Last weekend’s two-day state Republican convention was a heady event for loyalists of long-shot GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul. They delivered a gut punch to the caucus victory Mitt Romney achieved here three months earlier by clinching 22 of the 25 at-large delegate slots to go to the Republican national convention in Tampa, Fla.
It was a defining moment after Paul loyalists also ousted two stalwarts from the Republican National Committee — former Gov. Bob List of Las Vegas and Heidi Smith of Reno.
Those victories came after Paul backers earlier took control of the Clark County Republican Party and grabbed a large share of seats on the state GOP central committee.
But before there’s too much dancing in the aisles by Paul supporters, it’s important to note that Romney did win 50 percent of the Nevada caucus vote, and under rules adopted last fall, he’s to receive 20 of Nevada’s 28 delegate votes in the first round of balloting at the national convention. Paul will get eight. If the nominating process goes to an unlikely second round, the Paul delegates are no longer bound to vote for Romney, under the rules.
Still, it now falls to the new party hierarchy to raise money and get Republicans to the polls — or be steamrolled by the well-organized Democrats. Romney’s camp and the Republican National Committee are unlikely to take any chances with that critical task, not with the presidency on the line and a key U.S. Senate race between Republican Dean Heller and longtime Democrat Rep. Shelley Berkley.
“Conventions and the party apparatus don’t really run the campaign,” said Sig Rogich, a longtime Republican consultant and former adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
“The candidate and the RNC in this case are going to provide the funds for this state,” he said. “The party can either move in lock step with what they want to do, or they’ll go around them.”
Paul supporters see their victories as a GOP renaissance that will take time to mature, and called for party unity.
“We need to make sure we unite as a party,” said new state GOP chairman Michael McDonald. “We’re going to send our message clear and loud across the country.”
That message fell with a thud among many in the Republican establishment, who likened the Paul takeover to a hijacking that they saw coming but were unable to stop.
“We don’t have a Republican Party anymore in Nevada,” bemoaned Julie Davies of Clark County, a Romney supporter. “It’s been taken over by the Libertarians.”
The Nevada GOP has been in disarray for years, rudderless during the ineffectual term of former Gov. Jim Gibbons and humiliated when tea party favorite Sharron Angle won a crowded 2010 GOP primary field in Nevada’s U.S. Senate race only to be openly rejected by the party establishment. Angle was soundly defeated by Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader whose seat was the most coveted by Republicans.
In 2008, party leaders shut down the chaotic state convention when Paul was poised to take most of Nevada’s delegates to the national convention. The RNC eventually brokered a compromise while expressing concern over the “ineptness” of the state party. And after great fanfare of being an early caucus state, the party was embarrassed in February when it took two days to tally the caucus results.
Smith, who will be replaced by Paul backer Diana Orrock of Clark County as Nevada national committeewoman after Tampa, saw the writing on the wall and went out defiantly, telling delegates while she agrees with Paul 80 percent of the time, the only chance of to get rid of that “damn socialist in the White House” was to elect Romney. She waved a Romney placard — and was summarily booed.
National committeeman List, the former governor, was displaced by James Smack of Fallon, a Paul backer.
The convention outcome was preordained when Paul supporters turned out in force at county conventions, where state convention delegates are chosen.
With the state convention attendees overwhelmingly Paul loyalists, many of Nevada’s top Republicans — Gov. Brian Sandoval and Heller included — stayed away from what typically is a chest-thumping pep rally. The Romney campaign sent Josh Romney to stand in for his father while Paul showed up and spoke to the enthusiastic delegates.
“It is absolutely astonishing to me that leading figures in the Republican Party chose to boycott their own convention,” said former Gov. Richard Bryan, a Democrat. “And I think they did the smart thing.”
Why risk being booed or walked out on?
Carl Bunce, Paul’s Nevada campaign chairman, said Paul followers will work to grow the party, and “growing pains” are to be expected.
“We’re working to change the party from the inside,” he said.
Smith has seen it before, and was part of the 1964 Barry Goldwater movement to swing the GOP hard right.
“We were young, we were kids, we were obnoxious, we were nasty,” she said, adding last weekend’s convention “was almost deja vu for me.”
“Now they have the state party,” she said. “What are they going to do with it?”