Operation Nevada: Can GOP Factions Make Peace in a Battleground State?

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Isaac Brekken / The New York Times / Redux

Katreen Romanoff draws up signs in support of Rep. Ron Paul in preparation for his campaign stop in Pahrump, Nevada, Feb. 2, 2012.

Like no other American city, Las Vegas loves to flout rules. Even so, it may have been something of shock for local Republicans to come upon a billboard this month that implicitly denigrated GOP nominee Mitt Romney while proclaiming his vanquished competitor Ron Paul the rightful heir to the party’s patron saint, Ronald Reagan. The signage, erected by the “new” Clark County Republican Party, was an act of nose-thumbing from a group that has done a lot of it lately.

Packed with Paul loyalists, the Clark County GOP recently called for the resignation of RNC chairman Reince Priebus, citing the supposed sin of aiding Romney’s campaign before he had formally clinched the nomination. On a larger scale, Paul’s fervent followers orchestrated a successful coup at Nevada’s state convention last month, winning 22 of 28 delegates to Tampa after Romney easily captured the caucuses. Out in the desert, the Ron Paul revolution hasn’t ended simply because the primary has wrapped up.

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Paul’s supporters present a dilemma for the GOP. Their zeal is a coveted asset to Establishment Republicans, but they also complicate the party’s efforts to coalesce in the name of ousting Barack Obama. The Paulites’ frostiness toward Romney hasn’t thawed, even after Rand Paul, Ron’s Senator son, endorsed the nominee. In an online poll this week on a website run by Paul supporters, more than 60% of respondents said an endorsement of the GOP nominee would “completely” destroy the elder Paul’s legacy.

The effort to unite the sundered wings of the party is particularly important in Nevada, an economically hobbled battleground state that’s ripe for Republican gains. In addition to being one of the top targets for both Romney and Obama, Nevada will host a Senate race with the potential to swing the balance of power in the upper chamber. The GOP Establishment’s ability to make peace with Paulites could be a critical factor in what are projected to be close races in the Silver Stat. The libertarian nabbed 19% of the vote in February’s caucuses, and his supporters could be tempted to stay home if they feel disrespected. “Nevada is a bit of a microcosm,” says former governor Bob List, an RNC committeeman who was defeated in his bid for re-election to that post by Paul acolytes. “They’re energized, they’re passionate. There’s no question about that. The question is whether they’re going to be practical.”

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Exactly how deep the rift runs in Nevada is a matter of some debate. In the wake of the Paul loyalists’ sweeping win at the state convention last month, several reputable news outlets, citing anonymous GOP sources, reported that the RNC planned to set up its own “shadow” state party, effectively sidelining the real one, which has been beset by turnover and mismanagement. According to those reports, the new power center, an organization dubbed “Team Nevada,” would be the recipient of the RNC’s money and manpower, rather than the state party. (Traditionally, the RNC’s local field offices are called “Victory” centers.) “We’re just going to work around them,” an unnamed official told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The RNC and Nevada GOP officials dispute the reports that the Nevada GOP has been marginalized. “We’re working with the state party in the same fashion that we’re working with other state parties around the country,” says Kirsten Kukowski, an RNC spokeswoman. Darren Littell, a spokesman for Team Nevada, says the group is working closely with the Nevada GOP, including the numerous members who supported Paul. And the state party’s newly elected chair, Michael McDonald, says the RNC is giving money to his organization, and the local and national groups are in “lockstep.”

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But even if Paulites in the state party are ready to fall in line, there is only one leader the rank-and-file Paul supporters follow. Ron Paul has given no indication he’ll endorse Romney, and his inner circle has bristled at the Romney campaign’s alleged efforts to prevent his supporters from taking their place in the new Republican power structure. That includes the convention in Tampa, which some Republican officials fear will attract a large and unruly cohort of uncooperative Paul fans. “There’s no way we’re going to steal the nomination from them, and there’s no way they’re going to prevent our delegates from being there,” says Doug Wead, a senior adviser to the Paul campaign. “So why have a war over it?”

Veteran Republicans are counting on antipathy toward Obama to spur Paul supporters from Internet message boards to the polls. But some still prefer to leave the business of winning a critical swing state to the pros. “At the end of the day, Romney and the RNC will take over the party and control the essence of the ground game and the media component,” says veteran Nevada Republican strategist Sig Rogich.

In the Paul camp, it’s this attitude that has bred resentment. In their view, the Republican Establishment is snubbing the very people who are key to the party’s survival. “Young people, Hispanics, independents—that’s the future of the Republican Party, or it won’t have a future,” says Wead, Paul’s senior adviser. “They can run fake delegations in every one of these states, but they’re going to leave a lot of embittered people behind.”

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