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Close state Senate races break hearts

In politics, it’s not the shellackings that you most regret. It’s the heartbreakers.

In the fight over seats in the state Legislature, there were some heartbreakingly close races, razor-thin margins that spoke to the quality of candidates and the intensity of campaigns in Nevada.

It starts with the return of former state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse to the Legislature. She was defeated in 2008 by state Sen. Michael Roberson, who has risen in a single session from freshman agitator to Republican leader. Roberson recruited a handful of top-notch candidates, including former Henderson Councilman Steve Kirk to take on his former rival Woodhouse.

In the end, Woodhouse won, 52 percent to 48 percent, a difference of just 1,196 actual votes. Asked about her victory at a meeting of the Women’s Democratic Club on Thursday, Woodhouse credited her victory to the volunteers, with whom she walked the district repeatedly.

It’s got to be sweet revenge for Woodhouse, who disrupted Roberson’s repeated and confident predictions that his candidates would win all five key state Senate seats and make him majority leader come the 2013 Legislature. Instead, thanks to Woodhouse and attorney Justin Jones’ victory in Senate District 9, Roberson will become minority leader instead.

For his part, Roberson said Obama’s strong showing in the state swayed the races toward the Democrats. Had the GOP won just one more seat, Republicans would have taken over the Senate.

Beyond the Kirk-Woodhouse race, the margins only got tighter.

In Senate District 6, attorney Mark Hutchison beat businessman Benny Yerushalmi by a mere 901 votes, 51 percent to 49 percent. This was the single best race of the cycle, with two candidates who respected each other discussing issues and avoided personal attacks. One of my colleagues here at the Review-Journal paid the two candidates the ultimate compliment, saying he wished they’d been running for U.S. Senate instead of state government.

In many ways, it was a repudiation of the 2010 state Senate race in which Yerushalmi lost in a nasty (and, as it turns out, hypocritical) campaign to the undistinguished half-term state Sen. Elizabeth Halseth.

It was Halseth’s unlamented resignation, in fact, that opened the door to Jones’ candidacy. He beat former Republican Party spokeswoman Mari Nakashima St. Martin by an even closer 301 votes, 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent. Jones had to defend himself against allegations that he’d concealed information from a judge in a case in which he’d represented Las Vegas Sands Inc., a task complicated by the fact that he was gagged by professional attorney-client privilege.

Speaking of lawyers, attorney Greg Brower fought off former state Sen. Sheila Leslie in the closest race of the bunch, winning his seat by just 266 votes, 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent. For a candidate who dreams of higher office (he mounted an abortive campaign for Congress after being appointed to the state Senate in 2011, and is said to be considering a bid for attorney general in 2014), it’s a bracing margin.

In a final race, in a seat the south gained from the north in redistricting, Republican Assemblyman Scott Hammond fended off newcomer Democrat Kelli Ross, 51 percent to 49 percent, with a difference of 1,471 votes.

In every race but Hammond’s, the loser easily beat the voter-registration advantage of the winner. This ends a winning streak mentioned by incoming Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, who’s fond of reporting that any state Senate Democrat with a 2.3 percentage-point registration advantage, or greater, always wins on Election Day. (In this case, Woodhouse and Jones did win, but Yerushalmi – with a 7.1 percentage-point advantage – didn’t.)

But that’s just the thing: It’s not the big losses that hurt the most in politics; it’s the heartbreakers.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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