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April 20, 2014

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SUNDAY CONVERSATION:

In grim present, election is uncertain

Five hacks walk into a bar. They drink a few beers, have a few laughs. But their topic is no joke, and they agree on those two points

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Leila Navidi

Political consultants, from left, Mike Sloan, Billy Vassiliadis, Dan Hart, Steve Wark, and Pete Ernaut last week participated in a roundtable discussion about politics at Three Angry Wives Pub in Las Vegas.

Talking Politics Roundtable

Las Vegas Sun Reporter, Patrick Coolican sits down and talks local and national politics with political consultants from both parties at a local pub.

Sun Expanded Coverage

There was beer, there was betting, there was obscenity.

To discuss the electoral landscape and to look forward to the November elections, the Sun met at a local pub with five esteemed political operatives — campaign consultants, former elected officials and so on.

They were insightful, they were frank, they were a helluva lot of fun (as political hacks often are).

The panel:

• Billy Vassiliadis, owner of the public affairs and advertising firm R&R Partners, campaign manager for former Democratic Gov. Bob Miller, adviser to the presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.

• Pete Ernaut, a principal at R&R Partners and former Republican assemblyman, campaign manager and chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn.

• Steve Wark, former chairman of the Republican Party and Guinn field director.

• Mike Sloan, gaming consultant and Democratic fundraiser.

• Dan Hart, Democratic consultant and campaign manager for former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones.

The discussion took place at Three Angry Wives pub in Summerlin one afternoon last week. (A note on the participants: Democrats outnumbered Republicans because a Republican consultant had to back out.)

The participants were often in agreement: They said the mood in the country is grim and uncertain, with economic turmoil, wars overseas and potentially millions of new voters. With this upheaval, predictions are dangerous, they all allowed.

We began by asking them about the mood of the country and Nevada and how this would affect the November election. Their answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Pete Ernaut (Republican): The country is very concerned. The economy is not doing well. Over the past eight or nine years it’s become increasingly partisan. The country is a little angry, a little polarized and not a hell of a lot of things are getting done anywhere, in Washington or Nevada.

Dan Hart (Democrat): You’ve got a bunch of different dynamics working. The economy, and you’ve got a tremendous number of new voters Barack Obama’s brought in to the process.

Steve Wark (Republican): If you’ve ever used the word Zeitgeist, it really applies to what’s here now.

(Big laughter.)

I know, it’s German. There’s this deep-seated feeling, and I think that’s why people responded the way they have to Obama. As Republicans often say, it’s an irrational response to a guy who’s not saying anything. Well, that irrational response is fueled by this amorphous, kind of abstract feeling that people have that things aren’t going well in their lives, their community, whatever. I think that’s one of the things that taps into this wild election cycle right now.

Billy Vassiliadis (Democrat): You start with 9/11, which wasn’t the president’s fault, to the response to 9/11, which was, and to a war in which we’ve lost well over 4,000 people, to gas going over four bucks, to foreclosures, to job loss, to allowing the environment to continue to deteriorate. Bush is a guy the country has no faith in to deal with any issue. And it’s not so much about the issues, it’s the fact that there’s no confidence in his leadership and there’s no hope, no hope.

This is about as hopeless as I’ve seen the country since, frankly, one of mine was president, Jimmy Carter, in 1980 before the election. And I’ve got to tell you a lot of people have drawn parallels to Obama and Kennedy; I’d draw it between Obama and Reagan.

Mike Sloan (Democrat): We can look at polling over the past 20, 25 years. I don’t ever recall a time when Nevada’s economy and opinions about it have run parallel to the country. There were a few recessions in Nevada, but they weren’t nearly as pronounced here. I’ve never seen anything in the 25 years I’ve been polling here.

Wark (R): The big problem is, based on this profound sense of hopelessness, how come Obama is not leading 60-40?

Sloan (D): But look at the Electoral College today, he’s ahead by 25 electoral votes.

Ernaut (R): There’s one thing you’re skipping over. The one thing that rivals the president’s numbers right now are the favorable and unfavorable numbers of Congress.

Congress is incapable of doing anything, and it has been for a while, even when both houses were Republican and we had a Republican president. Not a lot got done. I think the biggest change in the past 10 years hasn’t been whether we’ve had a Republican president or Democrat president, it’s been the inability of Congress to work across the aisle, to work between the two houses, to look at meaningful legislation and actually get important matters to the people of this country passed. There was a wave of hope that it would change after ’06. It didn’t.

Vassiliadis (D): ’06 did not bring a huge wave of hope. I think it was a wave of anger. Why isn’t it a 60-40 Obama lead? I think because of fear. This country’s sort of bipolar. There’s a hopelessness and a fear. Change is something people cling to. It’s also something they’re afraid of. The fact that he’s unconventional, the fact that he just turned 47 years old, the fact that he’s African-American, the fact that he’s new ... By November the American people will be resolved and will support him by pretty good margins.

Wark: He set the bar so high for himself. And so every time he doesn’t clear the bar, he looks like a half politician, like anybody else who backpedals.

Vassiliadis: No question, he’s got a higher threshold and higher standard than John McCain. This campaign, McCain isn’t even relevant.

Sun: Who’s going to win Nevada?

Vassiliadis: Barack.

(Wark and Vassiliadis make a wager.)

Ernaut: I think it’s going to be very close. I don’t know who’s going to win.

Obama has that thing all of us wish we could bottle up for every candidate we ever had: To stand in front of a huge crowd of people and be able to command that type of feeling and passion. The problem is, when you boil it down right now, the Democrats have three things:

One, they’re going to turn tail and run in Iraq and declare failure.

Two, they’re going to raise your taxes, because we’re not going to allow the tax cuts to continue.

Three, they’re going to jam some sort of global health care, taxpayer funded global health care, down your throat.

That’s why in this election the numbers are still close. When it comes down to those core issues, people are still afraid of Democrats.

Hart (D): Republicans made people afraid the Democratic nominees weren’t ready to assume the office. Can they do the same with Obama? That’s going to be the big question. Can the Republicans make that change scary to the voters? And if they can, Obama’s not going to win.

Can they do it in Nevada? Democrats have a 60,000 voter registration edge.

Ernaut: If Hillary had won the nomination, you couldn’t count on 40 percent of those new registrants actually going out in a motivated way and voting.

Vassiliadis: Registration started moving three years ago. While I’d love to attribute it to Obama, that’s not true. Nevada followed the national mood. The primary reason that the registration is changing is because we’ve got the worst president in the history of the United States.

Wark: The Democrats have done much better than the Republicans in setting up the structure necessary to ferret out Democratic registrants. People are coming in as volunteers, working 12 hours a day. College kids are registering as Democrats. The Republicans don’t have anything like that.

Ernaut: We did. At the end of the drill, we faced the same thing in 1998. Going back to this pendulum swing issue. When we were part of the Guinn campaign in ’98, we hadn’t won the governor’s office since ’78. There was no network of Republican operatives out there. There was no field staff, so we had to go out and build that from scratch.

But once we had it built, we used it to our advantage in 2000, 2002, 2004, in which we won everything. But our network has fallen apart.

Wark: It takes a structure to gather that. It doesn’t happen by accident. There’s been a lot of hard work put in by the Democrats to create a structure to register voters. And they’ve done it.

Vassiliadis: When I spoke with Obama, I told him I didn’t think he would win this time because you’re not going to get first-time voters and college students to be active. But this is the first time this has happened since the ’60s. That will continue to be the test of the Obama campaign — keeping those kids motivated and energized. Being around this long, being old, and being skeptical and cynical, I’ve been stunned at how we’ve been able to get first-time voters and young voters out. If that continues, I think you’re going to see here in Nevada a real good year for Democrats.

Sloan: My son just got back from Washington, where he was a page in Congress. He said that even the Republican pages were going to vote for Obama, because they didn’t think McCain represented young people’s points of view.

Ernaut: Whoever in the campaign came up with his European, international tour should be bronzed. If there were lingering doubts about his ability in foreign relations, if there was lingering doubts about his ability to command respect abroad, that was genius. And I’ve got to give credit where credit is due.

Wark: The bounce didn’t last very long, did it?

Ernaut: No, but I don’t think that the bounce meant (expletive). But at the end of the drill, especially in a presidential race, it’s a cumulative effect of how people view the candidate.

Vassiliadis: Things build on each other. Whether it’s his negatives or his positives, they’re in a building process, and so while there may not have been a bump ...

Vassiliadis: Who’s going to win Nevada? Who’s got the Zeitgeist to win Nevada?

Wark: The thing that made Obama strong, the “independent” next to the name, has made McCain stand out from the rest of the candidates. So he had as equal chance of gaining those swing voters as Obama does. I think McCain wins here by a hair.

Ernaut: It’s a razor-thin margin, but I think McCain wins.

Sloan: Maybe I’ll reassess my position. I have a fear about Obama winning Nevada.

Vassiliadis: Obama.

Hart: Obama.

Is (Gov. Jim) Gibbons’ career over and is he a drag on the Republican candidates?

Wark: Yes and no. I believe his political career was over by the second week in the Legislature. His career is over and he’s always had such a little impact on Republican politics, he’s inconsequential as a politician. He hasn’t been on point in raising money for the party, in getting people elected.

Ernaut: I would say there’s two years left in his term, and this next legislative session at least presents the opportunity for him to turn it around.

Wark: Becoming governor presented him an opportunity.

Ernaut: But clearly the past two years would not lead to optimism that would happen. I don’t necessarily think he’s pulling the party down. It’s the unfortunate missed opportunity of not leading it up. So it’s the loss of opportunity that he could blunt some of the popular wave of an Obama or the registration issues.

Sloan: It would be a miraculous recovery, but stranger things have happened.

Hart: We can’t say his career is over. It depends on who he runs against, who he runs against in the primary and who he runs against in the general, if he gets through the primary. Like Pete said, he’s got two years. That’s a lifetime.

Your thoughts about Dina Titus (Democrat) and Jon Porter (Republican) in the Third Congressional District?

Sloan: In my view, it’s more hers to win or lose than it is Porter’s, and a lot of it will depend on how Obama does in Nevada.

Hart: Porter’s never run against someone like Dina Titus.

Wark: In a tough race, she held her own when she ran for governor. (She won the Third Congressional District when she ran for governor.) I think there’s a built-in advantage for somebody to stay here and campaign full time as opposed to someone who’s trying to campaign from Washington, D.C. It’s not an easy thing to do. The great equalizer is money. And the other great equalizer is registration. I think it’s just a tough, tough race.

I would like to see Porter creating more energy on the ground, actually trying to find those 25,000 votes he needs to make up from a registration standpoint. (Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 25,000 in the district.) Be that as it may, he’s still an incumbent.

Ernaut: I think that it’s too close to call, but I think that the end result, the national election will affect that race to such a great degree that that’s the way it will go.

Porter’s campaign team is the toughest one Titus has ever faced. It will be tough, it will be well-funded. Dina’s clearly a very good candidate. Jon’s a proven commodity.

Everybody always looks to the voter registration in that district. Well, the registration was dead even three times when Porter ran, and they were blowouts.

Porter probably has another unique advantage in so much as he was elected as a mayor, as a state senator and as a congressman three times.

All those things being equal, I think this is too close to call and the national election will likely swing it one way or the other.

Sloan: If the mood of the country is so bad, one question is, why are the poll numbers putting Obama ahead by only four? The numbers show Democrats leading Republicans in Congress by 20 points. That’s going to play out here, too.

Ernaut: One of the problems McCain has had is that Republicans have lost their way in the past six years, have become a party that is socially conservative and fiscally moderate. That’s no place to be. The way that this party has to get back to winning is to get back to the one thing that unites Republicans, whether they’re social conservatives, evangelicals, Christians, moderates — and that is some sort of sensible fiscal conservatism.

Vassiliadis: Let’s talk coattails. There are many examples where Nevada has not gone with the national trend. I will say this: What Obama does have is a machine, and his machine now is officially married to the Reid machine. You want to know where the Democratic voter advantage came from? It came from Harry Reid’s effort, after the bath we took recently. Was it 2004? Or am I thinking 2002?

Ernaut: You guys took a lot of baths lately, I have trouble keeping track.

Vassiliadis: After that horrible election, Reid hunkered down and rebuilt the infrastructure in this state.

Back to what Steve said before, we do have a tremendous infrastructure, we do have a great organization and it’s been a living, breathing, day-to-day operation since January 2005. And now we’re marrying it to one of the best grass-roots ground games I’ve ever seen in the Obama campaign.

Porter’s problem and Titus’ advantage is not just the registration. Wark and Ernaut are two of the best organizers I’ve ever seen, but they haven’t done it recently. Republicans don’t have the machine they once had, and we do. And I think all those are bad signs for Porter.

Hart: It’s a new thing that’s happening here, and I saw it happen during the caucuses. There wasn’t a reliance on traditional Democratic operatives or traditional outlets. It was new and it really was impressive. Everybody’s going to spend a ton of money here, which is going to mean there are going to be coattails because they’re going to be talking about Democrats.

Vassiliadis: One other point I want to make and contradict Steve a little bit: This is the first time there’s been an election since he (Gibbons) became governor, so if we’re going to see a negative effect, we’re going to see it this year. Nobody has actually used him yet as a bludgeon. I do think that Gibbons’ presence could be a negative one.

What about Dean Heller (Republican) and Jill Derby (Democrat) in the Second Congressional District?

Sloan: I would not write off Jill in that race, particularly if Obama runs like these people think he’s going to run. I think Jill Derby has a chance.

Ernaut: That’s not even a race.

Wark: Heller will do well, and he’s evolved, if you will, as far as his philosophy is concerned. He talks about things he never used to talk about.

Ernaut: I heard Steve Wark arguing evolution. Did I just hear that? (Wark is well-known as a conservative Christian.)

Why was the race close last time? They ran against each other in 2006, and Heller won narrowly.

Ernaut: There was a three-way primary where the Republicans spent all their money, so the Republicans came out dead broke. And Derby had the ability to not spend a cent in the primary and raised a ton of money. And Jill’s a good candidate. She’s a moderate. And he’s a nice guy, doesn’t look like a conservative, doesn’t have that sourpuss. It’s obvious, the Republicans spent all their money and Jill’s a good candidate. But if you look at that district, he’ll outspend her probably 1 1/2-to-1 this time. Will he win comfortably, seven or 10 points? Yes.

What about the tough challenge state Sen. Bob Beers (Republican) faces from PR executive Allison Copening (Democrat)?

Wark: There’s a potential that he could be upset. It’s a very, very difficult race for him. But I think his fundamental message is one that resonates with most people in his district, and it is that “I don’t want to take money out of your pocket.” But it’s going to be a close race.

Hart: He’s a good candidate, but he’s got some serious problems with things he’s said in the past. And if that kind of negative comment is exploited effectively, he’s going to be in trouble.

Vassiliadis: It’s going to be tight because the district has changed, not spectacularly, but significantly. And I go back to this: Legislative races are ground wars. Beers does work hard, but hard workers aren’t as rewarded as they used to be in Southern Nevada. Between block walls and gates and nobody home, you’ve got to have the machine. And that’s a very big district.

In another race, Sen. Joe Heck (Republican) faces challenger Shirley Breeden (Democrat). Heck is thought of as a future candidate for governor.

Vassiliadis: Heck is tough to run against. In any other year, I would say he’d be safe. In this year, he should be very concerned.

Wark: I think people would like to see him run for governor.

Vassiliadis: I think of the Republican wouldbes, wannabes, mightbes. But I think Joe Heck has a great future. He’s got a great profile.

Sloan: He’s very impressive when he comes in front of businessmen.

Ernaut: Both of those races are coming down as a referendum on taxes.

I still believe this is what is going to come down to in the next legislative session. We are not going to cut $1 billion out of this budget. It’s not going to happen. It’s a Houdini act how the governor presents a balanced budget.

We’re also not going to raise $1 billion in taxes, so it’s going to take people rolling up their sleeves, digging in and figuring out how we’re going to get some from both troughs. I still think if there’s a tiebreaker, people still in some respects will vote with their wallet.

Sloan: Both those districts, people would be supportive of taxes, if they’re on the business community, on out-of-state banks, on gaming — the same people they’ve historically favored. They’re willing to see those taxes because they are concerned about education, they’re concerned about the billion dollars you’re talking about.

Any final words? Is there a sleeper issue?

Hart: What happens to the tax issue, whether the economic conditions present a problem on taxes for Democrats — that could be a sleeper issue.

Vassiliadis: I don’t think there’s an issue. This year is going to be about who goes before the voters and says, “We can make this horrible situation better.” I’m not hawking for Obama, but the reason I supported him is that I feel the way he does, which is that the system’s got to get rocked. Voters are going to respond to rocking the system.

When you talk about that billion dollars coming out of our budget in Nevada and what it really means, you’re talking about kids going into classrooms in September and not finding a teacher, you’re talking about people who depend on Meals on Wheels who have died because they haven’t been able to get them delivered to their homes because the fuel went up so high and the government can’t afford to help support those programs. When the elderly can’t afford prescription drugs, taxes are not going to be a rock star issue in a state that has this dramatic problem and a country with these dramatic problems.

People want a change and they’re not going to fall for the platitudes (expletive) you guys have been selling for 20 years.

It’s over.

Sloan: Respectfully, I’d like to believe that, but I’ve lived here too long and seen too much.

Ernaut: Let me say that the back half of Billy’s speech I absolutely agree with. Even when I was in the state Legislature I had a pretty moderate voting record when it came to education, when it came to health care, higher education, and I think those things are the fabric of this state and they’ve been woefully underfunded for a number of years.

The biggest problem going into the 2009 session is this: Who are you going to tax?

Let’s just start with the historical low-hanging fruit, the gaming industry. Are you people reading the same newspapers as I am? This is an industry that’s hurting. Anybody thinks they’re going to walk in and tax the gaming industry is going to be sadly, sadly mistaken.

Who are you going to tax? Everybody’s hurting. The business community is hurting. You may want to do this, you may want to raise revenue, it’s not going to be possible in those enormous numbers. It’s going to have to come from both sides.

Vassiliadis: There ought to be performance standards on what the state’s departments do.

I’m not talking about just new taxes, I’m talking about a systemic change in the way we approach government. We may not be able to raise taxes in 2009 because of the economy. But we can’t have it off the table forever.

Ernaut: I don’t disagree with you; I just think we’re two years behind in Nevada. I think that may happen in the 2008 election in America. It’s not going to happen until 2010 in Nevada because it can’t.

The 2009 Legislature is going to make or break many political careers. It has the potential to make or break Joe Heck, Barbara Buckley, Jim Gibbons and a number of other folks.

These are going to be very serious issues. And it’s going to take very important efforts by people and leadership to get through this.

Again, we’re not going to cut $1 billion, we’re not going to raise $1 billion in taxes. It’s going to take people actually digging in and providing leadership.

This is the opportunity for them to shine, look like a governor or a senator, or for them to flop. So 2009 ends or begins the next era of politics in Nevada.

Sun Reporter Mary Manning transcribed this manuscript.

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