Washoe County Republicans swing elections

Washoe County voting patterns suggest Republican voters resist extreme figures and policies. This early voting station was in a Sparks grocery store.

Washoe County voting patterns suggest Republican voters resist extreme figures and policies. This early voting station was in a Sparks grocery store.


On Jan. 21, 2017, a Republican woman marching in the Reno Women’s March said, “One thing, Dean Heller is still keeping the faith and will be able to help control Trump.”

Last month, during early voting, another Republican woman leaving a Washoe polling place explained her vote in the U.S. Senate race by saying, “I didn’t so much vote for Jacky Rosen as vote against Dean Heller.”

Since the Nov. 6 election, there has been considerable speculation on why Washoe County voted so heavily Democratic, and much of it has suggested this is something new.

“What happened to Republicans in 2018 in Northern Nevada?” asked a headline on a commentary in the Reno Gazette Journal last weekend.

In 2018?

Washoe County has long been a center of moderate Republicanism. It’s the county that produced Sue Wagner, William Raggio, Jason Geddes, Bob Cashell, Joan Lambert, Randolph Townsend, Dawn Gibbons and Heidi Gansert.

Ultra-rightist Sharron Angle was an exception, and her home county voted against her in her race against Harry Reid in 2010. Against Harry Reid.

In 2012, Washoe County voted for Dean Heller for U.S. senator. In 2018, after he made his peace with Donald Trump, Washoe changed its mind and dropped Heller.

In 2014, state legislator Barbara Cegavske, known for voter identification measures and a proposal permitting discrimination against gays, plus as state chair of the rightist American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), lost Washoe County in her bid for secretary of state. When she ran for reelection as an incumbent, she scraped through in Washoe County by just 50.4 percent of the vote.

Washoe voted for Barack Obama over both John McCain and Mitt Romney, and for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

It voted against Adam Laxalt both when he ran for attorney general and when he ran for governor.

These are not anomalies. They suggest Republican Washoe County does not like extreme Republicanism. It’s not the county that is a swing county. It’s Washoe County Republicans who are a swing constituency, and rightists alienate them at their own risk.

“Republicans in the rural counties are not moderate Republicans,” political analyst Fred Lokken said this week. “Republicans in Clark County are certainly not moderates. Republicans in Washoe County are.”

And that puts them up for grabs. That has been clear “election after election,” Lokken said, yet the right has not picked up the message from voting patterns.

Former lieutenant governor and Reno mayor Bob Cashell became a Republican in 1983. He has a photo of himself, U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt and President Reagan in the oval office. Cashell argues that extremists are Republicans in name only (RINOs), and that they use the GOP as a vehicle for agendas and proposals that do not belong in the party and render it unelectable. Lokken agrees.

“The Reagan party has been hijacked,” Lokken said, arguing that the right misrepresents Ronald Reagan’s record—he raised taxes repeatedly, for instance—and then uses that imaginary Reagan to sell its own agenda. Reagan often violated conservative tenets, Lokken said.

“There is this mean-spirited, petty brand of single-agenda extremists whose views do not sit well with the vast majority of voters,” Lokken argues. “They use the primary to hijack the candidates, and then the party can’t win.”

In addition, many of the extreme candidates are little known because they have not made much of a contribution in the community. Lokken said every election, voters face their general election ballot and say, “Where in the hell did these people come from?”

Like a lot of analysts, he does not care for the term “swing county” for Washoe but does say it “still remains not locked in, moving toward the Democratic Party.”

Heller as case history

Cashell, former state GOP chair, declined to discuss Trump but said there was a way to determine the success of extreme Republicanism: “You look at the results.” He said the party is forcing Republicans to look elsewhere for sensible, mainstream policies.

“They ought to be trying to mend fences and be a little more open minded, instead of the extremes that some of these people have been going,” he said.

If the county ends up Democratic, Lokken said, it will not be the fault of moderates. And the fate of Heller demonstrates that. When asked if Heller made a mistake making his peace with Donald Trump, Lokken said, “I sure do think he did.” And he explained why:

“First, it was a reversal of what he said he would do.”

“Today, I’m opposed to [Trump’s] campaign,” Heller said in June 2016. “He did a lot of damage. … I’ll give him a chance, but at this point, I have no intentions of voting for him.”

“Second, it was a stab in the back of the sitting governor,” Lokken went on.

Gov. Brian Sandoval had implemented President Obama’s health care program in Nevada through a state exchange and had taken the political heat for it. When Donald Trump supported congressional measures to undercut or repeal the Obama program, Heller opposed Trump in very strong language. Then he reversed course and made his peace with Trump, leaving Sandoval on his own.

“Third, Heller’s actions were at odds with the history of locals in Nevada expecting their politicians to stand up to Washington,” Lokken said.

After Heller effectively made himself out to be a Trump acolyte, it was difficult to unring that bell. But Gov. Sandoval tried at the end, endorsing Heller and making broadcast commercials to try to save Heller. Sandoval’s effort emphasized issues like the Violence Against Women Act, trying to undo the notion that Heller had become extreme in a Trump sense. It was not enough.

Worse, Lokken said that when Trump got Heller’s primary opponent Danny Tarkanian to withdraw from the race, it gave voters a sense that “He [Heller] wasn’t in control of his own race anymore,” something that became even more pronounced when prominent out-of-staters made arguments for Heller that Heller would not have made for himself, as when Mike Pence said Heller was “100 percent pro-life,” which was not true—thus making Heller seem further right than his actual voting record in Congress.

“This was not the Dean Heller people knew,” Lokken said.

The migration of the GOP to more extreme proposals, programs and policy has resulted not only in some Washoe Republicans voting Democratic, but in their switching to either nonpartisan or Democratic voter registration. And it’s not just the rank and file. Some prominent figures, like Sue Wagner, have reluctantly left the party.

Moreover, Washoe businesspeople and industrialists have been drifting away from the party. They made up a substantial part of the list of Republicans who could not accept Sharron Angle as a Republican leader and supported Harry Reid for reelection.