Sunday, May 18, 2008 | 2:02 a.m.
Now that the contenders and pretenders have filed, now that the season’s slate is filled and the races officially have begun, the overarching question for Campaign ’08 is this: Will the presumed Democratic tidal wave wash away many Republicans in Nevada, or will the GOP’s sandbags hold back the flood?
The 2008 election not only is freighted with importance for this year — especially because Nevada is among a few swing states in the White House race — but the results will set the table for the 2010 balloting.
After a speed bump called the 2009 Legislature, the state’s political forces, whose troops will be rearranged in November (or not), will hurtle toward an election that will determine the fate of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the state’s long-term political matrix, as those results will determine who controls redistricting and reapportionment.
The early beacons for Democrats salivating to capitalize on President Bush’s subterranean approval ratings and a massive surge in party registration are flashing amber, especially in the pivotal legislative battles.
Party operatives are sanguine about state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus’ chances to defeat Rep. Jon Porter, who will run as far as he can from that smiling picture of him with George W. Bush as he sprints toward the front of the line for 2010 Reid challengers. But in every other important venue the Democrats, despite the atmospherics, cannot be seen as favorites to change the dynamic.
The Republicans also have a couple of wild cards that the Democrats do not — one who could energize their hopes and another who might dampen them. It’s always good to have a billionaire helping the cause, so Gondolier Numero Uno Sheldon Adelson, or at least his deep pockets, could be quite helpful to the GOP. But the party also is saddled with a high-profile albatross named Jim Gibbons, whose negative ratings may not be Bushian but could bushwhack a few favored Republican candidates.
That’s the setup. Here’s your guide to the lay of the land, with the major partisan battlegrounds in play:
• President: Recent history is not good for the Democrats. It’s been 44 years since a Democratic nominee won here without a strong third-party candidate on the ballot (Bill Clinton, helped by Ross Perot, won in 1992 and 1996). But the state has changed. Bush didn’t win in landslides and John McCain, he of the Yucca-loving, sports-bet-hating platform, is not beloved here. Barack Obama performed well in the rurals. But that was against Hillary Clinton, and the cow counties could still save McCain.
• Congress: Rep. Shelley Berkley couldn’t lose if she tried and though Dean Heller could lose, his political transformation into an illegal-immigrant-bashing superconservative ought to make his seat safer in Round 2 against ex-Regent Jill Derby.
The real race this cycle is between Porter and Titus, two state senators who served together, know each other well and couldn’t be more contrasting in styles. Titus will, for a change, have all the Democratic establishment, including Reid, who wants to erase Porter now, behind her, and the incumbent has to be worried after watching those three disastrous special House elections this year in districts much more favorable for the GOP.
This will have national attention, national money and national significance.
• State Senate: Republican Bill Raggio has reigned over the upper house since 1993, frustrating Titus’ efforts cycle after cycle. Raggio has little margin for error — the Republicans have an 11-10 edge and he has to worry about the last-minute primary challenge from ex-Assemblywoman Sharron Angle — but the Democrats have few opportunities. The Republicans will cause some mischief against a few Democratic incumbents but the GOP has known that its resources this year had to be marshaled to defend Bob Beers and Joe Heck — two state senators believed to have higher ambitions.
The latter did not draw an opponent until Friday after many Democrats decided not to challenge the returning Iraq war veteran. Shirley Breeden, a political unknown, may get resources funneled to her if only to soften up Heck, who Reid believes may be considering a run against him. (My take: I see Heck as a state guy, so if Gibbons shows weakness in 2010 ...) Heck is a solid favorite for reelection, even though the district now has a slight Democratic voter registration edge.
So the real question is whether Allison Copening, a PR specialist and newcomer, has a chance against Beers in a district that also has turned slightly Democratic. Copening may not have wowed the media in the early going but it is ... the early going.
She will need plenty of help to defeat the tireless Beers, who is beloved in Sun City Summerlin and who lives and breathes this stuff. But if that Democratic wave starts sweeping into the land of the old folks and Copening can find a few Beersian vulnerabilities, this could be interesting.
• Assembly: Of the 42 seats, as usual, only a few really are in play. Speaker Barbara Buckley is determined to get to a supermajority — adding one to her total of 27 Democrats. But rookie Minority Leader Heidi Gansert has done an excellent job of recruiting candidates in districts where the GOP actually has a chance to pick up seats in a year that should be toxic for Republicans.
Buckley has lost two incumbents down here — Susan Gerhardt and Rosemary Womack — and the GOP will compete for both those seats. And up north, Gansert has recruited a couple of potentially viable candidates against incumbents David Bobzien and Bonnie Parnell.
The Democrats have a couple of golden opportunities, though. A former county commissioner’s daughter — Marilyn Dondero Loop — has to be the favorite for the seat being vacated by Republican Valerie Weber, although activist Donna Toussaint has plenty of support in the area. And with incumbent Republican Chad Christensen’s “I’m out, I’m in” act in a district turned Democratic, Buckley has a real chance there, although the Democrats would have had a better chance had the incumbent stuck to his decision to spend more time with his family.
If the Republicans hold off Buckley’s desire to count to 28 or take some seats to make it reasonable to plot a takeover in 2010, this will be a huge Democratic Party regret come November. And regrets are one thing no Democratic strategists can even imagine having six months from Election Day.