Marilyn Newton / AP Photo
Wednesday, May 16, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Right about the time Ron Paul’s passionate supporters took over the Nevada Republican Party at a raucous state convention 10 days ago, the phone at the Las Vegas office of Americans for Prosperity began to ring.
The callers were potential donors and volunteers — typically the critical foot soldiers for a party apparatus geared toward electing Republicans.
But instead, these willing workers were calling Americans for Prosperity, a political nonprofit organization created outside the regular Republican Party confines to further conservative causes.
“People want to donate their money to organizations that can deliver on their promises,” AFP’s Nevada director, Adam Stryker, said of the calls that were peaking at around noon on that convention Sunday.
The standard bearer for Republicans this cycle may not be the state party, which is the traditional and seemingly logical organization backing GOP candidates up and down the ticket.
It’s in no small part because the establishment and donors have little confidence in the state party’s ability to operate, GOP activists said.
“We’re a battleground state. There will still be a significant amount of money spent here,” said Robert Uithoven, a GOP consultant. “(But) the money will be spent around the state party and not through it. And that’s never a good thing.”
One Republican elected official said, “If Republicans win this election, it will be in spite of the state party, not because of it.”
Paul’s supporters slowly began infiltrating the party organization four years ago, electing members to positions on the county and state boards and backing a new state chairman. The effort culminated at the May 5 state convention, when Paul’s supporters succeeded in electing a majority of Nevada’s national delegates and installing Paul loyalists as national committeeman and committeewoman.
That takeover has donors and party officials nervous that the new party organization will be more concerned with nominating Paul, or pushing his libertarian philosophy, than being the backbone of the GOP election effort.
The stakes in Nevada are high. The state is one of a few toss-ups in the presidential race. The U.S. Senate race, between Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Las Vegas, is expected to be close. There’s at least one competitive congressional seat, where Rep. Joe Heck, R-Las Vegas, faces Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas. And Democrats and Republicans are fighting over control in the state Senate.
Unlike Republicans, Democrats, under the strong hand of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have spent years building up the state party, registering voters and building an impressive voter file. Democrats raised $9.7 million in 2010 and $11 million in 2008, according to a Democrat strategist.
Republican elected leaders, meanwhile, skipped the state convention in Sparks earlier this month and have shown little willingness to get into the muck of rebuilding the state party.
Instead, Republicans such as Gov. Brian Sandoval have helped raise money for other groups, such as the Washoe County Republicans and state Senate Republicans.
The state parties have traditionally played three roles in the political campaigns: registering voters, identifying supporters and turning them out to vote.
This year, Americans for Prosperity has already started to take over that effort.
The organization has had a full-time operation in Nevada since a special congressional election in 2010, identifying voters and building a voter list, Stryker said.
But Paul’s supporters come in with little track record. The new party chairman, Michael McDonald, was dogged by old ethics scandals and a controversial land deal recently with Las Vegas City Hall. (He did not return calls for comment.) And they’ve spearheaded efforts to replace its executive director, Dave Gallagher, who is well regarded by campaign operatives, with a Paul supporter.
All of those factors have caused traditional Republican supporters to back away from the party.
“It has become evident after the convention that the new leadership for the party is not interested in getting Republicans elected as much as moving an ideology forward,” said Mendy Elliott, a longtime Republican and fundraiser for the Washoe County Republican Party. “The purpose of the party is to get Republicans elected and register Republicans. Until that focus is shifted back, it’s hard for mainstream Republicans to understand the purpose of the party.”
Romney and the Republican National Committee opened a Las Vegas office on Saturday under the Team Nevada name. It was on the other side of the Las Vegas Valley from state party headquarters.
But a good sign: The new chairman of the state party, McDonald, spoke at the opening.
Darren Littell, spokesman for Team Nevada, said, “We’re willing to work with anyone and everyone who wants to make Barack Obama a one-term president.”
But does the new leadership of the party want to elect Republicans? It’s a legitimate question, even if it’s somewhat stunning that it has to be asked.
Carl Bunce, chairman of Paul’s Nevada campaign who was elected as a delegate to the national convention, said yes.
“The state party will do what it has always tried to do — get Republicans elected,” he said. “There might be new characters in the fold, and there might be a learning curve.”
But, he said, he expects the Republicans in place to execute their responsibilities.
At the same time, however, Bunce said the Paul campaign is not ceding the Republican nomination to Mitt Romney, despite a message from Paul that he would not campaign in any primary states going forward.
Bunce said he still sees a path to victory for Paul to get the nomination.
“By the time we get to September, November, it will be ironed out at that point,” he said.
Of course, that’s four months away. During that time, Democrats and President Barack Obama’s campaign will be pounding on Republicans and Romney.
Sig Rogich, a Republican consultant, said he expects Romney’s campaign team to take the reins.
“The party will be successful if the nominee for president comes in and takes hold of the party apparatus,” he said.
As for the role of a state party controlled by Paul supporters, he said: “I think they’ll offer them the opportunity to participate within guidelines. If not, they’ll fund it on their own.”
Bob List, a former Nevada governor and a national committeeman who was replaced at the convention, said the system has worked best when governors have played a strong role with the party.
“Sometimes, the governor or senior public official will go to the mat on it,” he said. “Here, that simply didn’t happen. This is not the preferable way to run it, in my judgment. In an ideal world, the governor would be consulted on the selection of party officials.”
(Mike Slanker, political consultant for Sandoval and Heller, did not return requests for comment.)
List said one of his primary jobs was to raise money — $1.24 million in the past three years.
“It takes a lot of effort, a lot of time and energy,” List said. “And we’ll have to see how this plays out under the new regime. I don’t know how they’re going to go about it or who’s going to take the laboring oar.”
CORRECTION: This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Mendy Elliott's name. | (May 16, 2012)