CARSON CITY — Democrats and Republicans are preparing to battle it out over more than 50 legislative seats up for grabs this election year to determine control of the Nevada Legislature during the 2015 session.
The 2014 election matchups will be finalized over the next few weeks. Candidate filing starts March 3 and ends March 14.
The Assembly, already overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, won’t see a shift of power in November.
But the state Senate, where Democrats now hold an 11-10 margin, still could go either way with three Las Vegas seats holding the key to the majority.
Democratic voter turnout, Republican primary fights and the coattail effect from the top of the ticket all could play a role in this year’s legislative outcomes.
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said that while Republicans might have a chance at the Senate this year, the most likely scenario will be a repeat of the past two elections, with Democrats in control of both houses of the Legislature and a Republican in the governor’s office.
“The problem the Republicans have is that the races that are up in this cycle don’t break well for them,” he said.
Republicans need to hold on to two of their own seats and win a Democratic seat held by Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, to achieve a majority, Herzik said.
One advantage the Republicans do have is the potential coattail effect with popular GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval running for a second term, he said.
“The Democrats have to turn out,” Herzik said. “But Republicans have to avoid shooting each other in the primary.”
There is less drama in the Assembly, where Republicans will try to hold on to their 15 seats and pick up one or two more. Democrats will try to increase their 27 seats to at least 28, giving them a veto-proof majority on tax measures in the 42-member lower house.
Only a couple of Assembly seats are likely in play this year, but there will be at least nine new faces because of term limits, retirements and other factors.
A Republican majority in the Senate would give Sandoval, who is running for a second term, more leverage to push his agenda, which has in the past focused on education reforms and job creation.
Sandoval is expected to win a second term easily because there is no serious Democratic challenger.
But it won’t be easy for Republicans to take control, in part because of GOP infighting leading to some primary battles.
The primary is June 10, and the general election is Nov. 4.
Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, is expecting a primary challenge from tea party conservative Carl Bunce in District 20. The victorious GOP candidate then will face Democratic challenger Teresa Lowry, an assistant public defender, in November.
The district is as evenly divided between the two parties as can be, with only a 19-voter edge for Republicans as of the end of January.
Another race in play is Senate District 8 in Las Vegas, now held by Republican Barbara Cegavske. She is out because of term limits, and the open seat is being sought by GOP businesswoman Patricia Farley. But Farley will face a challenge from Democratic Assemblywoman Marilyn Dondero Loop in a district that now has a slight 300-vote Democratic voter registration edge.
The other Senate battleground is District 9 in Las Vegas, now held by Jones. Republicans have drafted Las Vegas lawyer Becky Harris to challenge Jones, who some view as vulnerable because of his advocacy of an unsuccessful gun background check bill in the 2013 session.
The district has a strong 4,200-plus Democratic voter registration edge, however, and Harris could face a primary battle.
Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said he likes his chances.
“We feel there are some opportunities to pick up some seats that now have more Democratic voters than in the past,” he said. “We believe voters want to see candidates who better represent their values.”
Denis said his caucus recruited quality candidates.
“I’m very positive that we can increase our numbers,” he said.
Republicans would have to win all three races in play to take the majority, Denis said.
But Roberson said he is equally optimistic about his chances.
In an email response about his caucus efforts this election season, he said: “We have a better than even chance of picking up seats. Senate District 9 will again be a very competitive race and with Becky Harris, we expect to win it this time.”
Roberson said he expects to win District 8 too.
As to his own seat, Roberson said primary challenges are nothing new.
“My focus has been and will continue to be on providing Republican candidates the support they need to run effective, winning campaigns,” he said. “Once the primary election is over, all Republicans will be able to work toward winning November elections.”
While all 42 Assembly district races are up for grabs, most are expected to remain safe for their current parties.
A few that will see some attention include District 31 in Sparks, now held by Democrat Skip Daly, and District 4 in Las Vegas, now held by freshman Republican Michele Fiore.
Fiore has attracted a strong Democratic opponent in the form of Teacher of the Year recipient Jeff Hinton. Hinton is a history teacher at Northwest Career and Technical Academy and a former Marine.
Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, said Daly’s district is more competitive for Republicans since redistricting took effect in the 2012 election cycle and actually has a GOP advantage of nearly 1,500 voters. So far one Republican, Jill Dickman, has announced for the seat. But Daly survived a challenge in 2012 with more Republican voters.
By contrast, Fiore’s district has a Democratic voter registration edge of nearly 500, but Hickey said Fiore is a tough campaigner.
“She has worked very hard at being connected with her constituents,” he said.
Any challenger better “be prepared to work harder than anyone ever has” to win the seat, Hickey said.
Assembly Republicans have a long-range plan to reach a majority by 2021, working to pick up a few seats every election cycle to get to that goal, he said.
Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, said her caucus has an opportunity to pick up Fiore’s seat this year.
Hinton is a more moderate choice whose views should resonate well with voters in the district, she said.
“Our first priority is to protect the seats we have,” Kirkpatrick said. “If we have the opportunity to pick up another seat, then that is exactly what we’re going to do.
“I’m feeling really good,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of great candidates, and they are working hard out there.”
Nevada legislators earn about $8,800 each session, which occurs every other year, $150 a day for attending interim committee meetings, and $150 per diem. Senators serve four-year terms. Assembly members serve two-year terms.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at email@example.com or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.