CARSON CITY — Democratic candidates in two critical state Senate races have outraised their GOP opponents, but the outcome of the contests remains far from clear as voters head to the polls between now and Election Day on Nov. 4.
Republicans need to hold an open seat in Senate District 8 and defeat Democratic incumbent Justin Jones in District 9 to take an 11-10 majority in the 21-member Senate, which has been controlled by Democrats since the 2008 general election.
Campaign spending, voter registration totals and, most importantly, voter turnout will help decide whether Democrats keep their razor-thin majority or if Republicans win control in the general election.
Recent polls show both races are close.
GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, in a show of how important a GOP Senate majority would be for his 2015 legislative agenda, gave both GOP candidates $10,000. He gave Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, who is in a tough re-election fight, $10,000, too.
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the picture has changed over the past few months and Democrats have reasons to be concerned.
“A couple of months ago I thought we would see the status quo,” he said. “But now the GOP has momentum. And two weeks before the election is not the time you want to see the opposition gain momentum and you lose it.
“The GOP stands a real good chance of knocking off Jones, retaining control of (District) 8 and controlling the Senate,” Herzik said.
Republicans have made voter registration gains statewide and have more motivation to vote, he said. The Democrats have no serious candidate at the top of the ticket running against the very popular Sandoval, and Question 3, which would impose a tax on many Nevada businesses to fund public education, is strong motivation for the GOP to turn out as well, Herzik said.
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not invested much in this midterm election, and early voting shows GOP strength where normally Democrats would be turning out in greater numbers, he said.
“The early voting numbers are scaring me if I’m a Democrat,” he said.
Jones, who has served in the Senate for two years and is running for a full four-year term, has significantly out-raised campaign cash compared with his GOP opponent, Becky Harris.
Campaign reports filed last week with the secretary of state’s office shows that Jones raised nearly $580,000 for his race since the first of the year, spending $600,000. Harris has raised a little more than $300,000 and spent $324,000.
Besides the cash advantage, Jones has an edge in voter registration. Final totals of active voters for the election show District 9 with 22,121 Democrats, 18,732 Republicans and 12,505 nonpartisan voters.
But the race remains close, two recent polls show.
A Democratic pollster, Momentum Analysis, showed Jones edging Harris, 46 percent to 44 percent, a virtual tie. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points. The Republican survey also showed the SD9 race as a virtual tie, but with Harris edging out Jones 45 percent to 42 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 5.1 percentage points.
In the Senate 8 race, Democratic Assemblywoman Marilyn Dondero Loop is facing Republican Patricia Farley. The seat is vacant because incumbent Republican Barbara Cegavske has been termed out of office. She is running for secretary of state.
Campaign reports show Dondero Loop has raised $337,000 and spent $247,000 in her race, compared with $284,000 raised by Farley, who has spent $270,000.
But voter registration totals have shifted in the district, from a very slight Democratic advantage earlier this year to a very slight GOP advantage at the close of registration. Democrats total 23,049 in the district, compared with 23,241 Republicans and 11,824 nonpartisans. Democrats had a more than 300-voter registration edge in the district in January.
Recent polls show Farley edging Dondero Loop. Republican pollster The Tarrance Group found that Farley would defeat Dondero Loop 43 percent to 36 percent. A Democratic polling outfit put the race much closer. Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research found a statistical tie with Farley edging Dondero Loop 46 percent to 44 percent. Another 10 percent was undecided. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
Nick Phillips, political director for the Clark County Republican Party, said there is a great chance for the GOP to win both seats based on early voter turnout.
“We’re leading in turnout by double digits in both of these races,” he said. “The Democrats are not turning their voters out.”
Jones won by just 301 votes in the 2012 race, so the closeness of 2014 contest is no surprise, Phillips said.
One factor in the GOP momentum is the national political stage, where Republican voters are more motivated to express their dissatisfaction with the Obama administration, he said. There isn’t a lot of motivation nationally for Democrats to vote, Phillips said.
Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said he is confident that the Democratic Senate candidates will win out when the votes are counted and criticized their opponents for hiding “in their secret bunkers where they refuse to answer tough questions and avoid taking a public stance on the issues Southern Nevadans care about.”
“Our candidates are well-staffed, well-funded and well-positioned to achieve victory in November,” he said. “They have been out talking to voters and the press about the issues important to Nevada families and that is what wins elections.”
A third state Senate contest, pitting GOP Senate Minority Leader Roberson against Democratic challenger Teresa Lowry, a prosecutor in the Clark County district attorney’s office, is also being watched by both parties.
Roberson has raised $419,000 for his race and has spent $447,000. Lowry has raised $234,000 and spent $190,000.
The district has a narrow GOP registration edge, with 23,777 Republicans, 23,247 Democrats and 12,346 nonpartisans.
Other state Senate races in play this election year are not expected to see any changes.