Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, March 20, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The field is finally set.
After months of speculation, and perhaps some wishful thinking, the slate of legislative candidates is set.
No, former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle is not running, and conservationists failed to field a primary challenger to their new nemesis Sen. John Lee.
Nine Assembly members escaped without any opponent at all.
And in news of the just plain weird, the ex-husband of former Assemblywoman Francis Allen, R-Las Vegas, filed to run for a district in Sparks. Paul Maineri was stabbed in the arm during a highly-publicized domestic dispute with his former wife.
With the field set, here’s a look at the key races that will determine which party controls the state Senate and how the rest of the political landscape could change before the next legislative session.
Senate District 15 — State Sen. Greg Brower (R) vs. former state Sen. Sheila Leslie (D)
Redistricting gave Democrats one unexpected gift – turning the heavily Republican district once represented by the late Sen. Bill Raggio into a competitive seat with just a slight GOP advantage in voter registration.
But as candidate filing neared, it looked more and more like Democrats would be unable to capitalize on the new opportunity. Weeks of heavy recruiting efforts failed to turn up any strong candidates to take on Sen. Greg Brower, the Republican appointed to replace Raggio when he retired last year.
That’s when a close friend of state Sen. Sheila Leslie had an epiphany.
“We were walking out of the gym and he said, ‘I know who could beat Greg Brower. You,’” Leslie said.
So, she took the unusual step of resigning her seat in the Senate – a heavily Democratic seat that she likely could have kept until term limits kicked in — to run against Brower. A year before, Leslie had bought a smaller home in her district. That new house ended up in Brower’s district after redistricting.
Leslie’s move instantly made the race one of the most competitive of the election cycle and could mean the difference between a Republican-controlled Senate or one with a Democratic majority.
Assembly District 37 — Assembly Majority Leader Marcus Conklin (D) vs. Iraq war veteran Wesley Duncan (R)
It’s happened twice before in recent Nevada history — a powerful Democratic majority leader in the Assembly was defeated not by his colleagues in his caucus but by the voters in his district.
For the first time in decades, it’s a possibility again.
In redistricting, Assembly Majority Leader Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, lost a comfortable 17-point Democratic voter registration advantage. His district now favors Republicans by 441 voters.
The last majority leaders to lose were Harley Harmon in 1980 and Jack Jeffrey in 1990.
Seeing a ripe opportunity, Republicans recruited a political newcomer with an apparently sterling narrative. Wesley Duncan, according to his campaign website, is an Iraq War veteran, a judge advocate general who helped the Iraqis prosecute al-Qaida and other extremists.
Republicans are expected to help Duncan with not only legwork but fundraising.
Conklin still has a tremendous name identification advantage, a key in down-ticket legislative races that don’t usually garner much attention.
But his competitive race has only added to the drama of an already-tangled fight for control by Assembly Democrats. Conklin narrowly won the title of caucus chair, usually the prelude to assuming the speakership.
“If he’s not re-elected, it will throw the whole leadership fight into immediate disarray,” one observer said.
Senate District 18 — Assemblyman Scott Hammond (R) vs. Assemblyman Richard McArthur (R)/Kelli Ross (D) vs. Donna Schlemmer (D)
Southern Nevada’s newest Senate district has an almost even voter-registration split between Republicans and Democrats.
And it’s drawn two formidable Republicans and two formidable Democrats who will battle it out in primaries before the general election in November.
The Republican primary is a window into the current battle for the soul of the Republican Party — moderateAssemblyman Scott Hammond, who voted for the budget despite the extension of the tax increase, vs. Assemblyman Richard McArthur, a no-taxes conservative.
Political newcomer Conrad Vergara is also running as a Republican in that race.
On the Democratic side, moderate Kelli Ross — who will enjoy some name recognition by virtue of her husband, Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Ross — is competing against former PTA president Donna Schlemmer.
The district, which most expect to perform more Republican than Democrat, is key to the GOP strategy for taking over the Senate.
Senate District 1 — State Sen. John Lee (D) vs. Democratic activist Pat Spearman
State Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, has long antagonized his own party by taking a largely conservative approach in the Legislature. At one point last session, there was strong speculation that he was ready to bolt from his own party to give Republicans the majority — something he never did.
Lee angered conservationists last session by sponsoring a bill that could mean the demise of the Tahoe Regional Planning Compact, which they see as key to protecting the environment around Lake Tahoe. He also disappointed party activists by voting against the closely fought domestic partnership bill.
The conservationists wound up being unable to recruit a candidate to oppose Lee, but the Stonewall Democrats didn’t.
Pat Spearman, a Las Vegas pastor and Army veteran, is running in a primary against Lee. Spearman is a well-known activist for gay, lesbian and transgender rights.
UPDATE: While Spearman is a long-time member of Stonewall Democrats, the group did not officially recruit her to run against Lee.
A trio of key swing races
As Republicans work to take over the state Senate, they are focusing resources on three swing districts where they have recruited experienced political hands who largely have rejected the most extreme ends of the GOP platform. Democrats also have recruited strong contenders.
All three are open seats with narrow Democratic voter registration advantages:
Senate District 5: Former Henderson City Councilman Steve Kirk for the Republicans versus former state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse. Kirk, who was endorsed by the Senate Republican caucus, faces a primary against Dr. Annette Teijeiro.