Las Vegas Sun

August 30, 2014

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THE YEAR IN POLITICS:

At 3 a.m., they were checking the day's tracking polls, which grew ever more ominous.

By 6 a.m., they held their first conference call, surveying the damage in the morning papers and planning how to manage an unmanageable story through the day.

Such was the daily rush inside Republican Jim Gibbons' campaign for governor in the final three weeks, as one crisis gave way to another and Sen. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, closed a big gap in the race.

The punishing headlines seemed to be without end: A Las Vegas cocktail waitress had accused Gibbons of assaulting her in a parking garage after having drinks with others at a local restaurant; a woman said she had been an illegal immigrant when the Gibbons family hired her to be a nanny and housekeeper, and The Wall Street Journal had Gibbons on Page 1 accepting a lavish cruise from a wealthy defense contractor.

Still, Gibbons survived. It was a monumental show of endurance, and the political story of the year in Nevada.

Here is a look at Gibbons' victory and other stories that defined the year in politics, and a look ahead.

In some ways, Gibbons won the right to live in the Governor's Mansion in 2005. One high-level Democratic operative credited Gibbons' chief adviser, Sig Rogich, with creating an air of inevitability about his candidate more than a year before the election.

With that sense of inevitability, Gibbons managed to lock up many of the biggest campaign donors. Titus, meanwhile, was fighting a brutal primary with the well-financed Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson before drubbing him by nearly 20 points at the polls. She came out of that primary with no money, however, and Gibbons, flush with cash, quickly set about defining her to the public as a liberal Democrat who would raise taxes and go soft on illegal immigrants.

Even though Gibbons did not offer much in the way of a positive agenda or ideas about how to move the state forward, he painted himself as a steward of continued prosperity and Titus as a dangerous, tax-loving liberal. The strategy worked, and Gibbons won despite all the adversity at the end of his campaign.

Harry Reid

The seeds of Sen. Harry Reid's ascendancy to become Senate majority leader also were planted in 2005, during the winter and spring defeat of President Bush's attempt to partially privatize Social Security.

Reid held Democrats together, and they beat Bush badly. Through the end of that year and into 2006, Reid ran circles around Sen. Bill First, the Republican leader in the Senate, and blocked the Republican agenda.

He created an effective media operation and kept the party's liberal base - and especially those who frequent the Internet - energized.

Reid cannot take too much credit for the Democrats' rise, however. He failed to recruit a good opponent to take on Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who cruised to easy re-election against Jack Carter, son of former President Jimmy Carter. Jack Carter was painted by Republicans as a carpetbagger running for the Senate pretty much for the lack of anything better to do.

In reality, it was the increasingly grim war in Iraq and scandals in Washington that beat Republican incumbents across the country.

As majority leader, Reid will have a seat at the table for every major decision the government makes. Nevada now boasts the most powerful elected official ever to represent it, and Reid's post will likely pay dividends in federal money, the appointment of Nevada residents to government posts and new leverage in the drive to defeat a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

Reid, meanwhile, continues to consolidate his hold on the state Democratic Party. If not a machine exactly, it's certainly moving in that direction.

Ensign, Porter and Heller

Sounds like a tony law firm, doesn't it?

Although Democrats developed some momentum, Nevada showed itself to still be a Republican state. Gibbons won, and so did incumbent Rep. Jon Porter and soon-to-be Congressman Dean Heller.

Ensign's landslide victory in a year in which things were as problematic for candidates as having an "R" behind their name has propelled him to chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where he will run GOP efforts to take back the U.S. Senate. How this will affect his "nonaggression pact" and friendship with Reid should be one of the more entertaining subplots of 2007.

The man pulling the strings behind the Republican victories was Mike Slanker, who will take a post at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. His national stock has risen, delivering Republican victories in an otherwise sour year for the party.

In Congress, Porter and Heller will face a challenging environment as members of the minority party.

But Rep. Shelley Berkley, the state's Democratic congresswoman, scored a post on the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

The presidential caucus

The Democratic National Committee's selection of Nevada to be the second caucus on the presidential selection calendar means the Silver State will play a big role in determining the next Democratic nominee for president.

The national committee wanted a Western, ethnically diverse, union-strong state, and Nevada fit the bill. Reid's popularity with grass-roots Democrats and his relationship with the party's national chairman, Howard Dean, were instrumental as well.

Now state Democrats have a big challenge trying to pull it off. In the interim, presidential wannabes will be hitting coffee shops, churches, community groups and - let's hope - casino floors.

TASC

After a brutal court battle, the proposed Tax and Spending Control amendment to the Nevada Constitution was removed from the Nov. 7 ballot.

The measure would use the inflation rate and population growth to cap annual state spending, a formula that many political and business leaders warn would undermine the flexibility needed to react to changing conditions and priorities.

They and the state's labor unions also fear it would halt growth - an argument that could be strengthened by U.S. Census Bureau estimates last week showing that Nevada, the fastest-growing state in the nation for the previous 19 years, had slipped to second place behind Arizona in the last fiscal year.

For Nevada's still-strong libertarian movement, however, TASC is the holy grail, a way to ensure that the state retains its less-government ethos.

TASC will probably return, and there's a decent chance that the state will finally have a knock-down, drag-out debate about the future role of government in Nevada: More like California? Or more like the Nevada frontier state of old?

Barbara Buckley and the Democratic bench

With Nevada Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins retiring, Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, becomes the first woman speaker of that chamber.

She is known to be tough, shrewd and a principled liberal. Buckley showed her prowess at the end of the year when she invited Gibbons to help negotiate a temporary settlement in a labor dispute between a hospital company and its nurses. She was out front in the media, and she used her lawyer skills to lead the negotiations behind closed doors.

She'll oversee a large and loyal Democratic majority in the Assembly, and her legislative duels with both Gibbons and Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, should be compelling. Throw in Titus, who remains Senate minority leader, and the 2007 legislative session in Carson City will be fascinating to watch.

Buckley isn't the state's only rising Democratic star, though. After the 2002 election, the party was without much talent. Now, they have Ross Miller as the youngest secretary of state in the nation; Catherine Cortez Masto as an attorney general who received some Republican support in her victory, and Kate Marshall, a Reno lawyer elected by a wide margin in the treasurer's race.

Throw in Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, and suddenly there's a Democratic future.

Never a shortage of the bizarre

Nevada also saw its share of colorful candidates this year, as in other years. A former porn star ran for governor as a Republican. Lonnie Hammargren, former lieutenant governor, ran again. He sometimes wore a red leather jacket emblazoned with "Lonnie Hammargren, Neurosurgeon," and once had a body double go to a public event in his stead.

Bob Stupak, who built the Stratosphere Tower and is now a regular in the poker room at the Bellagio, ran as a Democrat. He promised to spend $1 million of his own money on the campaign. To prove it, he included a copy of a check for that amount in his announcement. The press release also included photos of Stupak with a number of local and national celebrities. Some alive, such as Andre Agassi, and more than a few dead - among them, President Ronald Reagan and Rodney Dangerfield. In the end (and with apologies to Dangerfield), Stupak ended up getting no respect, no respect at all, in the campaign.

There were some new eccentrics as well. Barbara Lee Woollen, a California carpetbagger, ran as a Republican who promised to halt illegal immigration if she won the lieutenant governor's race, and she spent a bundle in the trying.

Jerry Airola, who owns a helicopter company, gave a good run at the Clark County sheriff's office. The race grounded him, though. He spent more than $3.5 million of his own money - about $28 for each of the roughly 126,000 votes he received while getting trounced by a more than 3-to-2 margin in November.

In the treasurer's race, among the four major candidates, two had declared bankruptcy, and one was dead. (Kathy Augustine was the state controller when she was allegedly killed by her husband, one of the year's saddest and most bizarre stories.)

Perhaps most significant, though, none of the seriously unorthodox candidates won. Nevada grew up a bit. Maybe.

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