Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010 | 2 a.m.
In Today's Sun
Whether Nevada emerges as a red or blue state in the coming decade — or remains swing-state purple — could be determined this year.
The 2010 midterm elections will either cement recent Democratic gains, taking the state further to the political left, or restore the state’s partisan balance by returning Republicans to prominence after two cycles of significant defeat.
The outcome could determine political dominance for the next decade, as the ruling party in the state Legislature will redraw district boundaries to perpetuate their power.
Although individual races will be decided by a hundred factors, the overall dynamics are clear. Campaigns will rise or fall on a single issue: the economy.
Democrats, fighting the traditional political handicap of being the party in power in a nonpresidential election year, face record unemployment and a hardening consensus that Nevada’s economy will lag the national recovery.
Republicans hope to capitalize on the economic anxiety. Their top candidates for U.S. Senate and governor are leading in the polls. Nevertheless, the GOP is not without problems, starting with a number of internal battles, as factions mount what is shaping up to be a battle for the soul of the party.
Term limits also will serve as a major test for the parties’ organizational and political skills during 2010.
An unprecedented number of seats will be vacant, and the Assembly and Senate caucuses are scrambling to find qualified candidates and raise money. (For the Democrats, term limits will force out nine assemblymen and four senators; for the Republicans, term limits will force out one assemblyman and three senators.)
The Republican infighting — which will likely color the 2010 primaries — pits members of the upstart “tea party” movement against party leaders and longtime legislators.
The unrest goes back to 2008. Leadership and organizational problems within the Nevada Republican Party were apparent when officials suspended their state convention that year after an uprising by supporters of libertarian Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. A Republican National Committee panel deemed the state party inept for its handling of the event.
Then, on Election Day, Barack Obama beat John McCain in Nevada by 12 points and Democrats took control of the Legislature for the first time in nearly two decades.
Former state Sen. Warren Hardy, a Las Vegas Republican, said the message was clear: “This state is continuing to move from center-right to center-left. Republicans are going to have to figure out how to attract conservative Democrats and conservative and moderate independents.”
Conservative activists, however, are pushing the party in the opposite direction. That fight will most clearly play out in a series of primary races for state Senate.
There could be as many as four races where anti-tax pledging Republicans face off against establishment Republicans, who say that raising taxes is an option — even if an unwanted, painful, final option — to preserve necessary government services.
Nevada Republican Party Chairman Chris Comfort denies the infighting will hurt the party, or that it even exists. “The party has come together and is more strategically focused than it has been in the last decade,” he said, adding it has a place for the conservative activists.
If the insurgent Republicans win enough primaries and hold onto the seats, it could lead to an almost unthinkable possibility: Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, the longtime Republican lion of the Legislature, could be forced from his leadership position, political observers said. Raggio, first elected in 1973, is the longest-serving legislator in Nevada history. Heading into his final session under term limits, he’s also the target of a fledgling recall effort from anti-tax activists.
The Republican primary for governor will likely feature similar tensions.
Gov. Jim Gibbons — who has held the line on taxes and will likely repeat that fact at every opportunity during the campaign — no longer enjoys the support of the Republican establishment. That support has largely shifted to Brian Sandoval, who left the federal bench to challenge Gibbons.
Eric Herzik, who heads UNR’s political science department, said the primary challenges and infighting hurt the party when it should be focused on matching the grass-roots organization Nevada Democrats inherited from the Obama campaign.
“You are conducting a purity campaign. It’s the small-tent approach to politics and that usually doesn’t work,” Herzik said. “They can pat themselves on the back and say they held true to their values but then they have nothing to show for it at the end of the day.”
Chuck Muth, the conservative activist and one-time leader of the Nevada GOP, said the tea party movement has injected some badly needed enthusiasm into the state party but that officials have their work cut out for them if they hope to harness the energy.
“Holding up signs and yelling is not political action,” he said of the tea party rallies last year. “The real test is to take that action into real grass-roots organizing. It’s not glamorous. It’s hard work.”
For Democrats, two years of spade work — from the party’s presidential caucus through last year’s general election — yielded a network of battle-ready precinct captains and volunteers who registered tens of thousands of new voters. Democrats retain a voter-registration edge of nearly 84,000 statewide.
Still, polling suggests U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could hurt the Democratic brand and the rest of the party’s ticket in 2010. A Las Vegas Review-Journal poll last month showed Nevada’s senior senator had a 38 percent approval rating.
Political observers say a loss in November would harm the state’s clout in Washington and shake the foundation of Democratic politics in Nevada. Over much of the past decade, Reid has methodically fashioned the party into a re-election machine, while cultivating a deep bench of political talent.
“If Democrats are viewed as having been a part of helping the economy recover, we’ll do really well and I think we’ll be running the show for a long time,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a Democratic power broker. “But if the economy continues to go down, folks are going to be held accountable. If we don’t focus on the economy, we’re going to get butchered.”
Either way, the effect will be most felt in the 2011 Legislature, where lawmakers will tackle taxes.
Tax increases require a two-thirds vote in both houses to pass. Democrats hold that margin in the Assembly, but fall short by two seats in the Senate.
Last session, Raggio and Senate Republicans leveraged those two votes for a series of concessions on collective bargaining and retirement benefits for public employees. They also set the amount of additional taxes they were willing to support and required those taxes sunset after two years.
Heading into 2011, when most of those taxes are gone, officials estimate the looming budget hole at $2.5 billion — a massive amount for the $6.5 billion general fund.
State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford wants to broaden the state’s tax base, and if the 2010 elections break for Democrats again, he could muscle the hikes through.
Republican victories would give the GOP leverage over any tax plan.
In addition, the party that wins control of the 2011 Legislature will have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to preserve its gains by carving Assembly, state Senate and congressional boundaries to their advantage. Redistricting follows the decennial census.
The outcome will also show whether recent Democratic gains are a lasting shift away from Nevada’s status as a swing state. (Since 1912, Nevada has voted for every presidential winner — Democrats and Republicans alike — except in 1976.)
As David Damore, a UNLV political scientist, put it, “Did folks simply go with Door B in 2008” — by electing Obama — “or did the election mark a lasting realignment in this state?”