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Big time wrestlingIn this corner, moderate Republicans! In the same corner, hardcore conservatives! Inside the battle for the GOP's soul 

In 2012, Democrat Justin Jones defeated Republican Mari Nakashima St. Martin in Senate District 9 by 301 votes. That close election allowed Democrats to retain their one-vote majority in the state Senate.

But before St. Martin could take on Jones, she had to fend off fellow Republican Brent Jones in a GOP primary, which she won by 255 votes. And while it’s impossible to say whether the money and effort she spent on an intraparty fight denied her a victory in the general election, it’s clear the primary didn’t help.

St. Martin’s dilemma is not unique: So far, in 10 races up and down the ballot, ideologically conservative Republicans are challenging their more moderate brethren, a phenomenon not seen on the Democratic side. The primaries are skirmishes in a civil war raging within the GOP over its future, a war Democrats are watching with glee. And while those conservative candidates defend their reasons for running, their chances of victory are dubious at best.

 

All about taxes

While a host of issues, fiscal and social, divide the party, one — taxes — can usually be used as a reliable litmus test.

Ask conservatives why they distrust Gov. Brian Sandoval, and they will cite his embrace of a supposedly temporary package of sunset taxes. (That may be why Sandoval’s choice for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Mark Hutchison, is facing a challenge from hotelier Sue Lowden, and why she’s attacking him with a list of taxes and fees he supported.) Ask why they’re running a primary against state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, and they’ll cite his violation of the Americans for Tax Reform’s anti-tax pledge, which he signed in 2010.

What good does it do to elect Republicans, they argue, if they vote like Democrats? Or, at the very least, give away their votes without winning concessions from Democrats? In this, Roberson stands out as a particular target of ire: He not only switched from opposing the sunsets extension in 2011, he actually pitched a giant tax increase on the mining industry in 2013, one he suggested should take the place of a 2 percent tax on businesses proposed by the state teachers’ union. 

“He is just so bad, so toxic to the Republican Party,” says Chuck Muth, president of Citizen Outreach and a longtime proponent of Republican primaries against what he sees as squishy moderates.

In fact, Muth says Roberson is a special exception to a general rule, to encourage Republican primaries only in districts where Republicans enjoy a majority in registration, so that no matter who wins the primary, a Democrat will not take the seat. Republicans in narrower districts or ones with Democratic majorities get a pass, Muth says. But not Roberson, whose embrace of a resolution that would remove a cap on mining taxes from the state constitution surprised even Democrats.

Muth is also one of the loudest voices behind a controversial plan, backed by many grassroots conservatives, for the state GOP to endorse candidates in primaries. The process is seen as helping conservative candidates and has been boycotted by establishment figures, including Sandoval and Roberson.

 

The winning business

Ultimately, the question must be asked: What will conservative Republicans achieve with primaries? In Roberson’s case, no one gives challenger Carl Bunce much of a chance. (That despite his record in helping libertarian-minded conservatives take over the state and county parties.) Bunce’s presence in the race, like all conservative challenges in Republican primaries, will force incumbents to devote resources that could otherwise have gone to fighting Democratic challengers.

“It does make for certainly more challenges for the incumbent,” says Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno, the leader of Republicans in the lower house, who’s facing a primary challenge. “They have to spend more time and more money.”

Hickey has argued for a “big tent” party where members of the so-called liberty movement (who sometimes call themselves “constitutional conservatives”) live-and-let-live with more moderate Republicans, rather than a “pup tent” party in which candidates snipe at each other. “I don’t want any faction thinking they are the true Republican Party,” Hickey says.

But constitutional conservatives aren’t interested — in fact, they see moderates as the enemy every bit as much as Democrats, if not more so.

So why worry? So many more people have voted for Hickey than have heard of his rival, what does it matter? Candidates tempted toward such thinking are haunted by the case of Democrat John Lee, a state senator handily defeated in a primary in 2012 by newcomer Pat Spearman. Now, no one can ignore a primary challenge.

It’s also difficult to argue, as Bill Clinton once did, that winning races is the first duty of an elected official — otherwise, you can’t do anything in politics. That would taste like bile in the mouths of principled conservatives. For them, being right on the issues is better than winning. And, as one observer noted, they would rather burn the party down and remake it than inherit what’s been built.

 

[Hear more: Who's already eyeing the 2016 election?  Hear a discussion on KNPR's State of Nevada.]

 

A party purge?

Muth disputes the winning argument, saying even if current Republicans achieved a majority (impossible in the Assembly, given the makeup of the districts, but an achingly elusive goal in the Senate) they’d still fail to enact a conservative agenda. (This includes opposing a net increase in taxes; construction defect reform; school vouchers; public-employee retirement reforms; and education reform.)

But there are things to which Republicans can point, such as teacher tenure and evaluation reforms passed in 2011 with the help of majority Democrats. Or school tax credit scholarships. Republican lawmakers had sufficient numbers to ensure majority Democrats could not enact taxes.

Still, the fact that Republicans are not in the majority is a major hindrance to advancing a more conservative agenda.

The path to success, said one trenchant observer in the GOP, is not for Republicans to be the polar opposite of Democrats, opposing taxes or expanded school funding, but to be a reasonable alternative, supporting smart, workable policies. Democrats will overreach, this person said, leaving Republicans to look responsible and trustworthy. But that pragmatism angers and animates the conservatives. It convinces them they’re the only real Republicans left, and that a party purge is the only way to defend the GOP “brand” from permanent dilution. They’re willing to risk losing, and a goodly number of them surely will, to make that point.

Back in Senate District 9, a Roberson-endorsed lawyer, Becky Harris, is trying to unseat now-incumbent Democrat Jones. Once again, control of the majority hangs in the balance. But first she’s got to win the primary. Sure enough, she’s being challenged by not one, not two, but three fellow Republicans. One, Vick Gill, announced his candidacy and immediately criticized Harris. She apparently wouldn’t denounce taxes to his satisfaction.


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