- Associated Press - Friday, November 13, 2015

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Top Nevada Republicans have had little interaction with the state party in the past few years under two-term chairman Michael McDonald - unless you count the unsuccessful effort they backed in 2013 to replace him with a lobbyist employed by casino mogul and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

Their chilly relationship might thaw Saturday, when a group of about 350 party insiders and Republican elected officials will vote whether to bring in a new face, Nick Phillips, or grant a third term to McDonald, who supporters have said represents the grassroots soul of the Nevada Republican Party but who is also facing a financial mismanagement lawsuit and has been blamed for damaging the organization’s credibility among donors.

“To me, it’s a pivotal moment,” said Phillips, 31, the former political director of the Clark County Republican Party who says the group needs to try harder for younger voters and become more diverse. “We as a state party need to decide what direction we should go.”

McDonald did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press. He recently wrote to party insiders that he and the board members, who are all up for re-election, have made “tireless efforts to make the Nevada Republican Party stronger.”

“Over the last four years, your executive board members have worked diligently to repair and strengthen the relationship with the Republican National Committee,” he added.

But McDonald has been dogged by bad press.

He’s facing a lawsuit for his alleged role in arranging a $2.2 million loan from the children’s charity Miracle Flights for Kids, where he served on the board. The loan went to Med Lien Management, a medical bill-collection business where McDonald was part-owner, and has since gone into default, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

He also garnered headlines this fall when news broke that he was quietly hired to a $95,000-a-year community outreach post in the office of Republican State Treasurer Dan Schwartz, who previously served on the state party board with McDonald.

The treasurer’s office announced in October that McDonald was departing, citing a reorganization of the office but acknowledging other issues might have played a role.

In an interview earlier this fall, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller told the Review-Journal that the Republican National Committee declined to invest in the state party because they “couldn’t trust who they were running that money through.”

The latest criticism came from newly elected Clark County Republican Party Chairman Ed Williams, who resigned his position on the state board Oct. 1, saying the organization wasn’t keeping up with minutes and financial reports. McDonald denied the accusations in a lengthy letter.

It’s not clear if any of that will cost McDonald re-election. Washoe County Republican Party Chairman Adam Khan, who isn’t saying who he’ll vote for, cautioned that people shouldn’t believe everything they read in the media.

“He’s been around in the business for a long time. He has a lot of friends, he has a lot of contacts,” Khan said about McDonald, adding that McDonald or Phillips would make a good leader. “Relationships are everything in this business.”

McDonald also has a history of surviving challenges.

In 2013, Republicans including Gov. Brian Sandoval and Heller threw their support behind Las Vegas Sands lobbyist Robert Uithoven, who argued that he could win back financial support to help the party fund registration drives and contribute to Republican campaigns.

The message appeared to backfire before the vote, which McDonald won 193-112. Some McDonald supporters showed up wearing T-shirts depicting a devil stirring a pot of money next to an elephant in boxing shorts labeled “McDonald,” according to the Las Vegas Sun.

The shirts read “consultants vs. the people.”

This time, the lines in the sand are less clear. Some Assembly members have announced their support for McDonald. But prominent Republicans including Rep. Mark Amodei, Rep. Joe Heck and Heller didn’t respond to AP’s inquiries about who they’ll choose.

Asked Tuesday about the election, Sandoval said he would be sending a proxy to Las Vegas to cast a ballot, but he wouldn’t say who he’s voting for.

Phillips, meanwhile, has been pushing his message that the party needs to revamp its public image and expand its donor base. While state party finances are getting a boost from hefty caucus entry fees paid by Republican presidential candidates, he said, the group doesn’t have the consistent income it needs.

Large corporate donors like the Sands have largely put their money elsewhere since 2013.

“It’s going to continue to be ignored until it’s a benefit for the state,” Williams said this week about the state party.

The election battle is fierce, as underscored by Phillips’ recent email newsletters, including a lengthy one Friday debunking rumors that he was sent by Sandoval and that he wants to turn Nevada into California.

“My opponents are spreading lies and distortions of facts through a whisper campaign because they are scared,” Phillips wrote. “My only goal is to better Nevada.”

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