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State senator resigns in effort to preserve Democratic majority

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Sen. Sheila Leslie speaks during a meeting of the Senate Revenue Committee on the second day of the 2011 legislative session Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011, in Carson City.

Updated Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012 | 2:05 p.m.

Greg Brower

Greg Brower

In a risky attempt to help Democrats hang on to their majority in the state Senate, Democratic state Sen. Sheila Leslie has resigned her seat to run against Republican state Sen. Greg Brower.

The move sets up a state Senate District 15 race between a Democratic powerhouse from Reno and a Republican up-and-comer who was appointed to replace former Sen. Bill Raggio last year.

Leslie, who bought a house in Brower’s district more than a year ago, said she hand delivered her resignation to Gov. Brian Sandoval today.

Leslie’s decision to resign from Northern Nevada’s safest Democratic seat in order to run in a district where voter registration is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans will likely shift matchups in several legislative races.

“I’m probably the first person to give up a safe seat to run for a split one,” Leslie said. “This will be one of those rare things in Nevada politics: a truly competitive race.”

Leslie bought her new house in a nearby neighborhood but didn’t decide to move until redistricting was completed. The new house ended up in Senate District 15 under the maps drawn by the court.

Last week, after failing to recruit another Democrat to run against Brower, Leslie decided to move into her new house.

“After much thought, I have decided to move to the new Senate District 15,” she said in a written statement. “I believe my resignation is required, as I cannot live in two Senate districts at the same time. While this decision was difficult, I intend to be a candidate in my new neighborhood and hope to return to the state Senate later this year.”

The news surprised many Democrats who greeted Leslie’s announcement with skepticism, worried about the potential that Leslie could lose.

But Leslie said she was confident in her ability to win the split district, which includes much of her old Assembly district. Recent district voting in major races has leaned Democratic: In 2010, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., won the district with 54 percent of the vote, and President Barack Obama won with 57 percent in 2008.

Still, the district includes affluent, Republican-leaning neighborhoods in Washoe County, as well as much of the conservative district once represented by former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle.

State Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, who is leading the Republican effort to take over the Senate, had a terse response to Leslie's announcement.

"Desperation makes people do crazy things. I wish Senator Leslie well with her de facto retirement from politics," he said.

Brower was a little more diplomatic in his response, although he acknowledged his surprise at the news.

"At first I thought it was a joke," he said. "It just seems so bizarre. But, I'm confident, having lived in this district off and on for a long time and knowing the people in the district that what the constituents want in a legislator is someone who is a pragmatic problem solver, not someone who is all about partisan politics and partisan advantage. I think that contrast will be clear."

Leslie is known as a fierce campaigner and is popular among Democratic voters. She is also known as one of the most liberal Nevada legislators and has been outspoken in her belief that the state needs to raise taxes to better fund education and other services.

While Leslie is a freshman senator, she served six terms in the Assembly. Brower served two terms in the Assembly before he was defeated in 2003 by Angle. A former U.S. Attorney, Brower took a break from politics before accepting the appointment to Raggio’s seat.

He briefly ran for Congress last year, before Republicans nominated Mark Amodei to run in the special election.

Last year’s redistricting made Brower’s district significantly more Democratic, narrowing the Republican voter registration advantage from four points to just half a percentage point.

The matchup comes as Democrats work to protect their tenuous grip on the party’s one-seat majority in the Senate.

Senate Districts 5 and 6 in Las Vegas also are considered competitive. As for Leslie’s existing Senate seat, both Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, and Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, live in the district and are considering a bid for it.

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