Republicans, Democrats both optimistic about changing Senate, Assembly makeup

CARSON CITY -- Someone forgot to tell Nevada Democrats they are supposed to lose legislative seats in this year's elections.

To hear political commentators, polls and the national media tell it, 2010 is the year that angry, Tea Party-inspired voters will boot out the incumbents who have supported taxes and the expansion of government.

But in Nevada, Democratic insiders predict they can pick up the state Senate seats held by Republicans Dennis Nolan in District 9 and Barbara Cegavske in District 8 and gain a 14-7 veto-proof majority in the Senate. Democrats are now the dominant party in both Nolan's and Cegavske's districts.

They also think they can at least maintain their 28-14 majority in the Assembly.

Having veto-proof majorities in both houses would give the Democrats absolute control over legislation, even if a Republican is elected governor.

The Republicans fear that they might be inadvertently helping this happen. They say far right Republican newcomers might be pushing moderate Republicans to vote for Democrats.

Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, said Republicans are running candidates "that make the tea baggers look liberal."

"That may fly in the primary, but I am not sure it sells in the general election," said Schneider, who will become the longest serving Democrat at the 2011 session. Schneider is in the middle of his last term.

On the other hand, Republican insiders see the GOP gaining at least one state Senate seat -- District 5 is held by Democrat Joyce Woodhouse -- and four Assembly seats -- those held by Democrats April Mastroluca in District 29, Marilyn Dondero Loop in District 5 and Ellen Spiegel in District 21, along with the District 40 seat in Carson City held by retiring Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell.

"Nevada is moving more to the right," said outgoing Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno. "People are voting more conservative even if they are not registered Republicans."

Voters in Nevada know the candidates "on a personal basis" and many will vote for the more conservative candidate, regardless of how they are registered, she predicted.

State Republican Party Chairman Mark Amodei realizes his party trails the Democrats by 60,000 voters in registration.

That means the Republicans must pick up a lot of independent votes in November and narrow by a point or two their gap in registration, or the Legislature could remain firmly in the Democrats' hands, according to Amodei.

Out of every 100 voters in Nevada, 43 are Democrat, 37 Republican, 16 nonpartisan and four members of minor parties.

Preventing the Democrats from gaining veto-proof majorities in the Legislature would be a major coup for Republicans since the 2011 legislative session already is being viewed as one of the most important and contentious in state history.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said at the close of the special session in February that state revenue will be $3.4 billion short of what he believes is necessary next year to fund schools and state government.

Horsford is expected to call for tax increases at the 2011 legislative session, an idea that has been condemned by Republicans.

All three Republican governor candidates have pledged not to back tax increases, including reauthorizing $800 million in taxes that expire on June 30, 2011, while Democrat Rory Reid has declined to give his position on taxes.

Besides considering tax increases, the 2011 session is the one where legislators reapportion, or redraw legislative district boundaries, to reflect population changes shown by the 2010 Census. The party in power typically fixes district boundaries to give itself advantages for the next 10 years.

Danny Thompson, the state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer and a former Democratic legislator, predicts the contentious U.S. Senate primary in Nevada will split the state Republican Party and produce Democratic gains in November.

"Look what happened in 1982," Thompson said.

That year four-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon defeated fellow Democrat Rep. Jim Santini in a bitter primary that left a lot of hard feelings. Then Republican Chic Hecht shocked everyone in defeating Cannon in the general election.

Eric Herzik, a Republican and a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, sees the Democrats gaining at least one state Senate seat in November.

The vulnerable incumbents in Tuesday's primary all are the Republicans who supported taxes in 2009, not the Democrats, he said.

"Republican challengers are running against Republican incumbents who they say aren't conservative enough," Herzik said. "I think it could split the party and help Democrats in November. All the close seats in the primary are GOP seats."

After the unanimous support by Democratic legislators for a then record $833 million tax increase in 2003, Democrats picked up one seat and three Assembly seats in the next election.

Fred Lokken, a Republican and political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, said people are turned off by politics. If the primary turnout is in the 25 percent range as registrars are predicting, then Lokken said it shows the activists are voting and interested, but not the rank-and-file members.

"You would think that if people are angry they would want to make changes," Lokken said. "But it has turned them off to politics."

Lokken blames Sue Lowden, who was Republican state chairwoman in 2008, for failing to launch voter registration drives and for letting the Democrats become the dominant party in the state.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@ or 775-687-3901.