Jill Derby remembers the last time there was open competition for the 2nd Congressional District, for three decades a GOP stronghold covering Nevada's vast expanse save most of Clark County.
Her phone rang off the hook. Rahm Emanuel was on the line. He wanted Derby, a Democrat, to run for the House seat.
"He was relentless, a bulldog," Derby said of Emanuel, a top Democratic Party strategist. "He probably called for five months straight, every other week, until I said yes."
It was 2005. At the time, Derby was a popular member of the board that governs Nevada's higher education system. Emanuel, then a House member from Illinois, headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which recruits candidates. He went on to become President Barack Obama's chief of staff and will be Chicago's new mayor come May.
The Democrats saw opportunity because Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., decided not to run for re-election. Instead, he ran for governor, serving one term. That meant there was no GOP incumbent to defend the red seat from an all-out blue assault.
Republican Dean Heller, then secretary of state, jumped into the race and had a fight. When polls showed a neck-and-neck contest, then-President George W. Bush came to Nevada twice to campaign for Heller, who finally won. But not by much -- 50 percent for Heller to Derby's 45 percent. And she beat him in Washoe County by 4,499 votes.
"You know, we almost did it. It can be done," said Derby, who lost to Heller again in 2008, that time by 10 points.
Fast forward to today: Democrats like Derby see their hopes of capturing the GOP seat rising once more, especially with Obama campaigning on the 2012 election ticket to help lift his fellow party members.
The political ground began shifting last week when Heller announced he is running for retiring U.S. Sen. John Ensign's seat.
Then Republican Sharron Angle got into the House race a day later. The failed 2010 U.S. Senate contender's entry assures a tough GOP primary that will cost money and blood, no matter who wins, the Tea Party outsider or a GOP establishment pick.
That could soften up the Republican in a general election matchup with the Democratic nominee.
"It makes the Democrats' recruitment job a whole lot easier than it was," said David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report. "Democrats can now point to the looming Angle threat as a reason to get into what otherwise might be an uphill race."
There also is a chance that the district lines could be drawn to favor the Democrats for the first time since it was formed in 1981. One potential map circulated by Wasserman last week showed it is possible to draw a new Democratic-leaning 2nd district running alongside the western Nevada border, from Reno down to parts of the Las Vegas Valley. (To see the map, go to twitpic.com/49txvk.)
That sort of map manipulation could reshape freshman Rep. Joe Heck's 3rd Congressional District into the new safe GOP territory. It would stretch from his Henderson base in Southern Nevada to cover most of rural and the rest of Northern Nevada. Now, Heck is a swing district that he narrowly won in 2010, beating Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat who may run again.
Derby said she is considering launching an exploratory committee soon for the Heller seat.
Another Democratic name mentioned is Nevada Treasurer Kate Marshall. She has talked with party leaders about the House race and the Senate race, if Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., decides against running for Ensign's seat herself.
"I'm very, very flattered that I'm being mentioned," Marshall said.
But she said she is focused for now on her job and on helping lawmakers and the governor sort out major budget problems. "I think that's my primary job and a pretty critical one."
Democrats also are talking up the House prospects of Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Debbie Smith of Sparks. She said through a spokesman that she, too, is too caught up in legislative affairs for now to consider her political future.
Other Democratic names being floated as potential contenders include Reno City Councilwoman Jessica Sferrazza, Sparks City Councilwoman Julia Ratti and Washoe County Commissioner Kitty Jung.
Chris Wicker, former Washoe County Democratic chairman, said his party is excited about its chances.
"It's a tough district, but we have an awful darn good group of Democrats who could run for it," Wicker said, relishing the possibility that the Democratic nominee might face Angle in November 2012. "Sharron Angle is the gift that keeps on giving. I think she has a good chance of winning the Republican primary and a horrible chance of winning a general election."
-- Laura Myers
ACLU'S LONE WOLF
CARSON CITY -- American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist Rebecca Gasca often stands out as the sole opponent to bills being considered by the Legislature.
For example, Gasca was the only person to speak against bills to outlaw synthetic marijuana and cocaine last Tuesday during a Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing
Gasca, the legislative and policy director for the ACLU in Nevada, said she was not against the intent of the bill, but pointed out the war on drugs has been an "abject failure" and lawmakers should focus instead on educating people on the hazardous of drugs, rather than arresting them.
"There will always be something new tomorrow," Gasca said. "People rely on these substances to get through the day. For far too long in this country we have neglected to have an open conversation with youth on drugs."
A day earlier, Gasca testified in an Assembly Education Committee hearing against a Clark County School District bill that would require students to attend classes and earn passing grades before they can get a driver's license or hold an after-school job.
In addition, the bill would require parents of habitual truants -- defined as students with nine or more unexcused abuses -- to perform community service and forfeit hunting and fishing licenses.
She said the bill offered a "punitive system" that would exacerbate student problems rather than improving them.
"We often are the lone wolf. We act in a watchdog role," Gasca said later. "I love it. We ask questions about the unintended consequences of bills."
She said what legislators hope bills accomplish often "doesn't play out."
The ACLU doesn't favor drug use and wants kids to attend school and graduate, added Gasca, in her second session as the organization's lobbyist.
Instead of punitive measures, legislators need to look at the root causes of why people take drugs or skip school, she said.
Often there are mental health reasons why people engage in drug use, and truant students sometimes come from poor socioeconomic backgrounds where parents are not involved in their schooling, she added.
-- Ed Vogel
Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@ reviewjournal.com or 702-87 2919. Contact Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.