Mixed message

Washoe GOP welcomes gays, rejects Republicans

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer is one of a half-dozen GOP leaders who have been officially declared “unwelcome” by his home county Republican organization.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer is one of a half-dozen GOP leaders who have been officially declared “unwelcome” by his home county Republican organization.


On Aug. 28, the Reno Gazette-Journal posted a story about the Washoe County Republican organization reaching out to gays and other alternative groups.

But six weeks earlier, the Washoe County Republican Central Committee—governing body of the county GOP—adopted a resolution reading that several longtime Republican leaders, “due to their betrayal of the trust of Republicans, have made themselves unwelcome to enjoy the privilege of being honorary members of the Washoe County Republican Central Committee.”

The resolution was directed at Gov. Brian Sandoval, Assemblymembers Pat Hickey, Randy Kirner, and P.K. O’Neill, and Sens. Greg Brower and Ben Kieckhefer. Thus, while the party reaches out to some groups with one hand, it is pushing veteran Republicans away with the other.

The resolution also calls for “recall of any politician who voted for the tax increase [approved by the 2015 Nevada Legislature] who is not up for re-election. We further recommend the defeat at the polls of any politician who did vote for the tax increase and who is up for re-election.”

“It’s ridiculous and it’s indicative of how unwelcoming the Republican Party remains,” said political analyst Fred Lokken.

Republican county chair Adam Khan, who has to keep a lot of balls in the air in a party struggling over its identity, is trying to keep the resolution in perspective. As county chair, he said, he does not regard the original resolution as binding on the organization to withhold its resources from those six named officeholders or other unnamed figures described in the resolution as “any politician who did vote for the tax increase.”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “We were all very upset [by the tax increase],” he said. “However, many of us disagreed on how we were going to react to it. Many of us felt the party should not act on this, that our members should take action themselves or as individual private citizens, or even better, run against them.”

Lokken said that he often tells his students that political party organizations are “not normal.”

“Most people don’t get involved with party politics, so it’s the not-normal ones who have an outsized influence,” he said, referring to personalities like former state legislator Sharron Angle and other fringe figures.

Though those figures tend to describe more mainstream leaders as RINOs (Republicans in name only), former state Republican chair Bob Cashell has said it’s the far right figures who are the actual RINOs.

“Ronald Reagan felt there was room for all of us in the tent to agree to disagree and not say vile things about each other,” Cashell said. “But when you come out and you’ve got people, they want to get their pound of flesh, I think it’s terrible. I think it’s very, very disturbing to the whole organization. It’s splitting the organization.”

Lokken said the use of the term RINO is an indicator of the state’s problems.

“RINO should not be a reference in the state of Nevada,” Lokken said. “It’s a severe problem for the Republican Party.”

By citing the six names in the resolution on the basis of one issue suggests a single issue litmus test. For instance, while Kieckhefer voted for the tax increase, he also helped push through one of the party’s great symbolic and substantive victories of the legislative session—the school grants program that pays parents to take their children out of public school and put them into private school, an innovation being hailed on the campaign trail by Jeb Bush: “I mean, why not allow total voucherization? Nevada is moving in this direction,” Bush said at a New Hampshire education “summit.”

In addition, some Republicans have clearly been bewitched by the results of the low-turnout 2014 election, when Republicans in Nevada swept nearly everything while the Democratic base was lethargic. Lokken said relying on that outcome is shortsighted, that Republicans need party-building more, not less.

“Based on the 2010 census, this is pretty much a blue state,” he said.

He added, with a laugh, “If you’re going to base your success on the lowest voter turnout, go with that plan.”

New leaders

GOP county chair Khan seems disinclined to do that, or to accept party anger as permanent policy. He points out that subsequent to the adoption of the “unwelcome” resolution, a later meeting of the central committee voted not to endorse a recall petition against Sen. Kieckhefer.

Approval of the first resolution was “definitely not unanimous,” he said, and neither was the vote not to endorse the recall. “It’s definitely a heated topic in the party,” he said.

He hopes the mixed message of welcoming some groups and unwelcoming others will not undercut his efforts to expand the party, an effort in which he is joined by Clark County Republican chair Ed Williams.

“Anyone who knows politics knows it’s a game of addition, not subtraction,” Khan said. “Disagreement on some issues doesn’t mean you can’t get along.”

Lokken thinks that’s the right approach, and he says Gov. Brian Sandoval should take a stronger role in it.

“He’s the person best positioned to do that,” Lokken said. “He has the ability to actually work with them and find a middle ground.”

When running for reelection without a serious Democratic candidate, Sandoval spread his campaign wealth around, helping fuel the 2014 GOP sweep in which Republicans, for the first time since 1890, took both houses of the Legislature and all state government offices elected statewide.

But Sandoval has had limited success putting his imprint on the party organization, with its not-normal membership. In 2013, the state Republican Central Committee—dominated by Ron Paul supporters—rejected Sandoval’s candidate for state GOP chair, Robert Uithoven, and instead reelected Michael McDonald, who told the voting delegates, “It can’t be a top-down structure. That philosophy is, if you part your hair the wrong way, I’ll stop funding you.” But that is exactly the kind of approach that the “unwelcome” resolution represents.

Lokken acknowledges that the governor has had difficulties with the party apparatus, and argues, “Sandoval tried but there’s just no ability to work with this group.”

Whether that has changed with two new county chairs north and south is far from clear, particularly since the rank and file members of county central committees have their own agendas that may or may not match those of the chairs.