Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008 | 2 a.m.
As Alberia Sanders and her sister, Cristina Martinez, stepped out of their car Saturday morning to canvass in the heart of Nevada Republican country, clipboard and Barack Obama paraphernalia in hand, a man raking leaves looked up and laughed.
“You’re in the wrong neighborhood over here,” he said. “I can guarantee you that.”
He explained: “I like hunting and fishing. I like my guns. And anyone in Elko should know that everything in this community revolves around mines. The Democrats, they’re all tree huggers.”
Sanders, 26, a local preschool teacher, walked away with a shrug.
“It’s always guns, guns, guns,” she said. “I tell people that if Democrats really try to take their guns, just bury them!”
For this mining and ranching town, population 17,000, it is the end of an exhausting political season that brought a steady stream of high profile figures.
This weekend, Sanders and other volunteers fanned out to support what Obama spokeswoman Kirsten Searer says is the Democrats’ aim in rural Nevada: “Don’t get clobbered.”
This is where George Bush did clobber John Kerry 78 percent to 20 percent, and where Republican Dean Heller beat Democrat Jill Derby for the 2nd Congressional District seat by 33 points in 2006.
Republicans hold every local office save one city council seat, and a more than 2-1 party registration advantage that hasn’t diminished since 2004.
Then again, nobody seems to have tried as hard as Obama, who carried this region over Hillary Clinton in the January caucus. Locals say he’s the first Democratic presidential candidate in recent times to open an office during the general election and to conduct a focused campaign here. He’s been here three times (and has been watching what he says about mining and guns).
Derby says she is emboldened in her rematch with Heller because of how much better the Democratic Party is organized in rural areas, in part because of the state party’s caucus efforts.
“There’s also a whole different level of engagement that has created an entirely different landscape,” Derby said during a stop in Elko on Friday.
Republicans say Democrats have allowed themselves to become too giddy.
But early signs indicate the efforts could be having an effect. The county doesn’t release party breakdowns of early voting but state Republican vice chairwoman Nancy Ernaut, a longtime Elko resident, monitored the names of Elko early voters. She found that 47 percent of them were Republican, even though Republicans make up 55 percent of the region’s active voters.
And not all Republicans who are voting early are staying true to their party.
In early voting Friday, Brad and Sheilagh Long, both Republicans, said they cast their ballots for Obama.
Like many people here, the Longs have good paying jobs at the gold mines. But they’re getting worried.
Elko’s economy, closely tied to the price of gold, often runs counter to national economic trends. So as the rest of the country suffered, Elko held strong.
But now with the cost of mining up and gold falling, national economic concerns are reaching Elko. Construction projects have stalled and downtown retailers say business is down since the September financial crisis.
That’s about when Brad Long, 46, settled on Obama.
“What we’ve been doing in the past is not effective, and we have to try a new approach.”
Added his wife, “It’s nice to see people thinking outside the box here for a change.”
Republicans here have cautioned the McCain campaign not to get too complacent.
“I think the McCain campaign was slow to get off the ground here,” Ernaut said. The party’s core group of 15 volunteers and two staffers appears to be a much smaller operation than Obama’s here, and is smaller than Bush’s four years ago.
Elko Republicans begged the McCain campaign to send in heavy hitters.
To that end, the party is sending Sarah Palin here Monday night for her final event before Election Day. At the McCain office on the edge of downtown, tickets were being scooped up Saturday.
Political observers say that even if Obama doesn’t do particularly well in Elko, he’s right to try.
“If he makes any gain, those are votes Republicans never thought they would lose,” said Erik Herzik, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Doug McMurdo, a local columnist and editor at the Elko Daily Free-Press, is convinced the gap is shrinking.
That, he says, is because “the statewide Republicans have fallen on their faces and Elko has gotten no support from the state. Meanwhile, the Democrats for the first time in my career have gotten their act together here.”
But local Republicans, even as they wearily eye the Obama campaign, remain confident.
“People here may not be thrilled with McCain, but this is what we have, and when push comes to shove, people will choose the less risky choice,” Elko Mayor Mike Franzoia said.
If nothing else, this more-heated-than-usual election in Elko has, for Democrats, served as a kind of collective group therapy, a coming-out party.
That was clear Friday night as longtime Democrats swapped tales of political loneliness between bites of steak and fish at the annual Roosevelt Kennedy Democratic fundraising dinner upstairs at Stockmen’s Casino.
“I would have never put up a sign before,” Colleen Cornejo said. “Now I have signs all over my house. You can’t see my windows.”
“In the past,” said Sandy LaPalm, “we would have party meetings at the Red Lion Casino. I remember walking out and feeling like people were giving us an evil eye.”