Nevada GOP divided but standing strong

At its state convention Nevada’s dominant political party fights over Yucca Mountain and abortion

Reno’s Brian Sandoval is a Republican who’s running for office in the state of Nevada. And that’s a good thing to be these days.<p>Photo by Bill Hughes, Las Vegas Citylife</p>

Reno’s Brian Sandoval is a Republican who’s running for office in the state of Nevada. And that’s a good thing to be these days.

Photo by Bill Hughes, Las Vegas Citylife

Photo By Bill Hughes

At their state convention last weekend in the Las Vegas suburb of Summerlin, Nevada’s Republicans showed the state what a flourishing, healthy political party looks like.

There were candidates everywhere, some of them running against each other in primaries. There was healthy (though not always civil) debate over important issues, such as Yucca Mountain, abortion and the so-called Protection of Marriage Initiative. And there was a true feeling of confidence—these people knew that they had the political momentum in this ever-growing state.

Compare this to the Democrats’ state convention the week before, and the difference is astonishing. The Democrats have few candidates for many of the state’s top offices. There was little out-in-the-open debate on the issues—in part because there was seemingly little spirit. Deep down, many of the Democrats knew their party was in serious trouble, and it showed.

But the Republicans were flying high. They’ve held most of the statewide political power for the last four years, and they’ll be keeping it come November.

When the state’s Democrats met the week before, it looked like a strictly Clark County affair. Only one Democratic candidate from northern Nevada, Tierney Cahill, spoke to the assembled party members—and she dropped out of her District 2 congressional race three days later because she was treated so poorly.

The Republican convention, on the other hand, looked like a state convention. The rural parts of Nevada and Washoe County were well represented—very well represented.

Republicans are actually exporting candidates from the north to the south. It’s true. Josh Griffin, the son of Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin who has managed several Republican races in the past, is himself running for the Assembly District 29 seat, which was redistricted from Reno to Henderson following the 2001 Legislature.

Earlene Forsythe, the former chairwoman of the Washoe County Republican Party, also made the move. Several months ago, she announced that she was going to run for Reno mayor. Now, she’s re-emerged as a candidate for the Assembly District 37 seat (yet another of the reapportioned seats).

With all these candidates and all this domination by the party that’s been in power for the last four years, the state must be in great shape, right?

“We’re very weak,” said Gov. Kenny Guinn at the convention’s Saturday afternoon session. “We’re very fragile right now.”

He then went on to talk about the economic trouble that’s crippled the state’s tax revenues before and after Sept. 11 and the potential energy crisis this state is facing because one company, Sierra Pacific Resources, which owns northern Nevada’s Sierra Pacific Power Company and the southern Nevada Power, controls all the power in the state. He discussed the weak health programs for Nevada’s seniors, the medical malpractice insurance crisis in southern Nevada and the deplorable condition of the state’s public schools.

Here’s something to ponder. Given that the Republicans have held five of the six constitutional offices and the state Senate for the last four years, you could say these areas have deteriorated under their watch.

Yet this is the party that is growing in strength.

The GOP convention was highlighted by the various battles among delegates over what would eventually become their party platform.

The biggest battle was over the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. On Friday, the platform committee was moving toward completely ignoring the dump, accepting the project as inevitable. The sentiment was: It’s coming, so let’s negotiate.

Jane Ann Morrison, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s veteran political reporter, understandably believed this was big news, and it was the top story in the Saturday newspaper.

“The Yucca Mountain Project is not a priority for the Nevada Republican Party,” she wrote.

This, of course, had the potential to make fools of the top GOP candidates and officials, who have all been unanimous in the fight against Yucca. In his remarks to the assembled loyalists on Saturday, Guinn said negotiating—at this point—is out of the question.

“I understand that question [over possible negotiations] if you don’t have the information that I do,” Guinn said.

Reno attorney Brian Sandoval, who is seeking to replace the retiring Frankie Sue Del Papa as attorney general, also joined the choir of Yucca naysayers.

“There are those who say Yucca Mountain is inevitable. I disagree,” Sandoval said. “There are those who say that we should negotiate for benefits. I disagree. There are those who say [the project] is safe. I disagree.”

In the end, the delegates approved a platform plank in opposition to the Yucca project. It reads: “We support Nevada’s elected officials’ fight against the Yucca Mountain project, but in the event the battle is lost, we urge Nevada public officials to work with the Bush administration for the maximum benefit for Nevada.”

Another controversy erupted over a possible anti-abortion plank. In a move that was somewhat of a surprise, considering the stranglehold the right wing has over portions of the party, Republicans eventually voted down such a plank. The platform includes no mention of abortion whatsoever.

A much quieter struggle emerged over an adopted plank that supports the so-called Protection of Marriage Initiative. The GOP also approved planks advocating school vouchers, a balanced budget without new taxes, the death penalty, restrictions on frivolous lawsuits, President Bush’s energy resource policies, gun rights and English-only programs.

Parts of that platform could be viewed as a preview of what’s to come from four more years of Republican domination. Yet other parts of that platform seem somewhat silly—especially the balanced-budget-without-new-taxes part, considering the platform was officially announced just after Guinn had said that budget cuts were damaging the state.

“You cannot cut yourself into prosperity,” Guinn said. “We owe the people of this state services.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Guinn and his fellow Republicans iron out their differences over the next four years. It’ll be a healthy debate, for sure.