GOP candidates for Nevada seat must woo committee

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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The three Republican contenders to fill the vacancy in Nevada’s second congressional district will face off in a debate hosted by the Nevada Republican Assembly Wednesday evening.

There are three contenders: Commander Kirk Lippold, former commander of the USS Cole, Greg Brower, former U.S. Attorney and member of the state assembly, and Mark Amodei, who was chairman of the Nevada Republican Party until recently, when he stepped down to run in the special election. Amodei is also a former state senator.

The district has had a Republican representative since its inception in 1983, and observers tend to agree that as long as it’s just one Republican competing against one Democrat, Republicans, who have an advantage in voter registration, should be able to hold onto the seat.

Nonetheless, as David Damore, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, pointed out, special elections tend to be “low turnout. In theory, if the Democrats can do a good job getting their voters out, they might be able to steal this.”

Democrats could have a much easier time winning the race if the Nevada Supreme Court overturns the district court’s ruling that the nominee should be chosen by each party’s central committee. Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller originally interpreted the rules to mean that the election should be a free for all, where any candidate who wanted to could enter the race on whatever ticket they chose. Republicans challenged that ruling, saying that such a reading of the convoluted rules laid out in the constitution would benefit Democrats.

Indeed, Democrats, who have managed to winnow the field down to one candidate, State Treasurer Kate Marshall, would have a possible advantage over Republicans in a free-for-all, if the three Republican candidates running split the vote.

Some factions of the Republican party would still prefer that scenario.

“If they overturn the secretary of state, you’re going to have part of the Republican Party very unhappy because they don’t want the free for all. But another part of the party, the tea party aspect, would be very happy,” said Herzik.

Tea Party darling Sharron Angle dropped out of the race shortly after the district court’s decision, decrying the fact that the Central Committee deciding the nominee would “[make] a mockery of the most important constitutional element in exercising freedom.”

Angle would almost certainly have not been chosen by the Central Committee as the party’s nominee.

The timing of the Supreme Court hearing could put the parties in an awkward position. Both parties will have selected a nominee before the Court hears the case. Republicans will select someone this Saturday, and Democrats will choose their nominee on June 25. If the Court overturns the lower court’s ruling, the nominated candidate may lose his or her status as nominee and be forced to compete in an open election.

“It’s just all kind of in limbo until we actually know who the candidates are and until the court challenges get done,” said Damore.

Whether the court will overturn the district court’s ruling is anybody’s guess.

“When I read the Nevada constitution, basically I thought it’s awkwardly written, but this should probably be central committees making these nominations. But it’s so unclear that when [Nevada Secretary of State] Ross Miller made it a free for all, it wasn’t totally unreasonable,” said Eric Herzik, professor political science at University of Nevada, Reno.

The district court judge who made the decision, Judge Russell, “is very respected, is rarely overturned,” Herzik said. “But, you know, the Supreme Court’s more political and may give greater deference to the secretary of state.”

On the Republican side, another complication in the process is that Amodei’s successor as party chairman will be chosen at the same meeting Saturday when the Central Committee selects the party’s district nominee.

Only one set of proxy ballots will be handed out for both elections, leading some to suggest that candidates for chairman could wield undue influence over the race, if they turn out to be holding proxy ballots for people from whom they’re expecting a vote. Moreover, the large number of committee members expected to appoint a proxy could leave the election in the hands a very small number of people.

Since he only recently vacated the position of party chairman, most people give Amodei an edge in the Central Committee vote.

Herzik calls that fact “a real plus for Amodei.”

“The Nevada Republican Party had been in disarray for at least 4 years (2005-2009) and likely longer,” Herzik emailed. “The party split on ideological lines with multiple contested primaries where Republican incumbents were challenged because they weren’t conservative enough. (The classic “real Republicans” vs. RINOs infighting.) … Amodei stepped in and brought some level of cooperation to the Party. Mark is a very likeable guy and can talk with both the conservative Tea Party types and the so-called RINOs. He has worked with all the county chairs so this has to be a huge organizational boost.”

A Nevada-based Republican political consultant said he agreed, noting that Amodei is “well respected” and “seen as a guy who is a facilitator.” The consultant also pointed to the fact that Amodei won his last election for state senator (before he was term limited out) by 80 percent.

“He does quite well with the central committee people,” the consultant said of Amodei, adding, “He’s working it really hard.”

Chuck Muth, president of Citizen Outreach and a former chair of the Clark County GOP, said that Amodei’s position wasn’t necessarily a total positive.

“I’m not sure that that doesn’t come also with it some blowback,” Muth said. “The state party wasn’t all that successful last election.”

Muth noted that Brower, too, had been picking up endorsements from a number of central committee members.

“Whatever frontrunner status Mark may have had, I think Brower’s doing a pretty good job trying to catch up to him,” Muth said.

Amodei has his critics, however. He has taken several unorthodox stances for a Republican, including several votes for tax increases, and a continued support for collective bargaining.

In 2003, while in the state senate, Amodei co-sponsored a bill with a Democratic senator to raise $1 billion in tax money. Amodei defended that proposal to the Las Vegas Sun, “saying that proposal helped kill an incredibly unpopular gross receipts tax.”

He also stood behind a vote in 2009 to give collective bargaining rights to state workers, “describing it as an issue of fairness.”

“When Mark Amodei represents you, Mark Amodei fights for you,” he told the Las Vegas Sun. “I was tired of seeing all of the resources of the general fund budget sucked over to the leadership of the teachers union and ignoring the folks who make the state run on a day to day basis.”

But opposing campaigns have charged that these aspects of his record mean he “isn’t in line with voters on the issues.”

Amodei and Brower may be seen as the frontrunners with the Central Committee, but when it comes to fundraising, Lippold is the clear winner. In the first fundraising period, he raised $52,853, more than both Amodei and Brower combined. Amodei raised $24,016; Brower raised 24,055.

On one hand, as one person familiar with the process noted, that is “a great talking point for [Lippold] on electability. Central Committee members do not look up those numbers themselves, but they do understand that you need money to win an election and I am positive Lippold will bring it up.”

“That being said,” the person continued, “I am also sure Brower and Amodei will blow it off by saying that this was a different kind of primary or nomination process and we (donors and grassroots activists) need to focus of rallying around the nominee. They will likely tout their camps have prioritized meetings the constituents over fundraising due to the pace of this nomination.”

Lippold has come under criticism for the fact that all but one of his donors, Barbara Vucanovich, a former state assemblywoman who supported Sharron Angle in 2010, are from out of state. Lippold, who moved back to Nevada two years ago after serving in the Navy, is already seen as something of an unknown quantity, and the combination of those two things could play against him.

“All of Lippold’s money is from out of state, which I think shows a weakness,” said Herzik. “He’s not known in this district at all. He has no political track record, and I’m guessing given that he was in the navy for so many years, his residency in Nevada was pretty limited.”

The source familiar with the GOP Central Committee process said that this could play well or poorly for Lippold.

“The fact that Lippold’s money is from out of state would normally be okay with most candidates, but Lippold is still an unknown having only moved back to the state a year ago. It could draw suspicion within the Central Committee because he is already seen as somewhat of a carpetbagger and this could only aggravate the problem,” the source said.

“However,” the source continued, “Nevada’s high unemployment rate can easily deflect this argument if Lippold shows this will be a nationally profiled race and highlights the fact our nominee must look outside of Nevada in order to combat the Harry Reid machine.”

In an interview with The Daily Caller, Lippold explained that the fact that he could draw money from outside Nevada was a strength.

“I picked up and sat down with my address book of friends and family and shipmates that I have known after 26 years in the Navy and I called them up, told them what I was doing, and they felt so strongly and believed in me,” he said, that they agreed to donate money to help him run in a race that as non-residents of Nevada, they have no stake in.

“That speaks volumes about – they think the nation is headed in the wrong direction, they think that I’m someone who can go back to Washington…and take them on in any issues where we’re going down the wrong path,” Lippold said.

He also pointed out that FEC regulations that only require a candidate to disclose donations greater than a certain amount.

“About 15 percent actually came from inside Nevada, they’re just not large enough amounts to report,” Lippold said. “It’s small donations. And that number is continuing to grow.”

At the end of the day, Lippold said, the GOP needs money to win the race, and they shouldn’t be quibbling about whether it comes from Nevada residents or from elsewhere.

“The reality is, if the Nevada GOP truly intends to financially challenge the Harry Reid machine at a local, state, and national level, they cannot do it by staying focused on Nevada only money. They are going to need national money to do that, and I have clearly demonstrated the ability to do it.”

It may not matter much one way or the other.

“Reporters care more about financial reports than voters ever do,” said the strategist.

Those numbers, the strategist said, “are irrelevant,” adding that it’s all about “who can shake the hands the best.”

“Right now, all these guys should be focusing on is the 360 Central Committee members. Some people are going to try to raise money, other people are going to try to go see the committee members one-on-one, and probably the latter are going to have the most success.”

It’s “retail politics at its best,” the strategist said, and noted that “whoever is chosen as the nominee, I do not believe they’re going to have difficulty raising money to maintain that seat in Republican hands. Republicans don’t want to lose that seat.”

Muth said that Lippold’s absence from that world of retail politics for most of the last few years put him at a disadvantage.

“They love the guy’s biography,” Muth said, of the Central Committee’s feelings on Lippold. “Everyone who’s ever met the guy loves him. What they’re not sure is whether or not he can put together a campaign that is viable.”

Raising a lot of money, Muth said, suggested that Lippold was a viable candidate, but said that the out of state money, combined with Lippold’s status as new on the scene, could prove a “double edged sword.”

“The Central Committee folks,” he said, are basically thinking, “we like you, we love you, where have you been?”

Lippold has been trying to make it clear that he is there now.

“I just wrapped up a six day, 2500-mile tour around the state visiting with Central Committee members,” he told TheDC on Tuesday.

“The only way you get to know your district is by driving it,” he said.

Lippold falls into the camp of Republicans who hope that the Nevada Supreme Court overturns the district judge’s ruling, but, he says, he has put that aside to campaign within the rules set by the district judge.

“I believe that the Central Committee process is flawed because it does not support our democratic ideals, and it should be an open election for anyone who wants to enter,” said Lippold. But, he added, “you work within the process that you’re given, and you move forward. And that’s what we’re doing.”

If he does not get the nomination on Saturday, Lippold will keep campaigning until the court makes a decision. Even if the court upholds the district judge’s ruling, Lippold says he will keep running because he plans to run for the seat in the regular election in 2012.

“I am running in 2012,” he said. “When I announced my candidacy seven weeks ago, I said I was running in 2012, that timeline just got moved up a little, and I still intend to run in 2012.”

“The voters need to select a candidate through a normal political process where there is a primary and a general election,” he added.

Lippold said that while he may not have a legislative record in Nevada, he has “a life record with experiences and talents that can better serve Nevada than either of the other candidates, any of the other candidates.”

“While the other candidates may be more well versed on the minutiae of issues that are affecting Nevada,” Lippold said he is the only candidate who really understands “how, from a national level, I can best serve Nevada.”

“I understand Washington. I have experience in having seen the beltway work. I know where the connections are in the city that I can leverage to help me as a congressman,” Lippold said.

“And the other frank reality is, whether I like it or not, my name is associated with a major national event,” Lippold said, referring to his service as Commander of the USS Cole. “And when I speak to the media, unlike just any other congressman, there is going to be a degree of credibility in what I say because I have always been principled and had the integrity and leadership that is needed back in Washington.”

Neither Amodei nor Brower could be reached for comment.

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Alexis Levinson