If activist lists translated into votes, then Richard Ziser might be expected to drive Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) out of office in a landslide next year.
Instead, Ziser, the lone Republican to have entered the Nevada Senate race so far, is struggling to establish credibility — despite successfully spearheading two ballot initiatives to prevent gay marriages in the Silver State.
With GOP hopes of knocking off Reid deflated ever since Rep. Jim Gibbons (R) announced that he would not challenge the three-term Senator, Ziser visited Washington, D.C., last month, in an attempt to convince Republican leaders and consultants to take him seriously. To paraphrase Koko in “The Mikado,” his message was simple: I’ve got a little list.
Actually, Ziser’s list is not so little. It has the names of 160,000 Nevadans who supported his ballot initiatives, which passed in 2000 and 2002. About 90,000 of those, Ziser figures, are registered Republicans. And 5,000 of those are people who carried petitions for the ballot question around the state, collecting signatures.
“We know that many of those people are Republicans who will vote for Richard,” said Steve Wark, a Las Vegas-based consultant and lobbyist who is working for Ziser. “The vast majority of [initiative] organizers are being incorporated into the Ziser for Senate campaign.”
But so far, few national Republican leaders are convinced. The GOP now appears to be pinning its hopes on state Treasurer Brian Krolicki, who has traveled to Washington several times this fall to meet with party leaders and relevant interest groups. Wealthy real estate agent Jack Woodcock is also talking about running.
Given that Reid won his 1998 re-election contest by just 428 votes, even some Democrats concede that a candidate like Krolicki would start with a base of 47 percent of the vote — despite Reid’s ability this cycle to pick off support from leading state Republicans.
Krolicki, who has served as state treasurer since 1999 and won re-election last year, won’t decide until next month whether to enter the race.
Several things will have to fall into place to push Krolicki into the race, political insiders say.
Perhaps the biggest factor is financial support. Krolicki will not jump into the race if he cannot count on his GOP friends in the private sector.
Reid has done an excellent job of locking down much of the money to be collected within Nevada’s borders, observers point out, and it could be difficult for Krolicki to raise the cash he would need to successfully challenge an incumbent like Reid who gets high marks for looking out for his home-state interests.
Regardless of the state’s ideological lean, Krolicki will not wage a campaign unless he’s certain he can win, and so far Reid looks pretty hard to beat. Krolicki is considered to have a bright political future, and he may not want to risk it on a Senate run.
Ziser, however, has no such concerns — which may explain why he’s the only Republican certain to run.
Asked about Ziser’s potential, National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen was circumspect.
“We’ll work with Republican leaders [in Nevada] to figure out who the best candidates are to take on Harry Reid, who we still believe is vulnerable,” he said.
By his own admission, Ziser’s chief challenge is to convince GOP leaders that he is a mainstream Republican rather than a far-right religious fanatic. Ziser, an evangelical Christian, said that if he was in Congress, his voting record would be similar to those of Gibbons and Sen. Jon Ensign (R-Nev.).
“I’m not this raving guy over on the far right,” he said.
In fact, Ziser and his handlers are also touting the 50-year-old candidate’s business acumen. He took over his father’s California-based tool and die business a quarter-century ago, segued into the precious metals market, and moved the company to Nevada to take advantage of lucrative contracts for gaming machine tokens. He sold the business nine years ago and is wealthy enough to live off the proceeds — and seed his Senate campaign with $150,000 of his own money, with another $100,000 donation to come soon.
“Richard’s reputation [as a conservative firebrand] was the X factor [in the Senate campaign],” Wark said. “As people are acquainting themselves with the candidate, they are realizing that he has some wonderful qualities.”
The early retirement gave Ziser the time to focus on politics. He ran unsuccessfully for the Clark County school board in the Las Vegas area in 1998, did some lobbying of the state Legislature for the conservative group Nevada Concerned Citizens, and ran the statewide races for the Protection of Marriage Initiative.
“I became out of necessity the media focal point for the campaign,” Ziser said.
Despite his work on the controversial ballot proposal, Ziser’s name was recognized by only 20 percent of Nevada voters in a poll he paid for in late summer. Which is why the list becomes so important in Ziser’s pitch to Republican leaders.
“Sooner or later, someone is going to look at the same numbers we are,” Wark said. “Richard Ziser has the enviable position of sitting on top of the largest political organization in the state, bigger even than Harry Reid’s.”
But the list may not be as fail-safe as Ziser is suggesting. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported recently that when Ziser used the list of Mormons who supported the anti-gay marriage initiative to urge Mormon bishops to support his Senate candidacy, one bishop vociferously objected.
“For him to use the data [from the ballot question], which I supported, for his own political aspirations, is wrong,” Bishop Steve Fellows of Willows Ward told the newspaper.
Ziser insisted that he only contacted “people that I know personally” to discuss the campaign.
Despite the flap, Ziser said it is his goal to convince Republican leaders to embrace his campaign by the end of the year — at which point he hopes to have about $500,000 in the bank. As of Sept. 30, Reid had $3.7 million in his campaign account.
Sean Sinclair, Reid’s campaign manager, said the Senator isn’t slacking off or taking anything for granted just because Ziser is the only challenger in the race right now.
“From day one, we have been just laying the groundwork for Senator Reid’s campaign, and that hasn’t changed,” he said. “It isn’t safe to assume anything.”