Ron Paul is not the president. He was never going to be the president. He was never even going to be the Republican party’s 2008 nominee for president. This is not disputed. But it’s also true that his perennial and perennially ill-fated presidential bids changed America’s political topography in ways that East Coast political observers may not yet fully understand.
One important part of this narrative is Nevada. In 2008, the state started having early caucuses instead of a late primary. And with that move, it stepped into the national spotlight that now glares at the first states to cast votes in the presidential-nomination process. Thus, the Nevada state Republican party became the object of a power struggle between establishment Republicans and supporters of the obstetrician-turned-congressman.
Nevada is an interesting microcosm on several levels. Nevadans like to talk about how their state is an encapsulation of the country. It has the nation’s fastest-growing Asian-American population, and its electorate is 20 percent Hispanic. While it voted for Obama in 2012, it also elected a Republican senator, Dean Heller — the only state to vote one way for senator and the other way for president that year. And while its voters repeatedly send Harry Reid back to the Senate, they also give high marks to their Republican governor, Brian Sandoval. In fact, he has a higher approval rating among Hispanics than among the general electorate — 60 and 58 percent, respectively, according to November data from Public Policy Polling. In short, it’s not California, but it also isn’t Alabama. (There’s some good political analysis for you.)
But if Nevada looks like America, it also looks kind of like the Republican party right now. While long-established, powerful national Republicans — especially in congressional leadership — vie to push back against what they see as potent and destructive Tea Party forces, Nevada is an interesting case of what happens when that grassroots-vs.-establishment struggle plays out on a smaller scale.
A note on semantics: “Grassroots” versus “establishment” is a terrible way to describe the dichotomy between comparatively moderate, mainstream Republicans who have traditionally held power and younger, activist movers who tend to rally under the Tea Party and liberty-movement banners. That’s because the GOP has always had grassroots activists and because there are plenty of young upstarts vying for space in the establishment — in other words, unestablished would-be members of the establishment. But because I can’t come up with any better terminology, I’ll just have to stick with that.
This dynamic started getting messy in 2008. Ron Paul’s supporters, getting their first real taste of serious national attention, felt they had a good chance of taking a large portion of the delegates elected at the state’s Republican convention. When — as James Smack, a former vice chairman of the Nevada Republican party and a former national committeeman, explains it – the convention was abruptly shut down by the state party leadership, feelings were bruised. This wasn’t just a political defeat; it was also an assault on Paul supporters’ sense of right and wrong. It wasn’t just about getting a candidate nominated — it was about getting justice.
And that invigorated Paul supporters in a way that a traditional loss never would have. Activists started plotting to get their own back. “Libertarian organizing” has always seemed like an oxymoron — political activists galvanized by their distaste for central planning and top-down oversight often resent, well, political apparatuses governed by central planning and top-down oversight. But the Nevada organization brought together a surprising combination of ad-hoc-ness and effectiveness. Activists didn’t have regular meetings, Listservs, shared schedules, or private Facebook groups, explains Smack. Instead, what he describes as “a conservative alliance” came together. It was about 30 people, most of whom had been 2008 state-convention delegates. They didn’t all love Ron Paul, but they all wanted more conservative candidates at the state and national levels. Some came and went; some entered the group only after its initial establishment. If one member found a project to work on, he or she would call a meeting to rally the others.
It was like a conservative steering committee, adds Smack. People pushed for the passage of resolutions and the election of state party officers. After a couple of years, members of the group had spread throughout party leadership in the state. The Nevada Republican central committee started to skew conservative. Smack himself rose to vice chairman of the state party and national committeeman. Jim Wheeler, another member, won a spot as a state assemblyman, and members of the group have grabbed county chairmanships and the chairmanship of the state budget committee. Diana Orrock, a Ron Paul supporter, became the national committeewoman. And at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting last month, she introduced the anti-NSA resolution that made national headlines as a significant change for the GOP.
The state central committee and the Nevada party are leaning much more libertarian these days, she tells NRO. But she doesn’t feel that’s the case for the party’s national officials. So there’s an appetite for the kinds of primary challenges that make national party leaders cringe.
And there’s not a lot of love among the new Nevada Republican leadership for some of the GOP’s brightest stars.
The Nevada GOP will welcome “any and all presidential candidates,” Smack says. But it will lean toward folks such as Senators Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz and Congressman Justin Amash. “It’ll be a little bit cooler reception for, say, Governor Chris Christie or somebody of that nature.”
“Jeb Bush would be another good example where the reception would be a little cooler,” Smack adds. “I think even Paul Ryan, at this point in time, the reception would be a little cooler because of this budget deal that just happened.”
Over the next few months, elections could change the constitution of the state central committee and give more power back to mainstream Republicans. But Smack and Orrock hold their spots through 2016 — a potential boon to the candidates they favor and thorn in the side of national Republicans seeking to push the party toward the center.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.