Sunday, Aug. 17, 2008 | 2 a.m.
When Sen. Barack Obama visits Reno today he’ll be campaigning in a region widely seen as the key battleground for winning Nevada in November.
Washoe County, whose Democrats favored Obama over Sen. Hillary Clinton by a wide margin in the state’s presidential caucus, combined with many of the state’s rural counties to give the presumptive Democratic nominee his delegate victory. Although majority Republican, Washoe has emerged as a swing county in recent years, and Obama’s precinct-level organizing has made it even more so.
In 2004, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 17,500 voters. Democrat John Kerry lost the county by 4 percentage points. Today, Republicans hold a much slimmer edge, roughly 5,700 voters. Other factors are at work, including the influence of Northern California emigres. Washoe voters are considered less partisan, more likely to cross party lines than those residing in Southern Nevada. Some credit the region’s less transient population, which expects candidates to engage voters directly.
“The gap between parties has disappeared,” UNR political scientist Eric Herzik said. “Obama, unlike most Democrats who come up here and die, has a shot of — if not winning the north — doing well in the north.”
Democrats ignore Washoe at their peril.
The conventional political equation for Nevada: Democrats will win Clark County, Republicans will take the rurals and the outcome will be decided by Washoe. A wild card this year is the statewide Democratic registration surge.
Secretary of State Ross Miller and Treasurer Kate Marshall, both Democrats, won in 2006 by pulling 10-point-plus victories in Clark County and winning Washoe. State Sen. Dina Titus, on the other hand, won Clark by 6.5 points, and lost Washoe by 13, in her failed bid for governor.
“Washoe County has mattered more and more,” said Billy Vassiliadis, Democratic consultant and an adviser to Obama’s campaign. “Increasingly it has become the tipping point.”
Democratic and Republican operatives say an Obama victory depends on boosting Democratic turnout in Clark County to offset Republican turnout in the rurals. That leaves independents and moderate Republicans in Washoe.
“There’s more moderate, pro-choice Republicans in Washoe County than probably anywhere else in the state, and given the current environment I think they’ll be under significant pressure from both sides,” said Pete Ernaut, a former Reno assemblyman and veteran Republican consultant.
The Obama campaign, by design, opened its first Nevada office in Reno.
Washoe County represents “the best potential to pick up people on the Democratic line,” said Terence Tolbert, Obama’s state director.
Republican Sen. John McCain has one intrinsic advantage: Republicans are historically more reliable voters. Steve Wark, a Republican consultant and veteran field operative, warned that McCain’s campaign cannot rely on history alone though, predicting that many Republicans will opt to split their ticket this year.
“Republicans will have to work hard to make their case,” he said.
Indeed, McCain is doing just that. Last month, at a town-hall meeting in Sparks, he parried with a voter over his conservative bona fides. The voter asked McCain to explain his support for a comprehensive immigration bill, campaign finance reform and efforts to stop global warming.
“I’ve stood up against my party many times because I’ve done what I believe is right,” McCain said.
Washoe County Republicans favored former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the January caucus, giving him 44 percent of the vote. McCain, who did not campaign in Nevada, won just 15 percent.
Heidi Smith, chairwoman of the Washoe Republican Party, said many Republicans, not thrilled with McCain as their party’s pick, are still holding out hope that Romney will be chosen as vice president.
“People here are still looking, but they’ll go Republican in November,” she said.
Smith said the county party is asking Republicans who switched their registration at the behest of conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh to come home. Independents, who make up 14 percent of Washoe’s electorate, lean Republican, she said.
In the end, Greg Ferraro, a Reno-based political consultant, said the election will come down to a few simple things: “Who’s going to have the better operation, who’s going to have better foot soldiers and who’s going to have superior GOTV (get-out-the-vote efforts)?”
He added: “We’ve got three bruising months left. Who can limit the most mistakes?”