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Gov. Brian Sandoval and other senior Nevada Republicans are directing a wholesale overhaul of the state party as the GOP moves to organize an advanced voter-turnout operation capable of reclaiming the Silver State from President Barack Obama in 2012.
That effort begins with preparation for Nevada’s Feb. 18, 2012, Republican presidential nominating caucuses, with the first test coming in late October, when the state GOP will host the Western Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas. High-ranking Nevada Republicans are pushing the state party to mimic state Democrats and adopt same-day voter registration for the caucuses, and they view the WRLC as a trial run for its ground-game operation.
“I believe that Republicans have a lot of momentum,” Sandoval told Roll Call in a telephone interview from Carson City. “We all agree that it’s incredibly important that Republicans in Nevada do well in terms of showing that they can match or exceed what the Democrats have done in the past. It’s self-evident that it is going to be an extremely hard-fought campaign.”
Nevada Republicans were outhustled at all levels in 2008, when the Democrats carried the state for the first time since 1996. Democrats repeated the feat in 2010, when — despite some success on the midterm ballot for the GOP — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid overcame long odds to win re-election.
In the other marquee race this cycle, Rep. Dean Heller (R) is hoping to benefit in his run for the open Senate seat.
Obama won Nevada with 55 percent of the vote in 2008, topping the 2004 performance of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by 7 points, improving on President George W. Bush’s total by 5 and beating President Bill Clinton’s 1996 finish by 11. Last November, Sandoval won in a landslide, and now-Rep. Joe Heck (R) narrowly ousted then-Rep. Dina Titus (D). But Reid won with 50.3 percent, which Republicans attribute to a superior ground game and a better-functioning state party.
Nevada Republicans say they have made strides toward being competitive in 2012. Compared with spring 2007, when the party had only a few thousand dollars in its federal account — and the aftermath of the 2008 elections, when it employed just two clerical workers — the organization currently features five full-time political staff and has $335,000 in the bank to use for federal activities. But Sandoval and others say their party’s resurgence begins with the presidential caucuses.
Nevada Republicans only began planning for the 2008 caucuses in October 2007. Preparation for the 2012 caucuses began in 2010. To encourage the full field of GOP presidential candidates to turn Nevada into a regular early-state campaign stop on par with Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire and South Carolina — and generate the grass-roots enthusiasm that could follow — the rules have been changed from the 2008 winner-take-all system to the proportional awarding of delegates.
Heller said that whether the state GOP would be stronger in 2012 was a part of his calculus in deciding whether to run for Senate. Given what is expected to be a muscular and technologically advanced Obama ground game — the president announced for re-election Monday with a video that featured a Nevada family — Heller wanted to know that his campaign would have support. The Reno-area Congressman’s optimism is based partly on his expectation for a successful caucus.
“The most important thing is, we’ve already started. We didn’t get started very early last time,” said Heller, the former three-term Nevada secretary of state who is seeking the seat being vacated by scandal-plagued Sen. John Ensign (R). “If we do all the right things, I think we’ll see a very good turnout.”
Ed Espinoza, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic operative with extensive Nevada experience, argued that the Republican effort would face numerous obstacles and that success could prove elusive.
“Nevada is an incredibly difficult state to organize in. If you haven’t been successful before, the learning curve you’re going to have in 2012 is going to be quite steep,” said Espinoza, who ran Bill Richardson’s Nevada caucuses campaign in 2008 and directed Reid’s Latino outreach program in 2010. “The machine that Democrats have built wasn’t built overnight. It was built over many years with the best political operatives in America.”
The Obama team believes it will win Nevada again in 2012, thanks in part to its work with Hispanic voters.
But Sandoval, having already been visited by three likely GOP presidential candidates — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and 2008 caucuses winner and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — believes that the strategy of using the caucuses to generate attention from White House hopefuls is already working. Still unclear is whether the format will engender the enthusiasm and volunteer get-out-the-vote army needed to beat Obama and whip up a downballot tail wind.
The Western Republican Leadership Conference, which has received the blessing of the Republican National Committee, is viewed as a key component of the Nevada GOP’s plans to transform its caucuses in an effort to make the state more prominent and to gather a grass-roots army for the 2012 campaign. Though attributed partly to Bush fatigue, in 2008 more than 100,000 Nevadans participated in the Democratic presidential caucuses, compared with 44,324 who attended the Republican caucuses.
The presidential candidates will be invited to speak at the WRLC, and Nevada Republicans also hope to host a televised debate. The state party plans to use the conference to gauge the enthusiasm of its activist base and test its voter-turnout abilities by seeing how many attendees it can draw. The event will feature seminars on how the caucus works, offer classes on political organizing and contribute to the party’s major priority of registering voters.
“We’ve had a major disadvantage when it comes to voter registration,” said Cory Adair, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party who arrived from Mississippi in March 2010. “Our focus in 2012 is going to be on creating opportunities to close the gap.”
Planning is under way to compete with the Democratic political machine. Senior Nevada Republicans say their goal is to improve the sophistication and effectiveness of the state GOP’s ground operations, with a new focus on door-knocking over phone calls, better penetration in GOP-leaning communities and enhanced micro-targeting.
The key, argue some Nevada Republicans, is Sandoval’s interest in accomplishing this and the leadership that he has exhibited in just a few months in office. The fact the GOP was purged of its scandal-tainted members — Ensign and former Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons — helps as well. Gibbons ignored the state GOP, and it atrophied under his watch.
National and state Republicans had been hoping Heller would be their Senate candidate. He is close with Sandoval — a popular Latino conservative who has a good relationship with tea party activists and has prioritized helping his party succeed politically. Sandoval was the top vote-getter on the 2010 ballot, even carrying Democratic-leaning Clark County, which includes Las Vegas.
“Sandoval changes the game completely,” said strategist Mike Slanker, a top political adviser to both the governor and Heller. “He understands that he has to be a player in this and provides a new brand of leadership.”