Get your popcorn.
Tuesday’s primary is shaping up to be full of surprises and possible upsets, mostly among warring Republicans.
Depending on the outcome of more than half a dozen key races pitting establishment GOP candidates against outsiders, tea party members or Ron Paul supporters, the results could affect Democrats’ chances of winning the lieutenant governor’s job and maintaining control of the state Senate in the Nov. 4 general election.
The fewer voters, the better the odds are for GOP challengers — if they can get their loyal supporters to the polls in an election that might see the lowest turnout in Nevada history. The record was set in 2008 at 18 percent statewide. In Clark County, the record low turnout that same year was just under 15 percent.
“The smaller the voting pool the greater any single vote exerts on the outcome — and the more ideological voters of both parties tend to be the more reliable primary voters,” said David Damore, political science professor at UNLV. “So a small pool of voters fill(ed) with ideologues may mean trouble for incumbents who are depicted as out of step with party orthodoxy.”
If you want a recent example from the Democratic side, look at the 2012 contest between former state Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, and Patricia Spearman, an openly gay minister who scored a huge upset, beating Lee 63 percent to 37 percent.
Lee, now mayor of North Las Vegas, was seen as too conservative and was targeted by Spearman supporters.
More importantly, what happens in the primary affects the general election, which will determine which direction the state takes on hot-button issues from taxes and health care to education and economic development.
“In a number of these races, a couple hundred votes could make the difference,” said Dan Hart, a Democratic operative.
Or even one vote; Nevada has seen ties before, with the winner chosen by cutting cards.
This year, all the action is on the Republican side. Here’s a look at close races to watch where upsets are possible:
GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval has endorsed state Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, an attorney, to be his No. 2, but Republican Sue Lowden, a former state senator, refused to stand aside.
Lowden is running to the right of Hutchison, slamming him for voting to implement President Barack Obama’s health care insurance law after he fought it in court, representing Nevada for free. In 2010, Lowden was the establishment pick when she ran for the U.S. Senate in a campaign where she still owes vendors some $600,000, a debt Hutchison calls irresponsible.
A third Republican, Chris Dyer, is an also-ran.
Lowden, a former TV newscaster and chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party, is more widely known than Hutchison. But he’s got far more money, spending nearly $1 million in the first four months of the year on his campaign.
The race is hotly contested because the victor could move up into the governor’s office if Sandoval, who is expected to easily win re-election, doesn’t complete his second term and instead runs for U.S. Senate or accepts a Cabinet or judicial post in a Republican administration if the GOP wins the White House in 2016.
The winner of the GOP primary will face Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, who has spent this year quietly raising more than $300,000 and taking advice from U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his campaign team.
If Lowden beats Hutchison she might have a tougher time against Flores because she has more negative baggage, from campaign debt to her comments in 2010 that people could use chickens to barter for health care. Also, for the general election, Lowden would have to moderate her rhetoric and expand her views on issues.
“She has yet to articulate any policy position besides ‘taxes and Obamacare are bad,’ ” Damore said.
Democrats are expected to frame the campaign as one against a rich Republican who’s out of touch — whether it’s Lowden or Hutchison — compared to Flores, the child of immigrants who put herself through law school after a troubled youth.
One interesting side note: If Hutchison wins the lieutenant governor’s post, the all-Democrat Clark County Commission would have to appoint a Republican to finish the second half of his four-year state Senate term.
“What kind of Republican do you think seven Democrats will pick?” Damore asked.
4th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT
Assemblyman Cresent Hardy, R-Mesquite, is a fifth-generation Nevadan and an establishment Republican who’s fairly well known in Clark County and in rural Nevada, where the district stretches across seven counties. His GOP opponent, Niger Innis, is a polished national TV talk show personality and tea party conservative who has been involved for decades in a civil rights movement started by his father in New York. Since he came to Nevada in 2007, Innis has run a school to help immigrants assimilate by learning English and the U.S. Constitution. He also backed Herman Cain’s presidential campaign in 2012, becoming more active in Nevada politics.
The two Republicans are competing to take on freshman U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., in the general election. Horsford, a North Las Vegas native, has spent much of his first term focusing on the rural parts of a district that leans heavily Democratic because three-quarters of its population is in urban Clark County.
Innis and Hardy both would be underdogs against Horsford, but Hardy would be more competitive, offering a more traditional clash between a conservative challenger and liberal legislator. If Innis is the GOP nominee, the race would pit two African-Americans in a contest where Innis would try to co-opt some of Horsford’s positions, including support for comprehensive immigration reform. Race also could become a factor as the district is majority-minority, with 30 percent Hispanic and 14 percent black residents.
“He’s got fanatics who are deeply committed to his campaign,” Hart said of Innis, who could pull off a tea party upset.
Still, Hardy has one secret weapon: He’s a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons tend to be regular and loyal voters in Nevada, although they make up only 4 to 5 percent of the population. That vote could help Hutchison in the lieutenant governor’s race because he is also LDS.
Three districts will determine whether Democrats keep control of the state Senate, where they hold an 11-10 majority, or whether Republicans retake the upper house to rebalance state government. Sandoval believes he would have more leverage to get his second-term agenda through the Nevada Legislature — from education reform to economic development — if the GOP ran the Senate while Democrats maintain a hold on the Assembly.
For now, the odds favor Senate Democrats since the GOP would have to win all three Senate seats in play in districts 8, 9 and 20. Establishment Republicans see longer odds if Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson in District 20 and his picks for districts 8 and 9 lose in the primary.
Roberson and his two candidate choices, Patricia Farley in District 8 and Becky Harris in District 9, are spending more money than they are bringing in. Roberson raised more than $150,000 this year but spent $188,000 through late May. Meanwhile, their potential Democratic foes are saving resources for the fall.
Roberson’s race is the most interesting because his primary challenger is Republican Carl Bunce, who ran former Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns in Nevada. Bunce is a talented organizer and knows how to get voters to the ballot box, although Paul finished behind Mitt Romney in the 2012 GOP caucus.
The GOP winner will face Teresa Lowry, the Democratic Party’s pick, in the general election.
In District 8, Farley faces two opponents who could peel away votes, Clayton Kelly Hurst and Lisa Myers. Although the Senate GOP caucus prefers Farley, the winner will have a tough time against Marilyn Dondero Loop, a widely known assemblywoman facing token opposition, Garrett Leduff, in the Democratic primary. The seat is open, making it a free-for-all. Incumbent Sen. Barbara Cegavske is running for secretary of state.
The District 9 GOP primary also is highly competitive, with Becky Harris facing Vick Gill, her strongest competitor, as well as Ron Quilang and David Schoen. The winner will face freshman Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, who is uncontested in the Democratic primary and who is the top state target of out-of-state gun-owner rights groups.
Robert Uithoven, a GOP operative and former campaign manager, said it’s unusual to see so many Republicans challenged in competitive primaries, especially GOP incumbents.
“I can’t think of the last time Republican senators were spending so much money on mailers, TV and radio to keep their jobs,” Uithoven said. “There are a lot of contested primaries going on.”
Damore said even if mainstream Republicans survive Tuesday, their battle will just be beginning.
“While Farley and Harris may be better general election candidates, even if they survive their primaries, they are going to be broke and in need of some repositioning between now and the fall,” Damore said. “Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates get to stockpile their funds and avoid taking positions that might hurt them in the fall.”
The lower house is run by Democrats, 27 seats to 15, so control of the Assembly isn’t at stake in the 2014 election.
But Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, said six of 12 Republican incumbents seeking re-election have drawn challengers from the right. He faces retired attorney Richard Fineberg in District 25.
In one of the more lively matchups, Assemblyman Lynn Stewart of Henderson’s District 22, is facing Richard Bunce, the brother of Carl Bunce, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Roberson.
The Bunce brothers, who backed Ron Paul, have inserted their followers into the Nevada Republican Party leadership and wider central committee and for a time controlled the Clark County GOP. They argue the Republican Party needs to get back to its strong constitutional and anti-tax roots.
Hickey lamented the GOP warfare that has ripped apart the party in Nevada and nationally. Last week, he wrote an email to his colleagues quoting former President Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
The lawmaker said the party needs to come together after the primary and set aside accusations and charges that one Republican is more conservative or loyal than another.
“Saying, ‘I’m the only true conservative or true Republican,’ is like standing up in the congregation and proclaiming, ‘I’m the only true believer, and the rest of you are going to hell if you don’t believe like I do,’ ” Hickey wrote. “And ‘hell,’ or political irrelevancy, is where any political party is heading if it gets into the business of litmus tests, special-interest pledges and platform purity.
“We all would be wise to listen to the advice of Republican philosopher, Lincoln,” he added. “A house divided, will fall. So, too, will a political party, if it fails to embrace its members with all their differences.”
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.