In 1858, Abraham Lincoln ran for the Senate in Illinois and, invoking a Bible he had carefully read and often disputed, declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He was talking about slavery, but he may as well have been previewing the Republican Party in 2012—in the Silver State and beyond.
Nevada Republicans recently held their convention, where supporters of libertarian Republican and noted medieval philosopher Ron Paul took over the party, ousted the national committee folks and elected 22 of the 28 delegates to the national convention. If the Republican caucus mattered, Mitt Romney should have won most of them. Apparently, the caucus didn’t matter.
This has inspired the Republican National Committee and Romney campaign to say, in so many words, they will ignore the state GOP’s existence and go off on their own. Apparently, the campaigns of GOP Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Joe Heck will join them.
Gov. Brian Sandoval has wanted to rebuild the Nevada Republican Party and enhance his influence over it—much as Sen. Harry Reid did with the Democratic Party for the 2008 caucuses. Clearly, Sandoval isn’t getting too far.
Paul never will be president or control the national GOP (though he may well hope that his son, Rand, will). But even as he suspended his presidential campaign, he urged his supporters to keep fighting, which can only hurt Romney. If the election proves close (and it may; Romney can count on many voters to ignore their best interests), he will need a united GOP nationally and in Nevada.
What Paul’s supporters have done speaks to Romney’s difficulties in winning over his party, as reflected in a recent Gallup poll showing 80 percent of Democrats happy with Barack Obama but less than 60 percent of Republicans feeling similarly about Romney.
Nevada Republicans reflect these divisions, and not just about their presumed presidential candidate. That’s the whole point of the Paul “revolution.” Historically, Nevada has leaned toward libertarianism, except when the federal government was offering money and jobs. In recent years, Nevada has shown signs of social conservatism, and not all of the state’s Republicans are on board with that.
All of which could affect several races. Heller, Heck and other GOP candidates need to tread carefully. Hitching their wagons to Romney could offend a significant percentage of their fellow Republicans. But pandering to Paul could offend the social conservatives who are likely to back Romney. And while Romney compromises himself daily, compromise is a dirty word to Paul’s army.
What’s ironic is that the Nevada GOP’s increasingly libertarian leanings could end up being truer to its party’s past. Consider Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who recently vetoed a gay-marriage bill, saying a matter this important should be left to the voters. But Lincoln’s whole point about his opposition to popular sovereignty—or letting voters in territories decide whether to have slavery, a stance supported by Lincoln’s great Illinois rival, Stephen Douglas—is that rights cannot be open to majority vote.
Christie has positioned himself on the wrong side of history, and so have many of his fellow Republicans.
Nevada Republicans could take a stand against government interference and for liberty—and in the process support the lawsuit now pending against the Nevada Constitution’s ban on gay marriage. That, in turn, would impale Heller, Heck and Co. on the horns of another dilemma, given that Obama recently came out in support of gay marriage and Romney was for it before he was against it (or something like that).
As Lincoln also said, “Stand with anybody that stands right. Stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.”
Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.