Early look at November’s tastiest races

It’s hot as blazes out, which means it’s time for campaigns to cool off. Although candidates will be out knocking on doors, making public appearances and raising money, they won’t spend much of their war chest on advertising when voters are on vacation and, in general, not thinking about politics.

Midterm elections never have as much buzz as presidential cycles, and Nevada’s November ballot is headlined by a dud: Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s free pass to re-election. The most captivating campaigns will be farther down the ballot. So here’s your summer preview of the fall’s most interesting races.

6. District Court, Department 2: Richard Scotti versus John Watkins. These two highly experienced, highly skilled litigators slugged through a four-person June primary for this open seat, and they haven’t stopped punching. Already, both of the men have filed official complaints over attack ads. Most of the more than two dozen judicial races on the November ballot are going to be fairly polite campaigns that provide voters with very little contrast between candidates. Not this one. Expect Scotti to be labeled a money-grubbing construction-defect lawyer, while Watkins will be tagged as a do-anything-to-get-his-criminal-clients-off threat to public safety. Department 2 could end up providing the best, most entertaining candidate debate of the entire election. Can we just lock these two in a courtroom and let them have at it?

5. District Court, Department 3: Michael Davidson versus Douglas Herndon. Davidson, one of the top lawyers in town, dropped plenty of jaws in the legal community when he filed to challenge Herndon, one of the state’s top judges. Herndon failed to draw a challenger in his two previous elections, and the resulting lack of campaign exposure over the past decade has diminished the name recognition of the former prosecutor and created an opening for someone like Davidson, who has lost two close judicial elections in the past four years and been a finalist for a judicial appointment several times. Along with the aforementioned Department 2 race, this will be a high-dollar campaign.

4. Lieutenant governor: Assemblywoman Lucy Flores versus state Sen. Mark Hutchison. By now, everyone knows why so much fuss is being made about this part-time job, which is being vacated by the term-limited Brian Krolicki. Sandoval is assured re-election this year because Democrats didn’t want to waste money and sideline a party prospect by trying to beat the popular incumbent, who is such a rising star within the GOP that many expect him to move on to higher office before his second term expires in 2019. If that happens, it would elevate the lieutenant governor into the chief executive’s position. A win by Flores, the Democratic nominee, would assure that Sandoval stays put and doesn’t do something like, say, challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2016 — there’s no way Sandoval would willfully hand his office to anyone who’s not a Republican. The unpopular Reid is taking no chances, throwing his support behind Flores, while Hutchison has the full backing of Sandoval. But all these what-if scenarios ignore the most important hypothetical of all, and the reason Nevada elects a lieutenant governor: What if something unthinkable were to happen to Sandoval during his second term? What kind of governor would Hutchison or Flores be? And is Flores, a 34-year-old attorney and two-term assemblywoman who has never been part of her party’s leadership, really ready to lead the state?

3. Secretary of state: state Sen. Barbara Cegavske versus state Treasurer Kate Marshall. The campaign for the state’s next chief elections officer will be a polarizing one, and not just because Cegavske and Marshall are opposites on issues related to election integrity and security. Cegavske, a Republican, supports requiring voters to provide photo identification at the polls. Marshall, a Democrat, does not. Various national PACs are expected to spend millions of dollars on secretary of state races across the country. Controlling this office is seen as an oh-so-slight benefit to a party come election time. Because Nevada’s seat is open — term-limited Democrat Ross Miller is running for attorney general — and because Nevada will be a battleground state in 2016 when the presidential race and Reid will be on the ballot, Cegavske versus Marshall is expected to attract big outside spending. And you know how dramatic advertisements funded by independent groups can be.

2. State Senate District 9: Becky Harris versus Sen. Justin Jones. Republicans can seize control of the state Senate from Democrats — and split legislative power in Carson City in 2015 — if the GOP sweeps three competitive districts in the Las Vegas Valley. The District 9 seat held by incumbent Jones, a Democrat, is the steepest challenge for Republicans because Democrats enjoy a decent edge in registered voters — 40 percent of the southwest valley district’s 54,000 voters are Democrats, while 33 percent are Republicans. But GOP nominee Becky Harris — like Jones, an attorney — has a chance for three reasons. First, 27 percent of the district’s voters are nonpartisans or are affiliated with minor parties. Second, Harris is a woman. And third, in 2013 Jones was fearless in pursuing his personal convictions, such as new gun controls that ultimately failed. Expect an aggressive campaign that attracts outside spending and lots of assistance from big names in both parties.

1. State Question 3. Supporters like to call it The Education Initiative. Opponents call it the job-killing margins tax. The question has huge ramifications for the recovery and the state’s economic development efforts. The state teachers union qualified the measure for the ballot for two reasons. First, the union wants public schools to get the kind of funding increase the Legislature would never support — the 2 percent tax is projected to suck about $750 million per year from the private sector. Second, passage of the question would kill any kind of compromise in which legislative Republicans provide the needed votes for tax increases in exchange for education, collective bargaining and money-saving government reforms. Much of the campaign will rightly focus on the degree of economic harm the margins tax would impose — it would give Nevada one of the country’s least business-friendly climates overnight. To win passage, Question 3 supporters must sell voters not only on the idea that its economic impact is being overstated, but the argument that more funding, by itself and with no accompanying accountability, will make Nevada’s schools much better. That will be an impossible sell, considering Democrats are scared of supporting the question and Republicans are attacking it relentlessly. In fact, now that the state AFL-CIO has announced it won’t support Question 3, the teachers unions are all alone in pushing the initiative. That says it all.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.