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April 23, 2014

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Assembly Republicans in disarray after repeated gaffes

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Cathleen Allison / AP

Nevada Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, left, talks with lobbyist Rocky Finseth at the Legislative Building Carson City on Tuesday, May 7, 2013.

Nobody’s very happy with Nevada’s Assembly Republicans these days.

Not even Nevada’s Assembly Republicans.

Two controversial statements about slavery and minorities from GOP members of the Assembly in the past few months have sparked outrage among Republicans and Democrats alike and have left elected Assembly Republicans planning how best to make an exit from their recent adventures in political gaffe land.

The comments come as Republicans in Nevada are attempting to attract a more diverse supporter base and catch up with Democrats, who have an advantage of about 100,000 registered voters more than Republicans.

Whether these comments damage that effort remains to be seen. But they certainly haven’t helped.

“We’ve been poor at messaging,” said Assemblyman Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas. “I think that it’s a lesson that we’re continuing to learn, unfortunately at the expense of progress.

“These become huge distractions over progress. That’s a struggle that some of us who are trying to push a better, more inclusive agenda certainly struggle with.”

Last week, Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Minden, said he would reluctantly vote in favor of slavery if his constituents wanted him to do it.

 Jim Wheeler, Assemblyman for District No. 39, of the 77th (2013) Nevada Assembly.

Jim Wheeler, Assemblyman for District No. 39, of the 77th (2013) Nevada Assembly.

That comment has spread far and wide, starting with a tweet Monday and burgeoning to include national and international media coverage throughout this week.

Although many Republicans were quick to castigate Wheeler for his statement, the Assembly Republican leader, Pat Hickey, R-Reno, was conspicuously silent. He was out of the country traveling in Israel, but he also could hardly condemn Wheeler because he had personally been the subject of criticism for comments he made in September.

In a radio interview, Hickey said 2014 will be a “great year for Republicans” because minorities and young people won’t turn out to vote in large numbers when a president or U.S. senator isn’t up for election.

The comments have left many Republicans shaking their heads.

“It’s completely dysfunctional,” said Chuck Muth, president of Citizen Outreach, a conservative advocacy organization. “They have a huge problem.”

During the past few weeks, Republicans in elected office have publicly harangued Wheeler and Hickey in what amount to rhetorical stonings of the two Republicans.

GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and several Assembly Republicans sent statements criticizing Wheeler. Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas, went as far as calling for Hickey to step down as leader of the Assembly Republican caucus.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal and Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce also have called for Wheeler to resign.

The events of the past two months have stalled Republican efforts to recruit candidates as they gear up for the 2014 elections.

“I’ve been put in a position in the caucus as political director to focus on the next election cycle, and this isn’t helping me,” Anderson said. “At the same time we’re out talking to donors in the community and folks who want to participate, there are some good positive things happening, and they are just being overshadowed by really ridiculous statements.”

But Assembly Republicans don’t appear likely to offload any toxic assets.

Nobody’s resigning or stepping down from leadership yet.

And Republicans do have one thing on their side: time.

The election isn’t for another 12 months, ample time to let these statements die down.

Still, Republicans say they need to address this issue immediately.

“Just to turn our backs on this issue and put real good sunglasses on is not going to solve the problem,” said Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas. “We have a situation we need to address very quickly.”

Muth said it’s not a difficult problem to overcome.

“The mistake a lot of these guys make is that they just don’t understand media communications,” he said. “When you avoid the press and only talk to friendly audiences, you tend to make these mistakes more often.”

In both instances, Wheeler and Hickey were talking to audiences sympathetic to Republicans.

And, in both cases, Democrats or left-leaning groups were listening. In Hickey’s case, the Nevada Democratic Party amplified Hickey’s comments in a news release. In Wheeler’s, a progressive activist noted his comments on Twitter.

But in each case, the statements were so toxic that even Republicans dashed away from Hickey and Wheeler, seeking to distance themselves from the comments by releasing their own statements of condemnation. At the same time, Democrats sought to round up all Republicans and fence them in with Hickey and Wheeler.

“Every time it happens, there’s a mad rush by the opposing party to try and tie everyone from that party to that statement,” said Ryan Erwin, president of Las Vegas-based Red Rock Strategies, a political consulting firm. “It just doesn’t work. ... The person saying that comment has to be accountable for saying those comments. But it’s certainly not a reflection on anyone else.”

Surely, Democrats have already tried to capitalize on Hickey's and Wheeler’s statements.

“First off, there’s the assemblyman who said he would vote to legalize slavery if his constituents wanted it,” wrote Zach Hudson, spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party in an email lampooning Republicans. “Then there is the leader of Assembly Republicans who cheered at the prospect of minorities and young people not voting. ... Pro-tip guys — you can’t win elections when you repeatedly insult every growing demographic group in the state.”

But does this political posturing actually lead to consequences?

Sometimes. For instance, this year, Hambrick got the "bad-boy office" by the bathroom at the Nevada Legislature because of a political mailer he sent attacking a Democrat.

Although these statements will go away soon, Republicans think they’ll surface again in political emails, advertisements and mailers as the election season heats up.

“When you get close to an election and primary, there will be issues that will miraculously resurrect themselves, and it’ll be Halloween all over again when issues raise from the grave,” Hambrick said.

For now, though, Assembly Republicans are regrouping.

“It’s caused a lot of introspective meetings and discussions and ideas that have come out of it that will be very productive for us in the election cycle and beyond,” Anderson said. "Nothing changes overnight. It’s watching the football film, so to speak, and figuring out where we do bad and making improvements there.”

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