CARSON CITY — With the presidential caucuses now a distant memory, Nevadans can get back to what really matters: Local politics and the races that will determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the Legislature in 2017.
Republicans hold a razor-thin one-vote majority in the 21-member Senate. With as many as four of 11 races potentially in play, a single shift on Election Day in November could put the Democrats back in the driver’s seat.
Republicans need to hold on to two open GOP seats to maintain their majority.
Republicans also hold a 25-17 edge in the Assembly, part of an unprecedented Republican sweep in the 2014 general election that gave the GOP a clear majority for the first time in 30 years. It also gave Republicans control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time since 1929.
But nine of the GOP-held Assembly seats have Democratic voter registration edges and three are almost certain to be lost on Nov. 8.
UNR political science professor Eric Herzik said the numbers appear to favor the Democrats to regain control of the Assembly. A number of factors that came together in 2014 to produce the GOP sweep don’t exist in this election cycle, he said.
“In a presidential year you will have better turnout,” Herzik said. “Labor and Latinos appear to be very active, even at this early stage of the process.”
Given the amount of anti-labor legislation that passed in the 2015 session with Republicans in control, and the rhetoric coming from Republican presidential candidates, these critical Democratic demographic groups will likely show up on Election Day, he said.
“The numbers just don’t stack up well for the Republicans,” Herzik said. “And that’s before they go through what will likely be some very ugly primaries.”
The primary is June 14.
The players in the political game will become clear over the next two weeks as candidates file for office starting Monday. The filing period ends March 18. Senate terms are four years and Assembly terms are two years. The new lawmakers take office the day after the general election.
For GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, who will be presenting his final budget as governor, the makeup of the Legislature probably won’t be critical to the success of his agenda. Sandoval has worked well with moderate Republicans and Democrats, particularly in the 2015 session.
But party control of the Legislature is considered vital to both Republicans and Democrats, as well as their constituents. Bills making changes to collective bargaining and the public employee retirement system, creating education savings accounts and breaking up the Clark County School District all passed in the GOP-controlled Legislature last year.
While it is almost a cliche, the oft-uttered phrase “elections have consequences” rang true in Nevada in 2015.
“The turnout in 2014 was less of a red wave and more of a blue boycott,” said Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, who heads up the Senate Democratic Caucus. “I think there has been a lot of introspection that has taken place since then. We plan to capitalize on the enthusiasm we already see out there in the Democratic arena to ensure we regain the majority.”
The major focus will be Senate District 6 in Las Vegas, which is vacant with the decision of Republican appointee Mark Lipparelli not to seek the office for a four-year term. The district has a 2,800 Democratic voter registration edge over Republicans.
Democrats have recruited political newcomer Nicole Cannizzaro, a lifelong Nevadan and Clark County deputy district attorney, for the seat. Two Republicans who served in the Assembly in 2015, Erven Nelson and Victoria Seaman, will likely have a bruising primary to see who will be on the ballot in November. Nelson backed Sandoval’s tax package while Seaman did not.
But Ford said two other races, in Senate 15 where Reno Republican Greg Brower is not running for re-election, and in Senate 18, where Las Vegas Republican Scott Hammond is running for a new term, could also be won by Democrats. The caucus has three top quality candidates to run in those races, he said.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said the caucus is confident it can hold on to the majority. The races in play for Republicans are Liparelli’s seat and Senate District 5 held by Democratic incumbent Joyce Woodhouse, who is running for re-election. The caucus expects to hold the seats held by Brower and Hammond.
“We need to win one of them to hold the majority and we’re pretty confident we are going to be able to do that,” he said.
The caucus is supporting Nelson in the District 6 primary race, Kieckhefer said.
Herzik said the District 15 race could prove interesting as well.
Former GOP Assemblywoman and Sandoval Chief of Staff Heidi Gansert appears to be the favorite, but she faces a challenge from conservative businessman Eugene Hoover. Senate Democrats are supporting attorney Devon Reese. A potential wild card is brothel owner Dennis Hof, who might run as a Libertarian and who could siphon votes from disgruntled Republicans if Gansert wins the primary, he said.
Gansert has ducked the question of taxes, and has not resigned her position as executive director of external relations at UNR to run, which might not sit well with some conservative GOP voters, Herzik said.
In the Assembly, it appears that 33 of the 42 seats are likely safe, 17 for Democrats and 16 for Republicans. The other nine are held by Republicans in districts with Democratic voter registration edges, making the GOP effort to retain control a challenge.
Democrats will need to pick up five seats to take the majority, and three have basically been conceded by the GOP.
While maintaining a majority may be a challenge, Assembly Majority Leader Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas, said he and his colleagues have a strategy to win six of those current GOP seats to maintain a thin majority going into 2017.
The GOP candidates Anderson said he is working with through his Growth & Opportunity Political Action Committee will take advantage of the small size of the Assembly districts to knock on every door and reach out to every voter.
“We control our own destiny,” he said. “We have a very clear path to victory. We have a ground game and strong leadership and groups, both locally and on a national scale, that are eager to help us.”
Assembly Democrats feel equally confident.
The Assembly Democratic Caucus is well positioned to regain the majority this November with the nine vulnerable GOP seats, said Jakob Stewart, executive director of the Assembly Democratic Caucus.
“With these seats in play and higher voter turnout in a presidential election year, we’re confident that Republican control will be short-lived and Nevada Democrats will regain the seats we need to take back the Assembly in November,” he said.
Stewart said working families were left behind by Republicans in the last legislative session.
Three Las Vegas area Republican-held Assembly seats — Assembly District 8 now held by John Moore, District 10 held by Shelly Shelton and the open District 34 won in 2014 by Seaman — are heavily Democratic and are expected to go to Democrats in November.
Anderson said the first objective is to get the best Republican candidates through the primary, where several moderate candidates who supported Sandoval’s tax plan are being challenged by “no tax” candidates.
Several of the Assembly seats are held by GOP incumbents, including Derek Armstrong in District 21 and Stephen Silberkraus in District 29, both in Henderson, and David Gardner in District 9 and Brent Jones in District 35, both in Las Vegas. All but Jones voted for the Sandoval tax plan.
Incumbency could help all of them in their re-election efforts.
In others, strong candidates have been recruited, including Kenneth Rezendes, a Las Vegas businessman and resident since 1964, who is seeking to replace Republican Michele Fiore in District 4. Fiore is running for Congress. The district has a Republican voter advantage.
Another strong GOP candidate is Artemus Ham IV, part of a prominent Las Vegas family, who is running for the open District 5 seat formerly held by Nelson.
But Democrats have strong candidates for the Assembly seats in play as well, including attorney and Nevada native Justin Watkins in District 35 with a 1,400-Democratic registered voter edge, and Rory Martinez, a bartender and shop steward, in District 5, which has a nearly 1,600 Democratic voter advantage.
For many Assembly Republicans, the first battles will be in the primary.
A number of Republicans who sided with Sandoval and his tax package face challenges from anti-tax opponents.
Gardner, for example, will face Diana Orrock, who serves Nevada as the state’s Republican national committeewoman, in District 9.
But in an apparent case of turnabout is fair play, Brent Jones faces a primary opponent of his own.
Las Vegas bakery shop owner Tiffany Jones recently announced that she would seek the Assembly District 35 seat. She’s being backed by Anderson, who said Brent Jones has recruited anti-tax candidates to run against fellow Republicans who supported the governor-backed tax package.
Anderson said his group will work to ensure that the candidates with the best chance of winning the general election move on from the June primary.
“I’m excited about our bench,” he said. “Last time we were wide but not deep. We’ve tried to recruit folks who have a lot invested in Nevada.”
Contact Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-461-3820. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801