Republicans for the Win
Mitt Romney's former Nevada State campaign director tells us everything.
Time and time again, former Republican political operative Joe Brezny has seen the high school play of state political races out until their tedious ends. From 1988 until 2001 in his home state of Ohio, he worked as an “all-hands volunteer” for Governor George Voinovich’s gubernatorial campaign in 1990 before moving on to various Ohio state assembly and senate races. In 2001, Brezny moved to his current home of Nevada to work for the late Nevada State Senator Bill Raggio as Executive Director of the State Senate Caucus. In 2007, he was State Director for Mitt Romney’s Republican Primary race, helping implement a win with a 39-point margin over Romney’s closest competitor in the state, Ron Paul.
Fast forward to the Nevada Republican Party in 2012, and the game has decidedly changed. Thanks to a masterfully devious delegate strategy cooked up by the Ron Paul campaign, the Nevada Republican party is now evenly split between hardcore Ron Paul supporters that currently comprise 22 of the 28 delegates going to the RNC in Tampa—and have even called upon RNC Chair Reince Preibus to resign—and RNC-backed outliers who have seceded into the newly-formed Team Nevada.
Nowadays, Brezny is a registered independent and works as Deputy Director of Government Affairs at Carrara Nevada, where he advises clients in the private sector on how to make politics work for them. Like most political operatives, Brezny sees politics in unsentimental and dispassionate terms, which has proved vital for his long-term survival. And with Nevada selecting the President for 10 out of the past 11 election years, Brezny’s own impartial glimpse into the Mitt Romney’s first-time run for the Republican ticket and the fractured state of the Nevada Republican Party affords him special clout as a Sin City political oddsmaker in the current political cycle. So place your bet.
VICE: How did they appoint you as Nevada State Director for Mitt Romney’s first Republican Primary race? Did you know him beforehand?
Joe Brezny: No, I had never heard of him. The first I had heard was there was a Republican governor running for President and I said, “OK, from where?” And they said, “Massachusetts.” And it made me scratch my head. And they said, “He’s Mormon,” and it made me scratch my head more, because it just didn’t add up. And then I met with his staff under the guise of advising them on who to hire in Nevada and how I would set up the campaign. And a friend of mine, Ryan Erwin, who I worked in Ohio with back in the late 80s, early 90s, Ryan had been brought on as their general consultant. And so we just talked and they had a great plan and I felt like it was a natural advantage for him to win since his family is close. He has sons in Salt Lake City and San Diego. He’s got a house in Southern California. He’s got a familial presence on the West Coast and he was the most prepared. It seemed like on the front end, he was the one who was going to win the Nevada primary, and it turned out he was.
Some accuse the Romney ‘07 campaign of dysfunction, especially between the regionals and the central campaign in Massachusetts. Did you see any evidence of that?
Oh, no, no, no. Two things about Mitt Romney: he’s far and away the most organized man I’ve ever met. This was the most organized campaign I’d ever worked on. It was structured in such a way that it became very clear very quickly that you had an Ivy League-educated MBA at the top of the helm. He is an amazing, dynamic manager, and God’s honest truth, I had worked in the business 20 years when I worked on his campaign in ‘07, and I honestly feel like working for his team for one year doubled my political knowledge. They are that good. They are that sharp. Romney is one heck of a manager, and he gets amazing production out of his people. If it’s possible, the other side needs to be worried. I think a more accurate reason that he failed the last time is one, Republicans like someone the second time around. I don’t know why. Look at Reagan, look at Romney, look at McCain, they all ran and failed. It’s kind of like Republicans like a try-me period, where they wanna give credit to the guy from last time and “Aw, shucks, it’s his turn.” But that is part of it.
The other part, too, is Mitt Romney’s very, very good at business. This was a new business for him. And running a Presidential campaign, I don’t know a single person that does it and gets it exactly right the first time out. If you look at Hilary’s and Barack Obama’s campaigns, they struggled and had their own street fight all the way to the nomination. And honestly, Newt Gingrich ran a campaign more like what you described. For Newt having been inside the Beltway for as many decades as he has, I was completely shocked to see how disorganized his campaign was, how fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants it was, whereas Romney was the exact opposite. Nothing happens by chance. There are no coincidences. I mean, he’d been studying hard and saving his lunch money since the third grade. He sees things coming. I was really impressed with them, from him on down.
I know he had to fight a lot of accusations of him being a flip-flopper as well as anti-Mormon sentiment in ‘07 as well as currently. Was it any easier for him here in Nevada?
It was easier, because it’s one area that I’ll say where him being a Mormon helped. Before I had moved to Nevada I had met one person of the LDS faith, ever, in my whole life, and here, my first year, I had two state senators that were Mormons. And so you realize here that any stigma there is with the LDS faith is probably unwarranted because they’re your neighbors. They’re your friends. They’re your bosses. And so that part was easy. I had to fight within the inside baseball power players who have some religious bigotry issues. I had to fight with them, but I honestly think it’s not that fundamentalist Christians are bad. It’s that the only ones who seem to open their mouths in the Republican primaries are the hateful ones. The ones who are nice and great and want to have their faith be a rudder for them, they kind of stay quiet and stay out of things. I just meet the people that have gone off the charts and say, “Being a Mormon isn’t being a Christian religion,” which is funny to me because it’s in the title. It’s in the name. Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, you know? That was always the big disconnect for me. It was not only, "How do you not get this?" but also, "How in the hell do you have the right to say, 'Nanny-nanny-boo-boo, my church is better than your church, my god is better than your god?'” The amount of that was shocking. But that was all inside baseball. When we got to the actual vote, you didn’t see any press coverage that was anti-LDS. You didn’t see any of the stuff like the insanity that Lawrence O’Donnell spews on MSNBC. You just don’t see that in a state like this where you know Mormons. So in that case, being LDS helped, but the argument that the Mormons won the election, the numbers just don’t add up, it’s not true.
In The Real Romney, much of the ‘07 campaign talk in that book focused on the primary races in Florida, New Hampshire, and Iowa. Nevada was passed over with a remark about how Romney handily won with the Mormon vote and that was that. I don’t know how that strikes you.
Oh, it boils my blood, because it’s just not true and it’s honestly lazy reporting. The truth of the matter is he got more votes than there are Mormons in this state. He got two or three times that number. The reason that he got more than half the vote the last time around was two things: We ran a good campaign and we ran it for seven months. And the other campaigns didn’t show up until about two months before the election. They thought they’d walk in and try and undo seven months of building a grassroots database. I mean, we ran a campaign the old-fashioned way. Did the Mormons who lived here and vote, did they support him? Absolutely, like 90-something percent, but there just aren’t enough of them to control the election, even in a primary. I’ve run campaigns for and against several members of the LDS church statewide in Nevada over the last ten years and you can’t control the state senate race with LDS votes. It’s gonna be a lot harder to control the statewide presidential primary.
Ron Paul finished second in the ‘08 campaign, whereas in this primary he finished third. How would you compare his presence in the primary then as opposed to now? Was he that much of a power in Nevada then, too?
He didn’t run things then. Ron Paul’s campaign, from what I’ve seen here, when we looked at the numbers, his supporters are different than most. Every other candidate, we had Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney. Back then, every other candidate had support, but when you asked who’s your second choice, they always had one. With Ron Paul supporters, instead of having a second choice, it was Ron Paul or nothing. And that’s kind of an encapsulation of what they are and what they’re like. It’s my way or the highway. It’s my guy or hit the road, and oh, by the way, if you don’t agree with me, I hate you. I’ve said more than once: Ron Paul, great Constitutionalist; his supporters, kinda crazy idiots. And so his supporters here have learned that no one really cares about the central committees and the primary process and being part of the campaign machinery behind-the-scenes within the party. That’s always been an afterthought. They basically run the campaigns and then figured that all of the nominating processes and the central committee would all fall into place. Well, Ron Paul figured out if we hijack the central committee and hijack the parties, we can play asymmetrical warfare. We can have more of an impact than we logically should. But the thing that they fail to realize is that politics is a game of addition, and if what you do is try and grab 25% of the market when you’re only entitled to 17% of the market, you might get it, and you might get it temporarily but it’s a false statistic. They’re operating on a lie, and that’s why they’ll lose every single time and be confused and scratching their head as to why they went down. They only practice division, and they’re not gonna win with that approach.
Was that strategy present in ‘07?
Their strategy in ‘07 was to tap into the passion of their supporters, who turned out in higher numbers, but there aren’t that many of them. So then what they learned between last time and this time was to add controlling the state and county parties into the mix. But it’s the same campaign as it was four years ago. They just happen to run the state and county party now, which have no funding, and which are politically irrelevant this cycle.
What was your strategy for selling Romney here in Nevada?
Two things: the messaging was all done by the national campaign, and so they would do the testing and figure that out several levels above my pay grade. At the local level, my component was seeing what was actually there, who are our hard supporters, who are our soft supporters. I was more of a mechanic. I would analyze the problem with the machine and fix the machine. And so being more in the weeds, my job was finding that first supporter, having them recruit two friends; it honestly was a game of building a flood, raindrop by raindrop.
What I saw, I keep thinking of the cover of his book Turnaround, because when you heard about what his messaging was on how he had approached the budget deficit in Massachusetts and leaving office with a budget surplus and a rainy-day fund of $2 billion, and going into the Salt Lake City Olympics and leaving them a success when he took them over in chaos, I think it’s an effective message for Mitt Romney because it’s true. He really is a turnaround artist. I think that may be a challenge this year because as the economy is growing and expanding, the country may not be shopping for a turnaround artist.
Well, the dispute is that he won’t turn it around for Main Street. Obama has seized on Romney’s record with Bain Capital, closing down plants in towns where they still curse his name.
And that’s confused me a little. Firstly, because I know it’s just not true. They’re trying to paint Mitt Romney as someone who is just going to continue a collapsed system by catering to the wealthy. And I am not close with him. He’s not on my speed dial. But I have spoken with him, and the one thing that’s come through in his public speeches and in his private talks that I’ve heard him give to groups of 300 down to three, he realizes if nothing else, from a numerical standard—‘cause he’s been criticized for being a data geek, and I think that’s pretty fair, he is kind of a data geek—but he has said that if you make the rich rich, you’re helping a small segment of the population, you’re helping one percent. The converse argument to that is if you tax them to death, if you take all of the money of the one percent, you still don’t fix the deficit. So what that points you to from both sides is the fact that the solution to everything, it’s the solution to the economy, the solution to the deficit, the solution to the debt, the solution to everything, is having a productive and reasonably low-taxed middle class. He realizes that, so it’s something where even if he were an unbridled capitalist like his opponents are saying, he’s undeniably brilliant, and he realizes this formula only works if you have a productive, expanding middle class.
But that’s what Obama’s arguing, too.
The devil is in the details as to how we get there.
Were you thinking about the Latino vote as well in ‘07? That’s far and away much bigger than the Mormon vote in this state.
Oh, yeah. The Hispanic vote and the Latino vote in Nevada, I don’t know how it is in other states, but in Nevada, it’s interesting. It’s really interesting to watch, because of the issues, of the dynamics that go on with that. From a 40,000-foot view you could say the bulk of the Latino vote is gonna go Democratic, and you’d be correct. But if you were to assume that that is the case, that that is a static statement, you would be wrong. Because if you look within the culture, they’re family oriented, they’re religious, and they’re entrepreneurial. Those three things tend to line up more with the values that the Republican Party espouses, and the Hispanic coalitions that we would bring onboard were very much focused on that message of “I understand that a lot of Hispanics vote Democratic. I don’t understand why. I understand that it goes on, but I don’t see why,” because they felt that the Republican Party was a more natural home. And what I think you’re gonna see happen in Nevada that as you have more and more of your Hispanic business owners who are industrious and expand their business and take on more market share, I think you’re gonna see a real bifurcation of that voting bloc. I think you’re going to see the numbers trend more towards 50/50. But I would say for this year, the best that Romney can hope for is to split off part of the Hispanic vote in Nevada, and the larger influence comes from his core group of Hispanic volunteers. I can name five of them in Nevada right now who were there every day making phone calls in Spanish and doing outreach and trying to expand. They’d make 20 calls and only get one person, but I had someone smile very broadly and say, “I just took 5% away from the other side.” And he’d get told “no” 19 times to get yes one time, and grin broadly that they just ate into the other side by five percent. So that’s how they can have a marginal impact this year. And then President Obama’s gonna try to get the Hispanic community to stay home. But it’s only where home is this year. And that home is changing. The left needs to keep an eye on the Hispanic community because I see them trending more towards the right as time goes on.
On Bill Moyers, Lionel Sosa recalled speaking to Reagan in 1980 about getting the Hispanic vote out, and Reagan said, “That won’t be a problem.” And he said, “Why?” And Reagan said, “Because Hispanics are Republicans; they just don’t know it yet.” I never understood why he thought this until now.
Yeah, yeah, I couldn’t agree more. That’s a brilliant way to put it. I don’t want to insult the left. I’m in the middle. I’m nonpartisan. I’m a registered nothing. I’m independent. But I speak very coldly about what I see with the religious right, what I see with the Hispanic community, and I’m speaking about numbers. And when I speak about numbers, I see the numbers in the Hispanic community shifting more to the right.
There are two Las Vegases. Most people think of the Strip, but most of Vegas are these abandoned strip malls that look like something out of The Walking Dead. What needs to happen to address this imbalance, to bring the entire city up to a livable level? Because right now, I think one out of four homeowners are underwater?
It’s 80% underwater. We had a lot of trouble with the Federal Housing Assistance Programs because all of them said that you couldn’t be more than 120% underwater, and we let them know if you wanna be 120% underwater, you had to have bought your house six months ago. So you’re probably not in foreclosure yet, because all of the houses that are in foreclosure are 180% underwater or 200% underwater. So you have a long-term systemic problem with the housing that’s going to take a few years to recover. The larger issue of what’s going on in Las Vegas is this pervasive high unemployment. When the rest of the country peaked at 11%, we were at 14%.
It’s just under 12% statewide.
Being down in the 11-12% range in Las Vegas, what people don’t realize is that that’s our best. That’s the best we’ve done through this crisis and it’s still worse than most of the country saw. So because our best is still worse than most of the country’s worst, there’s a deep dig here. That’s why you see the strip malls that are half-abandoned. That’s why you see so many people out of work. It’s why the social rolls have expanded here. And we’re going to have a longer recovery. And you would think that that would make it difficult for the President to get re-elected because of the high unemployment, but being this bad is our new normal. We’ve gotten used to it. Seeing it go down to 11 and a half percent is encouraging to us, so the President may be OK here. This one’s gonna be a nailbiter. Nevada is gonna be a nailbiter.
And a bellwether state, too.
But is it gonna come to our handful of our electoral votes? Probably not, but maybe.
What do the youth who feel disillusioned by Obama and who can’t identify with Romney need to keep in mind in this election cycle and in general about their politics?
Well, I think there’s a real difference between doing the gut-level, instinctual things that make you feel good, essentially standing out in the street and throwing rocks. That makes you feel good. But if you’re standing out in the street in Las Vegas, Nevada or Madison, Wisconsin or Columbus, Ohio and you’re throwing rocks, you’re not changing anything in Washington. People might put it on television and they might report about it and then people might know you’re upset, but they don’t know what you stand for. And they don’t know what you’re trying to change. You can do those things. You can stand out in the street and throw rocks if you already are registered to vote and you already go to the polls and show up, but the problem is that the youth in America are ignored because they don’t vote. It’s free. It takes five minutes. You have to register to vote and you have to get to the polls if you want anyone to pay attention to you. And that’s, the thing that I hear, youth is wasted on the young. And this is one of those examples where they have all of this energy and they’re excited about the process and they’re angry about their lives and they wanna get engaged and they wanna make a change, but they’re not getting registered to vote and they’re not going to the polls.
Sure, there was a bump for Obama four years ago, but they still weren’t crushing it. They still weren’t voting anywhere near the numbers that seniors are voting. And they won’t until that fundamental paradigm shift occurs, until they stop yelling and screaming for a minute, get registered to vote, know that you have to go to the polls and vote on election day and then go back to screaming, and also doing the fundamental things that will cause change. One thing I can guarantee you, after 24 years of working in politics, I have only found one thing that all elected officials care about, and it is self-preservation. Every first-term elected official wants the same exact thing: a second term. That’s what they want. And the youth holds the key to that.