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John Ensign, Jim Gibbons and Disarray: Can the Nevada GOP Be Saved?

4 years ago
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LAS VEGAS – The Republican senator from Nevada is involved in a sex scandal. The Republican governor has an approval rating of 10 percent. There's no answer at state GOP headquarters, and the elder statesman of party strategists is recruiting Republican supporters for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – a Democrat -- in his 2010 re-election race.
Can this party be saved?
A week ago, given the problems of Sen. John Ensign and Gov. Jim Gibbons, the answer was probably not in time for the 2010 elections. This week the picture is much brighter because of one man: U.S. District Judge Brian Sandoval (pictured).
Sandoval, a former state legislator, attorney general and Nevada Gaming Commission chairman, the first Hispanic federal judge in his state, now in his mid-40s, said late last week that he will step down Sept. 15 from his lifetime job on the bench. There's little doubt he plans to run for governor, taking on Gibbons and others in a primary if the field doesn't clear.
That sets up a possible showdown in November 2010 against Rory Reid, son of Harry. Which would be quite ironic, as many local pundits have noted, since Harry Reid pushed for Sandoval's appointment and no doubt assumed the lifetime job would keep the young up-and-comer out of future contests for any office, including his own. (As Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston wrote, channeling the elder Reid, "What about 'lifetime' did Sandoval not understand?").
The current state of the Nevada GOP might be summed up as besieged, bothered and bewildered. There's no executive director, political director or media contact listed on the party Web site. No one answered the phone when I called and no one responded to the voicemail I left. There are no events listed for the rest of the year. And all that is just a symptom of larger problems.
Between Reid's machine and strenuous organizing efforts last year by presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Democrats now hold a registration edge of close to 100,000 voters. Though the GOP nomination race was competitive at the time of the Nevada caucuses last year, Republicans did not mount a comparable organizing drive. Last November, Obama won the once solidly Republican state by 12 percentage points.
The state GOP is now carrying the additional burden of two damaged officeholders at the top. Ensign's popularity has been slipping since he revealed that he had a months-long extramarital affair with Cynthia Hampton -- a family friend who worked for Ensign's campaign and whose husband was his Senate chief of staff. Ensign also revealed that his parents gave the family nearly $100,000.
The Federal Election Commission is investigating those payments and others to Cynthia Hampton. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has asked the Senate Ethics Committee and the Justice Department to investigate as well. Ensign had been in the Senate leadership, but he stepped down after disclosing the scandal. Nevada Republicans decline for the most part to talk about Ensign on the record. But Rep. Dean Heller, discussing his decision last week not to mount a 2010 Senate challenge against Reid, said Ensign's problems played a role.
"I had anticipated . . . Sen. Ensign being there with me" to help deflect attacks in what would have been "a very rough and tumble campaign" against Reid, Heller told Ralston on the TV show "Face to Face with Jon Ralston." He said the prospect of waging the fight without Ensign "gave me pause." Heller also said Ensign needs to give a full account of what happened with the Hamptons – because "until John talks, we haven't seen the end of it."
Gibbons, meanwhile, has a personal life that more than lives up to the customary qualifier of "messy." Days before he was elected, a young woman accused him of sexually assaulting her in a parking garage – he denied any wrongdoing. Last year he filed for divorce from his wife, Dawn. Dawn Gibbons accused him in court documents of having extramarital affairs with two women in Reno, which he has denied. The couple has also tangled over whether the divorce papers would be public (he lost – they were unsealed this year) and who should live in the governor's mansion (he moved out last year and she stayed, but recently she moved into an adjacent cottage and he moved back part-time).
Gibbons has been tangling with the Legislature as well as his wife. The latest skirmish came when he proposed hiring a state stimulus "czar" and Democrats, saying they didn't trust him to pick someone qualified, tried unsuccessfully to move the position to the state controller's office. In a poll in May, 11 percent said they would vote to re-elect Gibbons; 54 percent said they would vote for someone else.
Veteran ad man and image-maker Sig Rogich is a human symbol of the GOP doldrums. On the walls and surfaces of his office a mile or two off the Las Vegas Strip, photos show him beside Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (the Bush pictures have handwritten notes from the president). He raised money for George W. Bush ("I'm still close" to both father and son, he told me) and last year for John McCain. He's been finance chairman for the Republican Governor's Association. He advised Kenny Guinn in his successful 1998 campaign for governor and eight years later did the same for Gibbons.
Sitting in his office last week, Rogich said Gibbons has problems (in fact, Rogich was with Gibbons the night of the alleged 2006 assault, which has now morphed into a civil rights lawsuit against both of them and others) and he will stay out of the 2010 race for governor. "I'm going to focus on Harry Reid," he said. For a change, however, this GOP stalwart will focus on getting Reid re-elected instead of trying to beat him.
Rogich worked for Reid's opponents in two Senate races – in 1974, when Republican Paul Laxalt narrowly defeated then-lieutenant governor Reid, and in 1986, when then-congressman Reid beat Republican Jim Santini. Now Rogich is a pillar of "Republicans for Harry Reid."
Like the Wall Street companies deemed too big to fail, in some GOP circles Reid is considered too valuable to lose. As Rogich put it, why would you oust a Senate majority leader who is close to the president so you can install a brand-new senator with no seniority and who is from the minority party to boot? Given Nevada's dire economic straits, he said that would be foolish, not smart and "one of the great historical mistakes."
There will be a GOP nominee against Reid, possibly state party chairwoman Sue Lowden, who is already in a tiff with Reid that started with remarks he made to me in an interview you can read here. But Sandoval's sudden emergence shifts the spotlight to the younger Reid and a race that some argue is the more significant for a couple of reasons.
One, the next governor will oversee redrawing of congressional and legislative districts after the 2010 Census. And two, the battered Nevada GOP badly needs a galvanizing force. "Rehabilitating the state party or reigniting the passion of your average Republican all begins with the right candidate, someone to rally around," Reno-based party strategist Pete Ernaut told me.
For him and others, Sandoval is that candidate. A couple of days before Sandoval's resignation announcement, without disclosing whom he was talking about, Ernaut said a new player was about to arrive -- a favorite son who had never lost an election. "I'm more than a little psyched," he said.
In his last political campaign, for attorney general in 2002, Sandoval won by 24 points. Assuming he goes for the governorship as expected, that race will be a lot harder. But his party might as well hold a victory party the day he announces. That's a win no matter who ends up in the governor's mansion.

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