(Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau) – While Republican voters have a rare chance to chart the course of the GOP Senate caucus in the upcoming primary, the candidates described by some political observers as the establishment choice say they too are true fiscal conservatives who believe in core party values.
Both Ben Kieckhefer, running against Ty Cobb in the Washoe 4 race, and Bob Larkin, running against Don Gustavson in the Washoe 2 race, reject any label to the contrary.
Both have been endorsed by the Senate Republican Caucus headed by Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno.
“I consider myself a pretty darn conservative guy,” said Kieckhefer, a former press secretary to Gov. Jim Gibbons. “Any notion of me as some pro-tax Republican is totally flawed. I’m not.”
Larkin said his work on the Washoe County Commission, which has involved cutting $100 million from the budget over the past three years and eliminating 500 positions, is evidence of his strong GOP philosophy.
“Government can’t live beyond its means,” he said. “There was too much fat. That is what a conservative does.”
Joe Hardy, running for the Clark Senate 12 seat against newcomer Patrick McNaught, could not be reached for this story.
Sen. Dennis Nolan, who is facing a challenge in his re-election bid in Clark Senate 9 from newcomer Elizabeth Halseth, also could not be reached for comment.
The June 8 primary offers an unusual opportunity for GOP voters. Five GOP Senate contests are on the ballot with four offering a choice between what some observers say is an establishment candidate and a more conservative opponent.
The Capital Senatorial District race will see conservative representation regardless of which GOP candidate wins in the November general election. Both James Settelmeyer and his primary opponent, Steve Yeater, say they will not be willing to compromise on tax issues in the 2011 session where lawmakers face a potential $3 billion funding shortfall.
Gustavson, Cobb, Settelmeyer and Hardy, all current members of the Assembly, voted against a package of tax increases in the 2009 session. Nolan voted with Raggio and three other GOP senators for the tax increase, giving the bill three more votes than needed to meet the two-thirds requirement for passage and enough to override a veto by Gibbons.
Republicans were in the minority in the Senate in the 2009 session for the first time since 1991. But Republican support was critical to reaching the two-thirds vote needed to raise sales and payroll taxes on Nevada’s largest businesses as part of the final budget.
A new position of unwavering opposition to general tax increases on the part of Senate Republicans could make the 2011 session one of the more contentious in state history.
In addition to Larkin, Kieckhefer and Hardy, Settelmeyer has also been endorsed and given financial support by the Senate Republican Caucus headed up by Raggio.
Janine Hansen, a long-time political activist as a member of the Independent American Party, said that support is an enormous hurdle for Republican challengers to overcome.
“More money and access to the establishment power base is a significant issue in any race,” she said. “For non-establishment Republican candidates it is incredibly difficult to overcome. It will be very significant if it happens.”
Gustavson said he is being outspent by Larkin, who he describes as his more moderate GOP opponent, but that a low turnout in the June 8 primary could benefit his campaign. Conservatives will turn out, and Gustavson said the conservative mood of GOP voters in Nevada should be a trend in his favor.
“I think it is a revival for the true Republican Party, the conservative wing that values true conservative principles,” he said. “This is the best opportunity we have had in years.”
Gustavson said there is no question but that the Senate Republican Caucus approach in the Legislature will change if he and his conservative colleagues win in the primary.
“We would have a much more conservative state Senate that we have had for years,” he said.
Raggio’s leadership position could also be jeopardized as a result, Gustavson said.
Larkin said that if he is elected to the Senate, he will work to balance the budget while maintaining the core Republican values of limited government, minimal taxes and fostering business growth and individual freedoms.
“I am the conservative candidate who gets things done,” he said.
Cobb said he is not a member of the Senate GOP caucus and so declined to comment on what the future might hold for the group following the November general election.
But Cobb said the caucus approach would likely change with the election of himself and his fellow conservatives.
“We would be getting rid of a lot of the old school way of handling things,” he said. “There would be more conservative, aggressive members of the caucus.
“There will be a new type of leadership focused on core values,” Cobb said. “We will use every bit of leverage we have when we enter into negotiations with the opposition.”
Kieckhefer disputed any characterization of him being the establishment candidate, noting that it is Cobb who is serving in the Legislature.
While he has not signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, Kieckhefer said he won’t be supporting a budget in 2011 that is any larger than the current spending plan.
“Now is not the time to increase taxes,” he said. “We need to look at our spending.”
Kieckhefer said Cobb voted for the 2007 budget that saw spending go up by 17 percent over the 2005 budget.
“So let’s be clear who people claim to be as well,” he said.
Kieckhefer said the real choice for GOP voters is a candidate who is focused on solving problems or one who has a track record of failure. Cobb has only seen one of his 17 bills become law, he said.
“We don’t need people who just sit there and be conservative and accomplish nothing,” Kieckhefer said. “The question is who is going to be an effective legislator, an effective conservative voice.”
Kieckhefer said he has the endorsement of the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, which he described as a fairly conservative business organization in Northern Nevada. He believes anti-incumbent sentiment among voters will also help his bid in the primary.
Settelmeyer said the Senate GOP caucus will see more focus on core conservative values next session, but to what degree will depend on the voters.
“If they choose to send more conservative representatives we will see less going along with the increases in taxes and spending” he said. “Efforts in the past to place surpluses towards the unfunded liability of the retirement and health programs have always taken a back seat to new program creation.”
While general tax increases have been a part of many budget compromises in the past, Settelmeyer said he won’t be on board with such proposals because they, “just kick the can down the road.”
Continuing the sales and payroll taxes approved in the 2009 session, for example, won’t be an option, he said.
“They are killing businesses in the state, and we need jobs, not more boarded up businesses,” he said.
“There will definitely be a roadmap for the future of Nevada after this primary,” Settelmeyer said. “But that roadmap will be dictated by voters, as it should.”
Yeater said a true conservative will be representing the Senate capital district regardless of which GOP primary candidate wins the general in November. Yeater said he has signed the taxpayer pledge and does not believe raising taxes is a good idea, especially in the current economy.
“I want to reduce existing taxes,” he said.
Yeater said GOP voters are energized and informed and as a result, the conservative candidates will win out on primary election day.
“I believe the Senate will look a lot more conservative in 2011 than it does in 2010,” he said.
Halseth said she will not be a vote for tax increases if elected to the Senate.
Negotiations in past sessions seem always to end up favoring the Democrats, she said.
“This election cycle will be different,” Halseth said. “I’ve been meeting with the people in my district for eight months. What they want is lower taxes. Raising taxes has never been the answer. We can’t afford that anymore.”
McNaught said he decided to run for the seat because of concerns Hardy has been too willing to compromise with Democrats in the past, sacrificing core GOP issues in the process. The Republican Party has lost its way by giving in to Democratic demands, he said.
McNaught said he won’t be the party of “no.”
“I will be the party of no taxes,” he said. “Any corporate or broad-based business tax will drive away jobs.”
McNaught said the state has lost tens of thousands of jobs and, “we need to get those jobs back.”
McNaught said he reached out to Raggio but that the minority leader failed to respond, instead opting to “anoint” Hardy for the open seat. He also noted that Hardy has passed up at least three different opportunities to debate him on the issues in recent weeks.
The voters in Clark Senate 12 have a clear choice, he said. A candidate who won’t raise taxes and who will seek fiscal reform, or a candidate who will consider tax increases to balance the state budget, McNaught said.