The 2012 congressional race in Southern Nevada lurched into gear when Assembly Speaker John Oceguera announced on Monday his candidacy, though for which House seat remains uncertain.
A Democrat from Las Vegas, Oceguera said he would "stand up to Washington," including politicians who have called Social Security a "pyramid scheme," a swipe at U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., his potential foe.
Also, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, who lost to Heck in 2010, called supporters to say she would announce a House run as soon as this week after resigning from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. She isn't expected to battle Heck in the 3rd Congressional District but to run for another seat instead.
"It's becoming more imminent that I'll become a candidate," Titus said in an interview. "So I thought that (resigning) would be the proper thing to do. You can't be a candidate and be on the commission," she added, referring to the Hatch Act that bars federal employees from political activity.
Oceguera and Titus are among several Southern Nevada Democrats preparing congressional runs, even though boundaries remain unknown for the House districts, including a fourth seat the state gained when the U.S. Census put its population at 2.7 million. As a result, candidates aren't yet certain in which district they will run.
Since the Legislature earlier this year failed to agree on outlines for the districts, a Carson City district judge plans to appoint a special panel to draw the lines. This could take months, and it might be open to legal challenges by the Republican and Democratic parties or even Latinos.
Meanwhile, serious candidates need to announce to raise money and organize campaign teams and supporters, because a competitive House race in Nevada can cost $2 million to $3 million.
"It's all so they can fundraise," said Dave Damore, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "What's so interesting is you have so many Democrats who want to run."
Oceguera, an assistant North Las Vegas fire chief, was expected to seek a House seat. He was termed out after serving in the Legislature for 12 years, including his final term as Assembly speaker.
Titus, a former state senator for two decades, has long made it clear she wanted to return to Washington. She recently took a buyout from UNLV, where she was a political science professor. She resigned from the civil rights panel July 16 .
Other Democrats expected to make congressional runs in 2012 include state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford of Las Vegas, state Sen. Ruben Kihuen of Las Vegas, and state Sen. John Lee of North Las Vegas, who planned to formally announce his bid within two weeks.
Most Democrats are expected to compete for the new 4th Congressional District and the 1st Congressional District now held by U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who's running for the Senate.
Both the 1st and 4th districts will probably lean Democratic by party registration and one may be heavily Hispanic. Republicans had suggested one seat be a minority-majority district with 50 percent of the population Hispanic, but Democratic leaders of the Legislature rejected the idea.
Instead, Democrats proposed maps that would make at least one of the Southern Nevada districts one-third Latino, while more evenly distributing the rest of the Hispanics as potential swing voters.
Berkley's urban Clark County district should remain so, which could set up a Democratic primary between Kihuen and Horsford, who as the first African-American leader of the state Senate has strong support from the minority community. As a national Democratic committeeman, Horsford also has deep party ties, and his work with the Culinary Union is another boost.
Kihuen has been wooed by the White House and Latino groups, but as a young senator in the middle of his first term he might be persuaded to wait his turn.
"The numerous calls from constituents and community leaders asking me to run are very encouraging and humbling, but I will make a final decision when the time is right," Kihuen said Monday.
Lee, a moderate Democrat, would do better in a new 4th Congressional District if the lines were drawn to include conservative areas in Clark County such as Mesquite and even outside it. Heck is hoping to keep some of those same GOP-leaning cities and towns, however.
Oceguera, who lives in the current 3rd Congressional District, appears to be gearing up to challenge Heck. The district leans Democratic but will lose almost half its voters in redistricting and is likely to remain a swing seat. During the legislative session, Oceguera reached out to Republicans during budget talks. He also pushed through education reforms, including some that other Democrats resisted.
He helped negotiate the $6.2 billion state budget deal with Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and the GOP minority in the Assembly. But it came after he and other Democratic leaders had been at odds for months with Republicans over whether to extend a $600 million package of taxes for two years to balance the budget. Oceguera was among Democratic leaders who also had pushed a $1.2 billion tax plan that would have also imposed new levies on businesses and a sales tax on services.
The Democrats' tax plan failed. But Sandoval and some Republicans finally agreed to extend the $600 million tax package from 2009 after the governor said a Nevada Supreme Court ruling called into question $600 million in funds the state had planned to use from local governments and other entities.
On federal issues, Oceguera refused Monday to be specific about how the U.S. should handle its growing debt and on whether Medicare and Social Security should be on the negotiating table.
"We're going to have plenty of time to get into that," Oceguera said . "I'm not elected to Congress yet."
The Republican Party immediately criticized Oceguera.
"Oceguera's bid for Congress, made before even understanding or caring about the constituency he claims to want to represent, is an action of a termed-out assemblyman who is panicking at the thought of losing one of his government paychecks," said Amy Tarkanian, chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party.
Stephens Media Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report. Contact reporter Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.