Political Eye: Democrats prevailed except in U.S. Senate race

From surprising resignations to damaging ethics charges, the Nevada election year past included plenty of game-changing events and memorable moments in politics.

Some highlights:

U.S. SENATE RACE

U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., was weighed down by a House Ethics Committee investigation of her advocacy on kidney health issues that might have benefited her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, a nephrologist. In the end, the panel cleared Berkley of any unethical behavior when it came to fighting to keep a kidney transplant center open at University Medical Center, where her husband’s business had a contract. But the committee did find she violated House rules and its code of conduct by allowing her staff to make calls to federal agencies on behalf of her husband’s medical practice to collect unpaid bills in four instances. It’s something her office did for other doctors, however, so the panel said he wasn’t offered any "special favors."

Berkley declared herself vindicated, but it was too late. The final Ethics Committee report came out on Dec. 20, more than six weeks after the Nov. 6 election that she lost to U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

SANDS BOSS

Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson became the nation’s record high political donor, contributing as much as $150 million to Republican candidates and causes. First he bankrolled a political action committee backing GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich. Then he switched to backing a PAC for Mitt Romney’s failed campaign to defeat President Barack Obama. In between, Adelson gave a ton of money to political organizations that softened up Berkley to help Heller win the Senate, one of the few winners the Sands boss picked in 2012.

Would he do it again? He told the Wall Street Journal he’ll contribute twice as much next time around.

TARK’S TROUBLES

Las Vegas businessman Danny Tarkanian, a Republican, started the race for Nevada’s new 4th Congressional District seat ahead in the opinion polls but facing an uphill battle to win a Democratic-leaning district.

Steven Horsford, the former state Senate majority leader, had his own challenges, including raising his profile in a district that covered parts of his home Clark County and all or part of six rural counties.

Then came a $17 million judgment against Tarkanian and his family in a California real estate deal gone bad. The details almost didn’t matter – Tarkanian said he and his family were duped by a shady developer – because the case let his opponents portray him as a bad businessman with poor judgment. Even his name recognition couldn’t save him: He’s the son of former University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian.

Horsford won, becoming Nevada’s first black congressman.

REID’S WRECKING BALL

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., ran a scorched-earth campaign against Romney to help Obama win Nevada and re-election to the White House. The Senate majority leader made headlines by accusing Romney of not paying taxes for 10 years. With no evidence, Reid cited an unnamed source who invested in Bain Capital, a private equity company Romney founded.

The constant accusations by Reid, the Obama campaign and others finally forced Romney to release a letter from his tax accountant saying he paid an average rate of 20.2 percent over 20 years. That didn’t satisfy Reid, who like Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact, at one point near the end of the presidential campaign, Reid even accused Romney of having "sullied" Mormonism.

It was all part of the Democrats’ plan to focus on Romney’s wealth and character to counter the former Massachusetts governor and businessman’s perceived strength: the economy, which was lagging. It worked.

OBAMA DEBATE FAIL

A footnote in history, perhaps, but Obama spent three days in Henderson preparing for his first debate on Oct. 3 in Denver with Romney. That’s the face-off where the president seemed to have lost his way and Romney mopped up the floor with him. It’s the debate that caused a case of Democratic political hives to break out as Republicans, for the first time in weeks, began to think Romney might be able to pull off an upset.

Maybe it was too many pizzas – Obama and crew ordered quite a few and one day the president dropped off six large pies to volunteers. The president called debate prep "a drag" and complained, "They’re making me do my homework."

Obama came back in the final two debates, erasing Romney’s bounce in the polls and his presidential hopes.

RON PAUL TAKEOVER

Supporters of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, the Republican presidential contender from Texas, tried to take over the Nevada Republican Party and succeeded in taking control of the Clark County GOP. Paul backers also dominated the state convention, managing to elect 22 of 28 state delegates to the Republican National Convention.

Romney was supposed to get 20 delegate votes at the convention because he won Nevada’s proportional Feb. 4 GOP presidential caucuses. But most Paul backers revolted at the Tampa convention, where 17 of them voted for Paul anyway after the national GOP changed the rules to ensure Paul couldn’t be nominated from the floor.

Messy stuff. So messy that the Republican National Committee, which runs the national party, created its own political machine and called it "Team Nevada" to get around the state party and run the Romney campaign in the Silver State.

What happens to the Nevada Republican Party post-2012 remains a big question.

MUSICAL CHAIRS

Then-state Sen. Elizabeth Halseth, R-Las Vegas, resigned in midterm in February following a very public divorce and child custody battle involving the couple’s three children.

A conservative firebrand, she was the state’s youngest legislator at age 28. Her departure in the Democratic-leaning district made it tougher for Republicans to succeed at a plan to retake control of the Senate because the GOP had to defend her seat.

Democrat Justin Jones won her seat and Republicans fell short with Democrats still in control, 11-to-10 seats.

In another bizarre twist last February, former state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, resigned her safe Senate seat to run in the newly drawn Senate District 15 against Republican Greg Brower. She had moved into the district anyway and she argued she could beat Brower, helping Democrats keep the Senate. She lost by 266 votes. Debbie Smith, a fellow Democrat, won Leslie’s Reno seat, moving up from the Assembly.

Assemblywoman April Mastroluca, D-Henderson, won re-election, but then abruptly resigned her seat on Nov. 30, citing personal family reasons. The Clark County Commission appointed Henderson attorney Lesley Cohen, a Democrat, to replace Mastroluca in the seat for the full two years of her term.

UPSETS

The biggest general election upset was the defeat of Assemblyman Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, who had been in line to become speaker of the Assembly. Instead, Republican Wes Duncan, an Air Force Reserve captain and political newcomer, defeated him.

Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, was elected by fellow Democrats to become the new speaker. She is the second woman to hold the post.

The Rev. Patricia Spearman scored the biggest primary election upset, ousting Democratic state Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas. The progressive wing of the Democratic party backed Spearman against Lee, a conservative. Spearman also won the general election, becoming the first openly gay female legislator.

The biggest judicial upset may have been recorded by Andrew Martin, a Democrat. He won election to Assembly District 9, a day after a judge ruled his candidacy was invalid because he did not live in the district.

Martin disputed that, saying he lived in a condominium inside the district and not in a home outside of it.

Martin’s Republican opponent, Kelly Hurst, said he didn’t have the money to challenge Martin’s residency further. Hurst said he expected he would lose anyway, since the Democratic-controlled Assembly would hear the challenge.

TITUS RETURNS

U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., easily won election to Berkley’s former House seat, the 1st Congressional District centered around urban Las Vegas. The win came two years after she lost re-election to U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., in the 3rd Congressional District, a swing district.

Heck easily defeated John Oceguera, the former Assembly speaker whose Democratic campaign never took off.

Titus’ new district is considered safe for Democrats and incumbents, giving her more room to breathe on Capitol Hill and at home.

U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., also easily won election to the 2nd Congressional District, a GOP-leaning seat he was appointed in 2011 after Heller resigned to take a Senate appointment. Heller had replaced U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who resigned in scandal in 2011. But that’s another story and another past year.

Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal .com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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