Saturday, June 7, 2008 | 2 a.m.
When Heidi Gansert took the job as the leader of Assembly Republicans, she must have felt as if she’d been named coach of the long-suffering Washington Generals to Speaker Barbara Buckley’s Globetrotters.
Gansert, of Reno, had just 14 Republican colleagues to Buckley and her 26 fellow Democrats.
She also faced a daunting national political landscape, with the public having turned against Republicans everywhere.
The easy thing would have been to put her head down and take her thumping.
Instead, she went out and hired savvy political consultants Robert Uithoven and Ryan Erwin. The three of them began raising money and scouring their Rolodexes and the voter rolls for potential candidates.
The goal: Recruit top-notch candidates who can attract Republicans, independents and moderate Democrats, said Erwin, who learned about peeling off unaffiliated and Democratic voters from a master, Ohio Republican operative Bob Bennett. “We have to find candidates who can cross over,” Erwin said.
Republicans need to turn their races on local issues and — as Democrats did in the ’80s and ’90s — downplay their party label.
Enter Sean Fellows, an Iraq war veteran trying to win in the 29th District in Henderson, where Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Gerhardt is stepping aside. PTA staff member April Mastroluca is running for the Democrats.
Fellows tells of approaching a house with two Barack Obama yard signs, a garage door wallpapered with Obama signs, and a woman who answered the door in an Obama T-shirt.
After a long conversation, Fellows won her over, he said. The woman assumed he was a Democrat, but even after he told her he’s a Republican, she pledged her support.
Although his story can’t be verified, a glance at Fellows’ Web site shows his potential appeal to Democrats and centrist voters: The two issues he highlights are health care and education, traditionally Democratic terrain.
Gansert also recruited Melissa Woodbury to run in District 23, an open seat in Henderson. She’s the eldest daughter of legendary Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, a man known for moderation. Woodbury is running against lawyer Allison Herr.
Gansert and her operatives are ecstatic about Woodbury, who’s a teacher.
“She’s a fiscally conservative woman who is articulate, understands issues and can fight on Democratic issues,” Erwin said.
Other recruits: Cheryl Lau, a former secretary of state running in Carson City, and Donna Toussaint, a longtime civic activist running in Las Vegas. The Republicans found a candidate for each district, and for their energy and fortitude, Gansert praised the many candidates who will be led to slaughter with no money and no shot.
Mark Montini, a national Republican consultant who trains operatives in grass-roots politics, said the Nevada GOP is taking the right approach by localizing elections and finding unconventional candidates. He noted that it mirrors what Democrats did in the 1990s with candidates such as former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who was pro-gun rights and could credibly campaign in rural and suburban areas that were once solidly Republican.
The party with momentum — Republicans in 1994, Democrats in 2006 and 2008 — will always try to nationalize elections, pigeonholing every opponent as part and parcel of the failing party.
The party on the defensive, in this case Republicans, must localize and get creative.
“The principle for these guys, the strategic assumption, is that given a status quo election, we can’t win,” Montini said. That is, if Republicans put up traditional candidates and gather libertarians and social conservatives in the usual fashion, they’ll lose, and lose badly because centrist voters have left them in droves to become Democrats.
Montini continued: “The rule is, we must find a new way to reach undecided voters. You’ve got to have something to change the dynamic. Look at districts and find base Republicans and base Democrats. Then the battleground is, how do we reach additional people we need? Republicans can’t reach the number with the traditional Republican message.”
National Republicans are engaged in the same exercise, with mixed results. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, is an unconventional candidate with crossover appeal. But he’s not a favorite of the Republican base. So he’s run a troubled, metronomic campaign, trying to assuage the Republican base while appealing to independents and Democrats.
A few Senate and House Republicans, such as Nevada Rep. Jon Porter, have gotten the message, but analysts predict another drubbing, with Democrats picking up two to seven Senate seats and as many as 20 House seats. (Porter faces a strong challenger in state Sen. Dina Titus.)
Gansert’s on-the-ground efforts have drawn the attention of Buckley.
Several lobbyists, who were granted anonymity so they could speak freely, said word had come down: No money for Republicans.
Buckley said it’s not true: “No one would ever say that in our caucus.”
She did allow, however, that she’d be unpleasantly surprised by lobbyists giving to Republicans running against her incumbent members.
Buckley probably shouldn’t be that concerned. She’s recruited some fine candidates in their own right, and, in the end, the numbers don’t lie.
Nevada is now home to 50,000 more Democrats than Republicans.
Even in districts where Gansert has drawn good candidates, such as Fellows and Woodbury, they face daunting numerical disadvantages, with the former confronting a 4 percentage point spread and the latter looking at a 9-point deficit.
The Washington Generals indeed.
Sun reporter Brian Eckhouse contributed to this report.