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Michael McDonald still chair of state Republicans

If they can find a way to get along, Nevada Republicans figure to be in the driver’s seat in the 2014 election cycle.

Trouble is, the party keeps fighting over the steering wheel.

That was evidenced during the recent re-election of Michael McDonald as chairman of the state party. McDonald easily defeated challenger Robert Uithoven, who had the support of much of what political observers call the Republican establishment — also known as the people capable of dropping a bundle into campaigns — but that didn’t help him much when it came to working the room at the South Point.

Uithoven’s surrogates managed to collect proxy ballots, and a few of the state’s political pundits were predicting an upset. But when it became clear that a move was afoot to oust the conservative McDonald and his tea party allies from control of the state party, an interesting thing happened.

Hours before the vote, cars and trucks from as far away as Elko and Carson City arrived at the South Point loaded with county party members prepared to vote for their man, McDonald. These people are often written off in the press as tea party extremists and far-right libertarian types, but the last time I checked their votes counted just as much as representatives of the country club and casino crowd.

They were so concerned that the plain-spoken McDonald, who has worked the rurals often since becoming party chairman, would be tripped up that many hadn’t bothered to get a room reservation. After the vote, which saw McDonald prevail 193-112, many of those loyalists returned to their vehicles, gassed up and headed back north.

In other words, they drove about 1,000 miles in a day just to prove a point: Mainly, that they weren’t going to be intimidated by Republicans representing the moguls with the big checkbooks.

And McDonald maintained his chairmanship.

He also was made fully aware that the state party would continue to starve for funding as long as he was at its helm.

Even more embarrassing for Nevada Republicans and the chairman of their state party, McDonald was publicly pelted with vitriol from GOP members opposed to his continue tenure. The former Las Vegas city councilman’s time in office generated plenty of controversy, including multiple ethics investigations — none of which prevented him from being elected to the chairmanship the first time.

Whether Uithoven would have been a safer choice as chairman than McDonald isn’t the point. He almost certainly would have. But the fact he got shellacked proves he was either dangerously overconfident or perhaps less well suited for the job than he first appeared.

Much of the dressing down of McDonald’s character occurred at a cocktail party hosted by Clark County Republican Central Committee Chairman Dave McKeon, but underwritten by a local casino benefactor.

“I was late to arrive at the reception,” McDonald said afterward. “When I got there, I was being burned to the ground. I was shocked to walk in the room and see what was going on and see that they were putting me down personally.”

The trouble with the name-calling is not only that it’s immature, but also that alienating McDonald reverberates throughout much of the conservative end of the party, which already distrusts Southern Nevada’s GOP influence peddlers and superrich sugar daddies.

Even a few days later it was clear McDonald was hurt by the gratuitous slights.

“I’ve been up and down this state trying to unite the party,” he said. “I’ve been preaching that we have to learn to get along as Republicans even if we disagree with each other on some issues. We have to agree to work together to elect Republicans. And then this happens. It was an eye-opener.”

McDonald’s victory not only defeated Uithoven, but it was also an embarrassing loss for Gov. Brian Sandoval, who has given the chairman the cold shoulder and made little secret he preferred a change in the chairmanship. Sandoval is popular right now, but failing to recognize the importance of building the party and not building animosity is a good way for him to lose his edge.

If they’re not careful, Nevada’s already outnumbered Republicans could steer their 2014 hopes right into a ditch.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702 383-0295 or at jsmith@reviewjournal.com.

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