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2012 PRIMARY ELECTION: Balance of power up for grabs with electorate split, races tight

Control.

That’s what the 2012 election is about nationwide and in Nevada.

Several key federal and state races in the Silver State could determine which party emerges as the majority political power in the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives and the Nevada Legislature.

The upcoming June 12 primary election is a prelude to the major fight for control in the Nov. 6 general election, when the White House race between President Barack Obama and the presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney promises to affect races up and down the ticket.

There is one certainty: The country is so divided – on issues ranging from how to lift the economy out of recession to whether to mandate health care insurance – that neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party is expected to come out of the election with a major political mandate.

"Regardless of the outcome, you’re going to see a lot of razor-thin majorities," predicted Dave Damore, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Everything is in play, which makes it very tough at the national level" to govern with so much political bickering.

U.S. Senate, congressional races

The Democrats, led by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., now control the Senate 53 seats to 47, but they’re defending far more seats in 2012 than are the Republicans. The GOP must pick up at least four Senate seats nationwide to win a bare majority and oust Reid, a real possibility.

That’s why the stakes are so high in one of the most closely watched Senate contests in the country between U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev. Both Heller and Berkley are expected to win their respective June 12 primaries, where each faces minor competition.

Heller is defending a Republican seat. He was appointed to the Senate last May after U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., resigned following an extramarital affair and ethics investigation.

Heller and Berkley are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, giving voters a real choice. They also come from different parts of the state, making this a North-versus-South contest, too.

It’s possible the Senate will end up in a 50-50 seat tie. Such a result would give the elected vice president the tie-breaking vote, adding even greater importance to the outcome of the White House race.

Democrats are expected to pick up at least a dozen seats in the House, cutting the current Republican majority of 242-190 by one-third to one-half, depending on how well or poorly Obama does.

In Nevada, four House seats are up for grabs, including two with incumbents and a new one in Southern Nevada that the state earned because of population growth over the past decade.

The Northern Nevada 2nd Congressional District seat held by U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., is expected to stay in GOP hands. And Berkley’s safe Democratic seat in Southern Nevada, the 1st Congressional District, is likely to be won by former U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.

U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., is slightly favored to hang onto his 3rd Congressional District, a battleground where neither party has the advantage in voter registration. He probably will face Democratic challenger Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, the party choice favored over his primary opponents.

The most competitive House race is for the new 4th Congressional District, which leans Democratic by voter registration. That gives the edge in November to Nevada Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, the well-funded party choice.

Nine Republicans are competing for the chance to face Horsford, including Danny Tarkanian, state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, businessman Dan Schwartz and Ken Wegner, a popular GOP veteran.

In the end, analysts predict the four House seats will be split 2-2 between Democrats and Republicans.

Legislative races

The Nevada Assembly, now controlled 26-16 by Democrats, isn’t expected to change party hands.

Control of the Nevada Senate, however, is in play as Democrats defend a slim 11-10 majority.

Two GOP state Senate primary battles in Clark County could be decided by thin margins, and any lingering bitterness from the losing candidates might help Democrats in the general election.

The closest race may be for the new District 18 Senate seat in northwest Las Vegas. Assemblyman Richard McArthur is taking on Assemblyman Scott Hammond.

Hammond has the support of the Senate Republican Caucus, but retired FBI agent McArthur is a hard campaigner who has vowed to visit every Republican home in the district. Hammond doesn’t have as much free time, working at his teaching job in Indian Springs until the school year ends.

McArthur is the more conservative candidate. He voted last year against extending $620 million in taxes for two more years, while Hammond voted for the extension agreed to by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

In District 18’s Democratic primary, Kelli Ross, the wife of Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Ross, has an advantage in name recognition over Donna Schlemmer.

In the Senate District 9 race, tea party supporter Brent Jones is battling Mari Nakashima St. Martin, the former state GOP spokeswoman endorsed by the Republican Senate Caucus.

Jones believes his campaign is catching on and that he will defeat St. Martin. Like McArthur, he questions why the Senate Republican Caucus endorsed his primary opponent, contending the party should stay out of the endorsement business until the general election.

The winner probably will face Democrat Justin Jones, who with the endorsement of the Senate Democratic Caucus is favored over Frederick Conquest.

Senate Democrats are not expected to have close legislative primaries. But District 1 Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, is being branded as too moderate by political newcomer Patricia Spearman, who may be narrowing the gap in their race.

Spearman, a gay minister, is the darling of progressive groups upset that Lee voted against domestic partnerships and sponsored a Lake Tahoe bill opposed by environmentalists.

In recent months, Lee forced the Higher Education System of Nevada to rethink how they fund universities and community colleges in Southern Nevada, a popular idea. It may be tough for a political unknown like Spearman to beat him. The winner probably will advance to Carson City in 2013, since the only general-election opponent is an Independent American Party candidate.

Review-Journal Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel contributed to this story. Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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