Monday, April 4, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
At UNLV it sometimes seems as if November’s race for the state’s 3rd Congressional District never ended.
Within weeks of Republican Joe Heck’s narrow victory over Democratic incumbent Rep. Dina Titus, UNLV College Republicans launched a vicious campaign against Titus, who returned to teaching at the university.
The group, which is heavily staffed by former Heck employees, sends out emails blasting Titus to a list of 500 followers. (One recent headline: “UNLV pays Dina Titus to stay relevant until she runs again.”) They have set up an anti-Titus website, womanwithoutintegrity.com. And they have criticized her course load and campus radio show.
The attacks began in earnest in January, when Mark Ciavola, a former employee of Heck’s and the Republican National Committee, was elected head of the College Republicans.
Ciavola, 36, is a seasoned political activist who acknowledges he’s “not a 19-year-old trying to juggle schoolwork and this with no political experience.”
Indeed, it’s the group’s persistent pursuit of Titus and professional prowess that has made the attacks stand out.
Like many in Nevada political circles, the College Republicans expect Titus to run in 2012. And Ciavola knows a campaign can never start too early. But he insists his group isn’t focusing exclusively on Titus.
“Dina Titus isn’t the problem, she’s a symptom of the problem, which is how UNLV spends money,” he said, describing administrators as hypocritical for paying Titus almost $108,000 to teach one class while crying poverty and threatening to cut classes and raise tuition.
Although other UNLV professors have similar workloads and salaries, the College Republicans have singled out Titus. The political calculus is obvious, especially given that all but one of the group’s executive board members worked on Heck’s campaign.
“There’s a connection there,” Titus said. “I think they see me as a potential opponent, that’s why they are continuing to do this. What disturbs me is I’m not a candidate. I’m not an elected official. I’m a faculty member.”
Both Ciavola and a Heck spokesman said the congressman is not involved with the College Republicans.
Although her political ambitions are clear, Titus has not declared candidacy for public office.
Titus accuses the College Republicans of using her to get attention, and to a certain extent she’s right. One of Ciavola’s stated goals is to raise the group’s profile.
Among its repeated complaints is that Titus is using university resources to campaign or maintain her visibility as she ponders another race.
The same could be said of the College Republicans, which use campus resources to bash Titus and help Heck or any other would-be GOP opponent. The group holds meetings and demonstrations on campus and uses space in the Student Union to recruit members. Titus said members have come to her office several times to “harass” her.
The College Republicans are funded primarily with private donations. Financial records were unavailable.
Such groups began forming on university campuses in 1892 as official branches of the Republican National Committee but have since morphed into independent political organizations. They serve as a farm team for the national committee. Alumni who have gone on to influential GOP roles are numerous: political strategist and George W. Bush senior adviser Karl Rove, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, political strategist Lee Atwater, President Calvin Coolidge, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. Hillary Clinton served as president of the Wellesley College Republicans before switching party affiliation.
Ciavola, a former restaurant manager and sophomore political science major, said he’s unsure what path he’ll pursue after graduation.
If Titus runs for office, it’s a near certainty the College Republicans’ attacks will be used against her.
The College Republicans have been the only voice raising concerns about Titus’ job and salary. Although Ciavola floods in-boxes with emails and mans a campus information booth daily, Clark County and state Republican parties have stayed silent.
But some conservatives say that is more a sign of the party’s dysfunction than any indifference on the topic.
If Ciavola “wasn’t bringing these issues to the forefront, they probably wouldn’t come up,” said Chuck Muth, a Republican operative whose nonprofit group Citizen Outreach named Ciavola one of Nevada’s top 10 conservatives of 2010. “The College Republicans are doing more than the actual official party is.”
That could be a good thing for any Republican who runs against Titus.
“Our team will certainly talk about these issues” in a campaign, Muth said. “That’s politics.”