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GOP Woe: What's Wrong With Nevada?

It wasn't too long ago that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seemed headed for the fight of his political life and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) seemed poised to emerge as a credible presidential contender in 2012.

But in the space of just a few months, the political prospects of Nevada's two senators have followed dramatically different trajectories, with Reid now looking like a good bet for reelection next year and Ensign now mired in an increasingly ugly personal scandal.

The reversal of fortunes couldn’t have come at a worse time for Nevada Republicans, who are already exploring the rock bottom depths of the national party’s current disfavor.

"From the elected official side in the party, it does appear a bit fractured," said North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon, a Republican who is challenging GOP Gov. Jim Gibbons in the 2010 primary. "We've got two Republicans running in the Republican primary against a sitting governor. We've got Sen. Ensign [who] has his troubles. At first glance, it does look like a difficult picture out there."

As recently as the 2006 elections, the Republican Party was as healthy in Nevada as anywhere in the nation. Even in the face of a national Democratic surge that swept Republicans out of power in both houses of Congress and cost them six governorships, the Nevada GOP held on in 2006. The party managed to elect Gibbons, then a congressman, to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn and to retain Gibbons's House seat in the face of stiff competition. Republicans also held on to the state Senate and even maintained a narrow edge in voter registration over Democrats.

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Then the bottom fell out.

First, Republicans lost their voter registration advantage, several months into 2007. Then Gibbons's term as governor became plagued by a series of personal scandals and contentious fights with the state legislature, leaving him with stunningly low approval ratings. His lieutenant governor, Brian Krolicki, once viewed as a top contender for Reid's Senate seat, was indicted for allegedly misusing state funds.

Other promising politicos were mowed down at the ballot box last November. GOP Rep. Jon Porter, in part a victim of Obama presidential campaign undertow, was defeated for reelection by Dina Titus, the former state House speaker who lost to Gibbons in the 2006 governor's race. Democrats also took control of the Nevada Senate and added a seat to their majority in the House.

Now, Nevada Republican Party Chairman Sue Lowden's phone greeting says it all. Reached the morning after Ensign confessed to having an extramarital affair – and greeted with a polite "How are you?" – Lowden replied: "How do you think I am?"

With Ensign’s prospects suddenly in question, no top tier recruit in place to challenge Reid, and a wounded incumbent governor facing a serious primary election challenge, the landscape for 2010 appears daunting.

Lowden and other Republicans downplay the extent to which Ensign's troubles could damage his fellow officeholders in what Lowden called a "forgiving state."

"I don't think any Nevadan, outside the media, is likely to attribute the foibles of any particular Republican with a broad brush against the entire body of Republicans," said former state Sen. Bob Beers, who ran against Gibbons in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary.

And even Republicans who acknowledge their party has had some troubles still argue there's considerable enthusiasm at the activist level.

"I find a tremendous amount of support from the grassroots Republicans," Montandon said. "We've got a lot of new people standing up and saying, hey, we want to get involved in the party."

 

Still, there are several troubling trendlines that won’t be easily remedied. In 2004, the state’s fast-groing Latino population made up 10 percent of the electorate and supported Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) over President George W. Bush by a 21-point margin. Four years later, 15 percent of voters were Latino and they backed Obama by 54 points.

And in an alarming side effect of Nevada's Obama-fueled Democratic surge, registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans by a yawning chasm of nearly 100,000 active voters.

Former state Sen. Joe Heck, a Republican who was defeated for reelection in 2008, pointed to that number as a particularly troubling one for Nevada conservatives.

"I've been going around saying the same thing at county parties throughout the state," Heck said. "We have to heal the rifts that exist within our own party…If Republicans want to be successful, we've got to be successful at registering new Republicans."

Heck, like Montandon, has jumped into the 2010 gubernatorial race to challenge Gibbons, and the primary field may grow further. Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid, the senator's son, is widely viewed as the likely Democratic nominee.

If nothing else, some Republicans are hoping this election will help the party revitalize its statewide talent.

"Our message is that the state of Nevada needs new leadership," Heck said. "It needs leadership that thinks about the unintended consequences, and the second- and third-order consequences, of decisions that are made. It needs leadership that doesn't govern by crisis."

Lowden measured her words carefully, but also seemed to suggest the governor's race was an opportunity to introduce some fresh voices for the Republican cause.

"The perception is that perhaps [Gibbons] will not be able to emerge out of a primary, and I think that Republicans have been reading this and are looking at the options," she said. "I have noticed that throughout the state the challengers have been met with a good reception. And so I think that Republicans are looking at all the choices."

Even if the party ends up fielding a stronger gubernatorial candidate than Gibbons—whose approval rating stands at just 25 percent, according to one recent poll—that still leaves Republicans without a heavyweight Senate challenger to take on Harry Reid, who collected $2.2 million in the first quarter of 2009 and is expected to post an eye-popping figure in his next fundraising report.

"They're in a completely tough spot in this state. Their bench is weak," said an operative close to Reid's reelection campaign. "One of the key people for reviving the party here just…got taken down, and I don't know where they go from here. I think they're in disarray."

Lowden vows that a recruit will emerge, and Democrats concede that there’s still time for any of the state's major races to heat up.

The Democratic operative added: "Gibbons is going to lose the primary and that's going to make a competitive governor's race…don't think Democrats can take anything for granted."

Some Nevada Republicans are operating under the assumption that it’s always darkest before the dawn.

"Things are looking up," Beers said. "They can't get much worse."

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