How Much Tea Will Nevadans Drink?


Media analysts are painting this November’s election as a victory for pragmatism and bipartisanism over ideology, as voters annoyed at the recent government shutdown rewarded centrists while punishing conservatives.

Former Las Vegas Review-Journal political reporter Molly Ball wrote a Nov. 7 story in The Atlantic subtitled, “After years of trying to accommodate conservatives, mainstream Republicans finally went to war on Tuesday—and won.”

How does that apply to Nevada? The key races Ball cites were from outside the state: Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is so far to the right that he almost meets the far left coming around, lost the governor’s race by only three percentage points to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. In Alabama, business interests pushed through a House candidate over a Tea Party Republican. In New Jersey, what Ball calls Governor Chris Christie’s “pugnacious pragmatism” led to his easy defeat of his Democratic challenger.

But Ball’s column raises some interesting questions about the relationship between centrists and right-wingers in the Silver State.

She writes, “Whether knocking off respected incumbents like Dick Lugar and Bob Bennett or elevating untested candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party’s M.O. has been to pour resources into draining, quixotic intraparty battles, even if they came at the expense of general-election victories.”

While Republicans are still bitter about Angle’s loss to Senator Harry Reid in 2010, Angle is less of an outlier than Ball implies, with more bona fides than many other Tea Party candidates. She won four terms in the Assembly before trying to move up to the House and barely losing in 2006 to Dean Heller, who got the hint and shifted to the right. In 2010, she was the main northern Nevadan in the Senate race, besting two presumptive front-runners, Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian, who proved to be weak candidates.

In Nevada, the Republican establishment is weaker, and the business community less united against Tea Party-type forces, than the other states Ball depicts. Recently, Governor Brian Sandoval and Senator Dean Heller, supported the election of a party chair with ties to Sheldon Adelson, who is so generous to Republicans that he even funded Newt Gingrich’s book tour. Their candidate lost. The “establishment” is also supporting a primary candidate—Robin Reedy—against Assemblyman Jim “I’d support slavery” Wheeler. But Reedy is tainted by the legacy of former Governor Jim Gibbons, whose administration was, to put it mildly, usually a disgrace.

The Nevada business community, for its part, may be focusing on other political goals besides pulling the Republican Party to the center. The Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce has been making interesting noises lately about  disliking—well, not Republicans exactly, but stupidity, and supporting the notion that southern Nevadans ought to be voting for southern Nevada instead of for their party—Democratic or Republican. In Nevada, regional differences could ultimately prove more significant than being for or against the Tea Party.

So what about the reelection chances of Nevada’s centrist Republican governor in 2014? According to Ball, “in New Jersey, Christie demonstrated that a centrist candidate can thumb his nose at the right and still win.” In Christie’s race, 31 percent of those asked in exit polls identified themselves as liberal. That means, first, that they really aren’t liberal and, second, they didn’t take the Democratic candidate seriously. (That candidate, State Senator Barbara Buono, excoriated party leaders for abandoning her.)

No Democrat has officially stepped forward to challenge Sandoval, partly because, political analysts agree, Sandoval has benefited from wearing Teflon and not governing entirely from the far right. Those on the Republican right may find they can live with Sandoval instead of the Democratic candidate. Democrats may feel the same way.

If so, Sandoval wouldn’t owe his reelection to the Tea Partiers—but they might make his life more difficult when he inevitably seeks higher office.