Mona Shield Payne
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012 | 9:22 p.m.
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Mitt Romney cruised to an easy victory in the Nevada Republican presidential caucuses Saturday by relying on a campaign organization he spent four years building and carefully maintaining. That organization became a firewall of sorts that allowed him to fend off a series of threats from Republican rivals who surged in popularity, including picking up victories in early states, but had no similar turnout machine to fall back on in Nevada.
Building on a foundation of support from the Republican establishment and a network of volunteers, the former Massachusetts governor was best positioned to respond to Nevada caucus rules that were in a constant state of flux and blunt the momentum of the conservative alternative du jour.
In the end, Romney had to do little last-minute work to secure the Silver State. He benefited from the sinking popularity of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And although U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, hoped his organization of devoted libertarian-minded Nevadans would carry him to at least a second-place finish, GOP voters here proved more pragmatic, choosing a candidate they believed could ultimately beat President Barack Obama in November rather than an ideological soul mate.
“I think he’s electable,” said Thomas Reece, 43, who caucused for Romney at Rancho High School. “All of the candidates have good ideas, but Mitt has the best chance to win.”
Without a Nevada organization, Gingrich was unable to effectively argue against Romney’s electability and instead his time here was marked by infighting between local and national advisers over strategy.
Gingrich brushed off his loss, chalking up Romney’s victory not to any broad appeal to Republican voters but to Nevada’s demographics.
“This is one of his best states. It is a very heavily Mormon state and a state that he carried in 2008,” Gingrich said at a news conference Saturday night at the Venetian.
Romney did perform strongly among Mormon voters, who made up about a quarter of caucus participants. But he also swept nearly every other voting demographic — including winning 52 percent of the Catholic vote. Gingrich is Catholic.
“Here, part of the success is just discipline,” said Romney’s Nevada adviser, Ryan Erwin. “It’s not getting caught up in the movement of the moment and being able to stay focused on what a caucus is and what it’s about.”
That focus began more than four years ago, when Romney identified Nevada as a stronghold in his failed 2008 bid for the Republican nomination. He won Nevada handily then and didn’t abandon his organization here.
“They never left the state,” one Republican insider said.
The longevity of Romney’s organization could better position Republicans to compete against the Democrats’ vaunted turnout machine in the general election. Nevada is expected to be a key battleground in November.
Four years ago, U.S. Sen. John McCain did virtually no campaigning or organizing in Nevada during the primary. In the general election, McCain was never able to catch Democrats here.
But if Romney becomes the nominee, he will have little catch-up to do — a fact even more crucial given the general disarray of the Nevada Republican Party.
“I think an exquisite network throughout Nevada certainly was established and sustained by the Romney campaign,” Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki said. “Should he be the nominee, that would be very good news for all Republicans, not just the presidential race.”
Romney’s wife, Ann, played the strategist while introducing him at a victory party at Red Rock Resort on Saturday night, highlighting how Nevada plays into their greater plans.
“This state is going to be an important state in the general,” she said. “You guys, now that we have all of you excited and energized and volunteering, we’re going to need you again in November.”
Romney’s supporters roared and waved signs as the candidate took the stage in the center of a ballroom.
“Tonight, I want to thank the people of Nevada,” he said. “Once again, you have given me your vote of confidence. And this time, I intend to take it all the way to the White House.”
Democrats worked to blunt the perception that Romney’s Nevada victory presages a strong general election showing. They instead noted that fewer Republicans than expected bothered to caucus. (Exact numbers were unavailable, as the party anticipated counting Clark County ballots through the night.)
“It’s pretty pathetic all around if they get barely more voters to come out this year, when they are trying, than they did in 2008, when they weren’t,” a Democratic operative said of the overall turnout. “A strong organization pulls out more than die-hard Republicans who are going to vote anyway.”
While Paul’s insurgent candidacy drew young people and independent voters to the Republican Party, it’s uncertain how many will remain.
Many Paul voters interviewed by the Sun were quick with an answer when asked if they would support the eventual nominee.
“No,” said Jacob Broussard, a 22-year-old Paul supporter who caucused at Green Valley High School. “I would vote libertarian most likely.”
And not all voters agreed with the premise that Romney is best positioned to defeat Obama or will be the nominee.
Cory Santos, a Las Vegas lawyer who caucused at Green Valley High School, gave an impassioned speech on Gingrich’s behalf to his precinct, which at first seemed split between Paul and Romney.
“Don’t vote for the hype that Romney is the only one who can beat Obama,” he implored the room. His small precinct ultimately swung a third of their vote to Gingrich.
Still, many who supported Romney did so because they see him as the strongest general election candidate. Entrance polls show Romney captured three-quarters of those whose primary concern is defeating Obama.
“He is the strongest candidate,” said 67-year-old Janis Bischoff. “And he can beat Obama, that’s the main thing.”
At Reno’s Galena High School, James Van Amtwerp, 84, said he too was supporting Romney with an eye toward November.
“I’m not going to jump up and down for joy,” he said, “but he’s the only chance to unseat Obama.”
Some worry, however, that pragmatism doesn’t equal enthusiasm.
To combat a well-funded incumbent president who is hoping to revive some of the historic energy that swept him to victory in 2008, Republicans will need more than tepid support to get their candidate over the finish line in November.
“In Nevada, the water will be warm but not as hot as if Gingrich wins,” Santos said. “Romney’s support would be based more on the fact they want Obama out than that they agree with him on the issues.”
But Erwin countered that the enthusiasm that surrounded Obama’s candidacy can’t be generated by any candidate in the current economic situation.
“There is an excitement,” he said. “It isn’t a Barack Obama 2008-style excitement. It’s an excitement about competence and about leadership. When unemployment is at an all-time high and people are struggling to stay in their homes, they aren’t going to be jumping for joy for any candidate.”
Sun reporter Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.