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Republicans' Fortunes Falling in Nevada

State Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, left, waits for election results with campaign adviser Greg Ferraro in a Reno hotel on Tuesday. The veteran Republican lawmaker beat back his first serious challenge since his initial race in 1972.
State Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, left, waits for election results with campaign adviser Greg Ferraro in a Reno hotel on Tuesday. The veteran Republican lawmaker beat back his first serious challenge since his initial race in 1972. (By David B. Parker -- Reno Gazette-journal Via Associated Press)

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By Steve Friess
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 14, 2008

LAS VEGAS -- The scandal-plagued Republican governor is so politically toxic that few of his party's prominent candidates will be seen with him. The GOP's most powerful state senator survived a tough primary after 36 years of never even facing a credible opponent. And the party may quickly be losing its grip on a state that could be critical to the outcome of the presidential election.

If Republicans are hurting nationally this election year, there may be few places where the pain is quite as acute, or has arrived as quickly, as Nevada, where a confluence of problems has left a once-potent state party in tatters. Just two years ago, Republicans occupied all six statewide constitutional offices. Today, they hold only the posts of governor and lieutenant governor.

Democrats now enjoy a 60,000-voter registration edge in a state where the parties were virtually tied a year ago. The state GOP raised less than one-third of the $1.3 million the Nevada Democratic Party's central committee took in during the first half of 2008. And the Republicans who hold two of the state's three U.S. House seats are in danger of losing them.

A Republican primary race between the state Senate majority leader, Bill Raggio, and a former assemblywoman was emblematic of the trend. Raggio, 81, won a six-point victory on Tuesday after being forced to campaign actively for the first time since his initial race in 1972. His opponent is a hero of Nevada's hard-core fiscal and social conservatives angered by Raggio's compromises on such things as a large 2003 tax increase.

"Obviously there has been creeping disunity within the party," Raggio said. "I have not had a very serious, tough election up until this primary."

Former governor Kenny Guinn and Reno Mayor Bob Cashell walked Raggio's district with him earlier this month but the current governor, Jim Gibbons, did not.

Nor, say several prominent Republicans, have many GOP candidates asked for Gibbons's help, preferring to avoid association with the former five-term congressman, who is the subject of an unceasing barrage of negative publicity.

The Republican chief executive's troubles began in 2006 when a cocktail waitress accused him of assaulting her in a parking lot after a night of drinking three weeks before Election Day. Surveillance video cast doubt on the accuser's claim and no charges were filed, but the flap turned an expected Gibbons walkover into a squeaker.

Then came reports in the Wall Street Journal that the FBI was investigating Gibbons and his wife, Dawn, in a public corruption probe

This year, Gibbons has been mired in controversy over allegations by his now-estranged wife that he has had an affair, and revelations that he sent a married woman 850 text messages in one month on his official cellphone. The Gibbonses are divorcing, but Dawn Gibbons refused to move out of the governor's mansion in Carson City for two months, a further embarrassment. And last month Elko County Assessor Joe Aguirre, a Republican, went public with accusations that the governor pressured him for a property tax break on 40 vacant acres Gibbons owns there.

Gibbons has become so politically isolated that Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign turned to Lt. Gov. Brian K. Krolicki rather than to the governor to chair the Republican candidate's Nevada effort.

"I don't know if the problems in the [Gibbons] administration drag the ticket down rather than that it's a loss of the opportunity to lift the ticket up," said Pete Ernaut, a veteran GOP activist and Guinn strategist who predicted that Gibbons will face a primary challenge in 2010. "I don't think the governor's numbers have negative coattails, but it's the loss of the opportunity to be able to stand next to the governor."


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