By Sandra Chereb
Las Vegas Review-Journal Capital Bureau
GARDNERVILLE — Republican presidential hopefuls are headed to a Northern Nevada ranch to woo voters and test their gastric nerves with a Basque heritage dish of lamb testicles.

The Aug. 15 Basque Fry is sponsored by Attorney General Adam Laxalt and his political action committee, Morning in Nevada PAC. It’s being held at the Corley Ranch in Gardnerville, the heart of GOP country in rural Douglas County.

2015-07-15 17.29.34“People are coming from the whole state,” Laxalt said. “That’s what we wanted. We wanted to make these candidates accessible to the ordinary voter.”

Nevada is no stranger to presidential candidates, though most opt for town halls or singular speaking events at larger venues in the state’s urban areas. The Basque Fry, coming so far in advance of the caucus and with its come-one-come-all candidate invite, is a first of its kind in modern-day Nevada presidential politics.

Organizers also hope the event will spark enthusiasm in the Silver State for Iowa-style caucus politics, a nominating system some Nevada Republicans loathe and have been slow to accept.

Candidates traditionally stump through Iowa and Midwestern county fairs, eating deep-fried Twinkies and food thingies on a stick, to get up close and personal with voters in the early caucus state that can make or break political stride.

But Nevadans — Republicans in particular — are still trying to figure out the caucus system to remain relevant as the first in the West political contest after efforts to change back to a secret ballot primary failed in the 2015 Legislature. Critics of the caucus fret that the process is overpowered by more conservative members of the party who are more fired up to turn out and partake in the early nominating process.

The Basque Fry is intended to get more voters engaged and give candidates a chance to talk to voters one on one before Nevada’s presidential caucus in February.

Robert Uithoven, who ran Laxalt’s 2014 campaign and is a point man for the Basque Fry, said community political events are typical in other early presidential states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

“We really haven’t incorporated that into Nevada,” he said. “We’re still new at being an early caucus state.”

By pure coincidence, Valley View Ranch — just across the Allerman Canal and a few fields from where the Basque Fry is being held — is hosting an annual antique tractor and engine show that same weekend, adding to the country setting for the presidential confab.

There will be no straw poll or debate at the Basque Fry.

“It’s just allowing each of the candidates to come and give their pitch to the voters, speak with them directly,” Uithoven said.

Event called classic Nevada

Eric Herzik, political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno, said it’s a good move.

“The effort makes sense to bring Republican candidates in prior to the caucus,” Herzik said. “The candidates get to see Nevada … perhaps gets Republicans thinking more.”

“The event itself is classic Nevada,” he said. Besides, “Douglas County is as Republican as any county in the state.”

While Democrats hold a 100,000-voter registration lead in Southern Nevada’s urban core of Clark County, much of the rest of rural Nevada is solidly Republican.

In Douglas County, GOP voters outnumber Democrats by 2-to-1, and even longtimers are hard pressed to remember the last time a Democrat won election to a partisan office here.

Home to the towns of Gardnerville, Minden and Genoa, Douglas County is 50 miles south of Reno in the scenic Carson Valley.

It’s often referred to as Nevada’s “garden spot” because of its green fields and ranches nestled between the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to the west and Pine Nut Mountains to the east.

The Basque Fry, Laxalt said, “will be a great showcase for Nevada” and spotlight Western issues in the presidential contest. Tickets are limited to 1,500.

Who’s coming to dinner

All 17 Republican presidential contenders have been invited to the inaugural Basque Fry.

So far, five have confirmed their attendance — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Dr. Ben Carson, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former New York Gov. George Pataki and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also is scheduled to speak.

The Basque Fry comes nine days after the first televised GOP presidential debate between only the top 10 contenders, as decided by polling numbers. That timing could persuade candidates who didn’t make the cut for the debate stage — or others, for that matter — to make a detour to Nevada.

And with no clear front-runner in Nevada as of yet, it could behoove candidates to show up and try to make an impression on likely caucus-goers.

“For people who are on the bubble, this is a chance to get some attention, to be seen in a key early state,” Herzik said.

“I don’t see any particular downside for any candidate to come here,” he said. “You’re going to get to meet hard-core Republicans at a classic Nevada event.”

Herzik also sees the event as an attempt to try to mend fences within the state GOP that has been split between moderates such as Gov. Brian Sandoval and more conservative party members.

“The party’s just so fractured,” Herzik said.

“I think it’s interesting that Adam Laxalt has taken this lead,” he said. “He is far more conservative than say the governor. He’s attempting to provide some party leadership that has been lacking.”

A nod to grandfather

Laxalt said his inaugural Basque Fry is a nod to his grandfather, former Nevada Gov. and U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt. The son of an immigrant sheepherder, the elder Laxalt hosted an annual Basque Fry at the swank George Town Club in Washington, D.C., for three decades. President Ronald Reagan, a longtime friend, was a frequent attendee.

“That was his signature event in D.C.,” Adam Laxalt said.

The dinners were stag — no women allowed — though it was a nonpartisan gala. Attire was black tie and boots.

“It had a Western lean,” Laxalt said.

Guests drank wine from boda bags.

Laxalt’s inaugural Basque Fry will be an “echo of the event” his grandfather hosted in the nation’s capital and the countless other family gatherings and barbecues he held around the state, he said.

Basque “fries” will still be the main course, prepared in a stew.

Explaining the meat morsels, Laxalt tried to convince an uninitiated “fry” eater they are kind of like chickpeas.

The event is being catered by the J.T. Basque Restaurant in Gardnerville, owned by the Lukemberry family that also has long, strong ties to the Carson Valley and a rich Basque heritage.

Proceeds from the event will benefit the Morning in Nevada PAC, which promotes conservative candidates, causes and organizations, as well as other Republican groups that are assisting with the event.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @SandraChereb.

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