives, were at their office in a Las Vegas strip mall. They were trying to get the Gingrich campaign to answer a simple question: Was the candidate coming to visit their offices, or not?
“They have not called us yet,” Taylor-Swade was saying into a phone in the back of their office, talking with a caller who was anxious to know when Gingrich would be there. “I have left a message for them.”
Santorum had visited the day before and made a speech to a few dozen people.
Even without much effort in Nevada, Gingrich has attracted some supporters.
“He knows the issues. He’s got good ideas for the solutions. He can articulate those ideas very clearly,” said Frank Ricotta, a former chairman of the Clark County Republican Party and a Gingrich backer. “Romney, I don’t consider to be a conservative at all. At best, he’s a moderate. . . . I don’t think anybody ever reinvents what’s in their heart.”
Gingrich’s campaign has done very little organizing, but some activists have looked for ways to help him. On Tuesday in Las Vegas, Ronald Solomon was telling a small room full of Gingrich supporters that he has volunteered at phone banks so much that he has made 2,200 phone calls for Gingrich. (That’s fifth in the country, he said.)
Solomon recalled the moment that he decided he had to work against Romney. He was watching Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly interview Romney about tax cuts. Romney defended keeping some taxes, Solomon recalled, because the government needed the revenue. “And in that moment, I realized he was one of them,” Solomon said. “It was like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ ”