After every election, the losing party does a little navel-gazing and finger-pointing, and then starts short-sightedly wondering, “What should we do differently in the next election?”
Well, at least in most places. In Nevada, Democrats have made a habit of thinking about the next dozen or so elections every single cycle (which is why they’re solidifying control over our various governments), while the Republicans have sat around making stupid excuses for gross incompetence.
As long as political parties dominate our electoral system (and God willing, someday every race will be non-partisan), we will benefit from two strong, competitive parties led by serious professionals who sincerely desire effective government while protecting individual liberties and civil rights for our citizens. Right now, we have one party run by political professionals who have an un-serious view of government (free stuff for everyone!) and another without leadership and increasingly abandoning – or not even understanding – their own professed ideals.
So how do Republicans get back in the game? One column can’t come close to solving those problems, but here are a few places to start.
Plan ahead, get ahead. In the three excellent election post-mortems (here, here, and here) in The Indy, and to anyone who has seen the Reid Machine in action in the last decade, what stands out is that Democrats don’t just think about the next two years – they think about the next 20. That means recruiting candidates for four or six years from now, cultivating them during that time and over the long term, and treating them like a member of the team. Republicans should do likewise.
It also means staying ahead of changes in population, and anticipating challenges in governing long before they’re crises. And it means taking advantage of other changes, such as the influx of new businesses and people moving into Nevada from other places. Rather than huge ad-buys, how much more effective would it be for Republicans to personally contact new voters as they move here to escape high home prices, high taxes and burdensome regulations, reminding them of why they moved here in the first place and welcoming them to the fold?
The data gathering and voter outreach done by Republicans this cycle are impressive, but those efforts cannot be seen as seasonal any more. The work must never stop.
Who actually leads the Republican Party? Who should? There is no singular Republican Party in Nevada, and hasn’t been for at least a decade. While Bill Raggio was the undisputed king of other elected Republicans in Carson City, he kept the rank-and-file party activists (who of course do things like choose state and county party chairs, whose competence matters a great deal in elections) at a disdainful arm’s length. With very few exceptions, most senior elected Republicans have followed suit.
In 2013, Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller tried and failed to replace the cartoonishly incompetent Michael McDonald with consultant Robert Uithoven, but the effort was half-baked and ham-fisted. Uithoven hadn’t exactly been a regular fixture at central committee meetings, and by then, decades of neglect had left members and volunteers feeling actively hostile to pretty much any Republican who had ever won an election. It’s a shame the popular governor didn’t continue pursuing those efforts to reintegrate the GOP under adult leadership. It’s now up to Mark Amodei, Barbara Cegavske, and James Settelmeyer to rise to this challenge.
Politics is a team sport, but teams need good captains. Structurally, Republicans have neither a team nor a captain. New candidates must either choose between pleasing the “base” activists and alienating the larger majority of less fanatical GOP voters, as Adam Laxalt did, or trying to please everyone at once (and pleasing no one) like Dean Heller.
And while it is true that politicians need to spend more time with volunteers, it is also true that activists need to understand and accept that the people who are actually winning the elections must necessarily be permitted to be in the driver’s seat. Republicans who win office are necessarily supported by a majority of Republicans, after all.
The red wave of 2014 allowed McDonald to maintain his delusions of competence, but the NV GOP will never be competitive state-wide while he remains in place. And by the way – there are plenty of Republicans with experience running for (and even winning) statewide campaigns who are now looking for a new gig.
Understand yourself and then sell yourself. Party infrastructure, governing competence, and good ideas are all important, but politics at its core is a sales job. Republican control of our state government has coincided with remarkable economic growth, better schools, and more opportunities for every Nevadan – so why was it so hard to sell “let’s have more of this success” to voters?
Part of it this cycle was that too many GOP politicians seemed to have no idea why they were succeeding, or even what “success” actually meant. Adam Laxalt essentially spent most of his campaign running against Brian Sandoval, who was both popular and wildly effective as a pragmatic, serious, almost post-partisan nuts-and-bolts kind of leader. While willing to work across the aisle at times, Sandoval nonetheless boxed in a ridiculously left-leaning Legislature with his veto pen. Laxalt didn’t need an amorphous Californication threat – he had some great coattails on which he could have ridden and specific Nevada officeholders with an embarrassing voting record to run against. If Laxalt was a more nuts-and-bolts policy guy with more experience developing a communications (and governing) strategy, this would have been obvious to him.
Legislative Republicans have the same problems. GOP Assembly leader Jim Wheeler, for example, doesn’t seem to have the foggiest understanding of the most basic principles underlying a (small R) republican form of government. Far worse, Sen. Michael Roberson spent most of 2017 on non-issues (sanctuary cities? really?) and gratuitously salting the earth around him in an effort to stymie ascendant Democrats, only to find he wasn’t able to keep or cultivate allies in his self-poisoned landscape. Why on earth did he do that rather than touting his substantial 2015 successes to the public, even (and especially) through the 2017 legislative session? Why didn’t he sail forth in the wake of Sandoval’s success rather than tie his star to Laxalt’s short-sighted ship?
Start trying to actually appeal to people. Part of selling a product is engaging potential customers. So why do Republicans constantly ignore huge swaths of potential voters? You can’t win where you don’t compete.
I hate identity politics, but that doesn’t mean paying attention to demographic trends shouldn’t be done. So get active on campuses, and in dense urban areas, and in minority communities, and even in union halls. Engage the press. Better, become the press. (Wealthy Republican donors offering journalism school scholarships to young writers who aren’t reflexively left-wing would have a huge return on investment, and as The Independent has proved, there is great hunger for more high quality journalism.) Winning the base will never be enough, and Republicans who want to win can never speak only to them.
Sell the ideas that work, and stop ceding issues. I’m not against government monopolized health care or schools because I want to limit people’s wellness or education; I’m against them because government monopolies too often provide crappy services to people. I’m not against protecting the environment – rather, I recognize that only wealthy nations (made wealthy via free market economies) can afford to conserve wildernesses and other public lands. I’m all for enforcing immigration laws, but the Shining City Upon a Hill is a far more attractive vision to new voters than walling out “The Others.” The left is increasingly obsessed with racial division – so the right must re-embrace both the primacy of the individual and the cultural Melting Pot.
Politics is downstream from culture, and Republicans need to get back into the culture game. And I don’t mean complaining about gay marriage or picketing abortion clinics (that’s still politics), I mean engaging in the community with charity work or youth mentorship. I mean participating in and patronizing the arts, vocally and monetarily. If Republicans believe government isn’t the answer to our problems, show (don’t tell) the alternatives.
Finally, there are problems only government can solve. So identify those problems. Then identify solutions. Then run with laser focus on those very specific solutions.
All of this requires a cultural shift in a terribly sick state party with not much in the way of a bench. It will take years to accomplish, but the changes must start now. Today, Nevada appears to be a reliably “blue” state. But only a generation ago, so was Texas – and California was just as reliably Republican. Things can change.
The path to that change for Nevada Republicans is relatively simple, but not easy. We’ll be better off across the political spectrum if they choose to start heading down that healthier path.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.