DINOs and RINOs: Nevadans shrink the field

The list of “Republicans for Reid,” as in Harry, is growing. Even before the GOP chose Sharron Angle as its standard-bearer, some leading Republicans made clear they planned to back Reid.

Naturally, the far right has attacked them as RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only. Republicans for Reid include Marybel Batjer—a former aide to noted liberal Ronald Reagan and daughter of longtime Nevada Republican Cameron Batjer, a friend of former Sen. Paul Laxalt, Reagan’s best friend—and another Laxalt ally, Sig Rogich, who has worked almost exclusively on Republican and/or conservative campaigns. Batjer and Rogich must have become socialists.

What’s surprising about crossing party lines to support candidates is how normal this sort of thing is in Nevada. Traditionally, Democrats here have been more conservative than their Eastern counterparts, and Republicans more willing to work with them:

• Sen. Pat McCarran saw communists under every bush but otherwise was more liberal than many think. Being determined to control his state party, he aided Republicans who could help him knock off Democrats he found disagreeable. That helped lead to the election of a Republican U.S. senator and a Republican governor—with help from his Democratic allies.

• McCarran’s Senate successor, Alan Bible, worked well with numerous Republicans, including rural Nevada editors with political clout through their newspapers and connections. Both times he ran in a presidential election year, in fact, Republicans carried Nevada—suggesting not everybody voted a party line.

• Liberal Democrat Walter Baring served two terms in the House, then lost, returned as conservative Democrat Walter Baring, and won eight terms. He kept moving further right, eventually claiming to belong to the Jefferson Constitutional Democratic party. More liberal Democrats regularly challenged him in primaries. Republicans would change their registration to back him and then run a sacrificial lamb against him in the general election. He suited their views. Not so coincidentally, he was legendary in how well he and his staff took care of constituents’ problems, making him as hard to beat as anyone named Daley in Chicago.

Democrats have turned on their own in several races involving bruising, ideologically based primaries. In 1978, some conservatives wouldn’t back Lt. Gov. Bob Rose and went over to Attorney General Robert List. In 1982, moderate four-term Sen. Howard Cannon barely held off conservative four-term Representative Jim Santini, some of whose supporters sat at home or voted for Republican Chic Hecht, who won the general election and helped make possible what Cannon would have blocked: a decades-old fight over Yucca Mountain. In 2006, Dina Titus won a tough primary against then-mayor Jim Gibson of Henderson, and some Democrats took a powder for the general election; if you were one of them, you’ll answer for Jim Gibbons on Judgment Day.

But the current can run the opposite way. Santini became a Republican and ran against Reid in 1986, and some Republicans sat it out or voted for Reid. Some didn’t trust Santini. Others resented Laxalt and national GOP leaders backing Santini over a longtime Nevada Republican, Barbara Vucanovich, then a congresswoman—and, coincidentally, to Santini’s ideological right.

Then again, Republican resentment seemed limited when some Democrats bailed on their party and backed John Ensign (see above regarding Judgment Day). Nor did they object to Democrats backing Kenny Guinn for two terms as governor, since, after all, Guinn was a reasonable sort and had even backed some Democrats. For his trouble, Guinn wound up belittled as a RINO and worse for the notion that the state has a role to play in our lives—an attitude conservatives once had.

Nevada has changed—its population has grown and become more ideological. Political parties have changed, with Republicans in particular shrinking the big tent intended to accommodate divergent viewpoints on some issues because they could unite on big questions. The big question now is, who in the world could vote for Sharron Angle?

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