Tea party in Nevada looks to influence 2012 races
LAS VEGAS – Pitchers of beer were flowing, a mechanical bull seesawed in a corner and a crowd of tea party followers waved American flags like it was Independence Day when unlikely presidential contender Herman Cain stepped onto the stage at Stoney’s Rockin’ Country Bar in Las Vegas to wild applause last week.
Cain, a little known first-time presidential contender, is being ignored by many national Republicans who think he doesn’t have what it takes to unseat President Barack Obama. But not in Nevada, where tea party followers are once again intent on making their voices heard on the national stage.
The tea party movement swept Republicans into power in the U.S. House and handfuls of state legislatures last year. Leaders of the loosely organized, sprawling effort say they hope to wield the same influence in 2012, when both Congress and the White House will be up for grabs.
And Nevada, one of the first states to birth a community of tea party followers – and the home of the third presidential nominating contest of 2012 – is one place where tea party followers hope to make a difference.
“The tea party in general and in Nevada in particular has got to help us select a good conservative leader for the (Republican) party,” said Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, an organizing website for tea party enthusiasts. “With Nevada as frontloaded as it is, the tea party has got to get out there and help get a good candidate.”
Nevada tea partiers are eagerly embracing the charge. They have launched websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to reach out to voters. They’ve hosted policy meetings to debate national legislation and rallies to protest not just federal spending, but state expenses, too. And, with an eye on 2012, they are inviting tea party-approved presidential hopefuls like Cain and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann to meet Nevada voters.
Stephen Commander, president of the Las Vegas Valley Tea Party, is the sort of no-compromise primary voter Republicans are facing in 2012. He said Congress should not have passed a budget this year without tackling the national deficit.
“I am worried about the next generation,” he said. “America is pretty much disappearing from the America I knew into a situation of what many people call socialism.”
The Silver State has long been home to anti-Washington groups. Its diverse population and devastated economy has proved to be fertile ground in recent years for tea party followers, who favor smaller government and lower taxes. Nevada tops the nation in foreclosures, unemployment and bankruptcies and Republicans and Democrats blame each other.
“The economy is going to be the single greatest factor in whether the tea party continues to have a leg to stand on,” said Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno.
Early proponents of what would become the tea party movement coalesced in 2008 behind presidential hopeful Ron Paul in an upset that prompted state Republicans to shutter Nevada’s state convention that year.
In 2010, tea party activists and national tea party groups such as the Tea Party Express rallied behind former state lawmaker Sharron Angle in a bid to unseat Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. National and state Republicans warned Angle was unelectable in a general election, but voters nevertheless made her the primary winner. She lost to Reid in November after raising $14 million in three months.
Despite Angle’s defeat, Nevada’s elected Republicans have begun to embrace the tea party.
At Stoney’s Rockin’ Country Bar, more than 400 supporters gathered recently for a monthly event that has become the go-to place for politicians trying to win the Republican vote.
Cain, a pizza mogul from Georgia, told reporters before the event that he’s finding support from people across the country who are fed up with an oversized federal government.
“I define a tea party candidate as anyone who believes in fiscal responsibility, the free market system, and enforcing the constitution,” he said. “I have been a believer in that mantra from the beginning.”
Before Cain took the stage, Republican Rep. Joe Heck of southern Nevada greeted the crowd and state Sen. Greg Brower, who is running for a northern Nevada U.S. House seat, pledged to fight tax increases. Heck is one of the state’s fiercest supporters of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
The Nevada GOP, meanwhile, has eyed the movement with greater hesitation.
There have been some efforts to engage far-right Republicans by attending or organizing events carrying the tea party flag.
“All they are are Republicans wanting to get something done,” said Heidi Smith, a national Republican committeewoman from Reno.
But concerns that tea party candidates can’t win general elections, reinforced by Angle’s defeat, divide the party.
“We didn’t get rid of Harry Reid and the whole nation had their fingers crossed that we would,” Smith said.
The Nevada GOP has gone so far as to sue the state to try to keep tea party candidates out of an upcoming special election to replace Dean Heller, who was appointed from the House to the Senate in May to replace scandal-plagued Sen. John Ensign. The state party wants to unite behind one mainstream candidate it chooses rather than divide conservative votes against the Democrats in a winner-take-all election.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold and Angle are among the field of candidates competing for Heller’s old job and both have admonished the state GOP for trying to block them.
Lippold said the tea party represents small government and fiscal responsibility. “I believe in what they are trying to do,” he said.
But he has also embraced the more controversial, conspiracy-driven side of the tea party that has raised questions about Obama’s place of birth and alleged that the president is a secret Muslim. Obama is a Christian.
Most recently, Lippold slammed Obama for allegedly shunning Christians on Easter last month by not issuing an official proclamation honoring the holiday.
Angle, who has not responded to multiple requests for comment, retains a loyal base of followers. At a recent anti-tax rally in Las Vegas, she led a raucous crowd in a karaoke-inspired rendition of Lee Greenwood’s patriotic anthem, “Proud to be an American.”
“She’ll do a good job in anything she does,” said Carole Long, a tea party supporter who sits on the board of the Clark County Republican Party in Las Vegas. “She is a strong lady and very devoted to what she believes in and very devoted to our cause.”
But others within the movement are worried Angle might give tea partiers a bad name heading into 2012.
“I don’t think she is electable,” Phillips said. “She had her shot at it.”