Romney facing Ron Paul's revenge in battleground Nevada

With its large Mormon population and free enterprise instincts, Nevada should be Mitt Romney's for the asking. But the bitter primary fight has left divisions that are hurting his chances.

Republican divisions hurting the party's presidential chances

Mitt Romney won the Nevada primary and the party nomination. But the bruising primaries left him with many fences to mend. (Associated Press)

A disaster. A train wreck. A mess. These are how people in Reno are describing the Republican party in Nevada, a state that used to be solidly red but has turned into a true swing state in recent years.

Nevada's Republican party is in such disarray, thanks to the divisive primary battles, that Mitt Romney had to bring in his own people — known here as Team Nevada or sometimes Team Romney — to provide the campaign heft that the state party would normally give.

In theory, Romney should have a leg up on Barack Obama here. Nevada's unemployment rate is the highest in the country, the housing market crashed in spectacular fashion, and there is a strong Mormon community backing him.

But, at the moment anyway, Romney is facing an uphill battle in a battleground state that has six electoral college votes up for grabs. And the lack of tactical support from his own party has put him at a noticeable disadvantage.  

"The Republican party as a whole is divided in Nevada and they don't have any strong leadership at the top to bring them together," says Ray Hagar, political reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Adds Sam Shad, another journalist who has covered Nevada politics for years, "the Democrats are doing such a better job of registering voters and that's how you win American elections."

The Ron Paul factor

Nevada went handily for President Obama in 2008 and has voted regularly for the winning ticket since the Ronald Reagan years. But in 2010, Nevadans elected a Republican governor and the state looked like it might be back in play.

One senator is the powerful Democrat, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader; the other is Dean Heller, a Republican, who is reportedly in a tough battle with his Democratic opponent to keep the seat.

Romney and Ron Paul supporters fought a pitched battle through the primary season and not all the wounds have healed. (Associated Press)

Voters here clearly like to swing both ways. But the big question this time is: Why isn't Romney getting the help he needs from the Nevada GOP?

One reason is that there have been fights for control between county associations and high turnover in the power positions within the state organization. It's had five different people in charge over the last two years.

And the other reason is "The Ron Paul people."

That's what Heidi Smith, a member of the Republican executive board from Washoe County, calls those who are now in several of the executive positions of the state party.

These are followers of the Texas congressman who ran for the GOP nomination and who subscribe to his libertarian values.

They are also so anti-Romney that they tried to get away with naming Paul as Nevada's presidential choice at the national convention in Florida in August.

He wasn't. Romney won the primary and Paul came third. But state executives have considerable clout over which delegates can be sent to a national party convention.

And Smith says the Ron Paul people are a small but powerful minority and that the rest of the party wasn't prepared for them.

They were able to take over Clark County's Republican organization, that's where Las Vegas is, and then the state party. Washoe County, in the north, is where Reno is and together, the two counties account for about 93 per cent of Nevada's population of 2.7 million people.

On the sidelines

"In this election, basically the Clark County Republican party is meaningless, they aren't doing anything," says Dave Buell, chair of the Washoe Republicans. "That's why this Team Nevada/Romney was put together."

Heidi Smith, a Team Romney executive board member from Washoe county, Nevada.

As he sees it, the state party is "sitting on the sidelines" and that includes fundraising efforts as well.   Money is crucial in battleground states, particularly because TV ads are a favourite weapon of choice.

Some estimate that upwards of $17 million will be spent for all the races combined (presidential, Senate, and others) just in the Reno market alone.

That's because it's the one swing county in the state that could tip the balance of votes to Romney or Obama.

Clark county tends to vote Democrat, and the rural counties vote Republican. But Washoe is the unpredictable one and Buell says his organization is on side with Team Romney and is working extra hard to win Washoe to make up for what's happening down in Vegas.

Some Republicans from Clark County have also ditched their own organization and joined Team Romney. 

The divisiveness and disorganization can be blamed if Romney loses Nevada, says political scientist Fred Lokken. "They're still shooting themselves in the foot."

Changing demographics

Lokken also suggests that another win for Obama here will put an end to Nevada's battleground status as the demographics of the state are changing in the Democrats' favour.

The socio-economic base is shifting, there is a strong union base, and Latinos are already one-third of the population. They are also a growing population, and tend to vote Democrat.

"Republicans are aware of this. So far the state [party] does not seem to be doing anything to court the new demographic," says Lokken.

The Democrats, on the other hand, have been running a well-oiled machine, journalists here say, and the credit goes to Senator Reid, who years ago invested considerable cash, some of it his own, to build a solid party infrastructure.

He hired professional fundraisers, for example, and some of the county associations have paid staff instead of using only volunteers.

In time, they developed comprehensive databases, sophisticated voter identification systems, and long lists of volunteers. Canvassers in this election are going door-to-door with iPads in their hands.

Over at the headquarters for the Washoe County Democrats, executive director Pamela duPre said Reid's vision for the party has made a huge difference for candidates. It gives them a head start, in her view.

The Republicans have money too, she said, but "the Democrats have a better ground game and when it comes to turning out voters, the ground game will make the difference."

Team Romney still has a few weeks left to catch up and if he pulls off a victory in Nevada, it will probably taste just a little sweeter given the challenges. If he doesn't, there will likely be no shortage of blame being passed around.