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July 31, 2015

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POLITICAL MEMO:

GOP blames gerrymandering for Democrat hold on Legislature

Lynn Hettrick

Lynn Hettrick

By all accounts, this should be a banner year for Republicans.

Democrats face an angry anti-incumbent mood fueled by the seemingly endless recession. Republicans, meanwhile, have the support of fiery conservatives, whose energy echoes that of the wave that ushered in Barack Obama in 2008.

Independent analysts predict Republicans could take over the House, perhaps move the Senate to a tie and pick up a majority of the governors’ mansions nationwide.

So why is no one predicting that Nevada — a swing state with voters relatively evenly split between the two major parties and a strong independent streak — will see a Republican surge in the Legislature?

Republicans think the answer is simple: gerrymandering.

Consider this fact: Even though a majority of voters cast their ballots for Republican lawmakers in the past two elections, Democrats retained during the past session an overwhelming majority in the Assembly and control of the Senate.

In 2008, Republicans won 51 percent of the votes cast in legislative races, but controlled just 37 percent of the legislative seats. In 2006, Republicans won 51 percent of the vote and controlled 41 percent of the seats.

Some say that’s just a math problem that has little bearing on reality: Districts are districts, each with its own dynamic.

But former Assembly Minority Leader Lynn Hettrick said it’s clear evidence of gerrymandering.

“The Nevada electorate has been rocking back and forth for a decade” between Republicans and Democrats, he said.

“But go back and look at the Assembly. How many times has it been controlled by Republicans in the last 25 years? I don’t believe once. Now how can that be if the districts are 50-50?”

In fact, the last time Republicans controlled the Assembly was 1985.

Democrats have dominated the Assembly for 15 years and only grown in power since they had control of redrawing district borders in 2001.

In the state Senate, the parties have remained more evenly split, with Democrats taking a slim majority for the first time in 2008.

But with little hope for Republicans to take control of either house this year, Democrats will — when lawmakers take up redistricting in February — have another shot at cementing their majorities in the Legislature for the next decade. Lawmakers redraw legislative boundaries after each decennial census.

A multitude of factors determines a party’s ability to gain and keep control of the Legislature, including having an organization to register voters, an acumen for recruiting strong candidates and the ability to provide them with resources to run credible campaigns.

Republicans have been lacking on those fronts for more than four years.

But an analysis of the way Democrats drew Assembly district borders in 2001 shows Republicans are working against more than a lack of leadership.

They also face a clever geographical strategy that gave Democrats small, stable, landlocked districts that are unlikely to flip Republican.

For example, Democratic Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley’s tiny District 8, with 11,000 voters, has remained solidly Democrat and has even lost voters since redistricting. Republican Assemblyman Chad Christensen’s District 13 in the northwest valley has exploded from 69,000 voters to 97,000 and has more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Using this strategy, Democrats in 2001 not only drew districts that maintained their 25-17 Assembly majority, but also promised to expand their control as the Las Vegas Valley’s growth exploded.

Hettrick, a Gardnerville Republican who played an integral role in 2001 redistricting negotiations, said: “It came down to: The Republican Senate said we are going to redistrict our house so we can stay in control. They did a bad job. The Democratic Assembly redistricted so they could stay in control, and they did a damn good job.”

Some Democrats said it’s misplaced to give them so much credit for craftily drawing districts that would bolster their control of the Legislature over the years.

Indeed, the extent of the population boom in Las Vegas couldn’t have been predicted with any accuracy in 2001.

It’s also true that in the thick of a redistricting battle, Democrats often fight among themselves, seeking to draw districts to their personal advantage.

“It’s every person for himself,” one Democratic lawmaker said. “It’s the most political act we do and a lot of times you’re more worried about fending off people in your own party. There are very few people looking at the big picture.”

The Democrat said “even we were surprised” by how well redistricting worked in the party’s favor.

There were other fights, too — over whether to add seats to the Legislature to benefit Northern Nevada and over the composition of the 3rd Congressional District.

In the end, Assembly Democrats gave in to Republicans, drawing the 3rd Congressional District to favor the GOP, but rejected adding seats to the Legislature.

So what’s ahead for 2011?

Because Republicans likely won’t win a majority in either house, Democrats will again control the process.

Individuals interested in running for Nevada’s redrawn seat in Congress will fight for favorable boundaries.

Northern Nevadans and the rural counties will attempt to hang on to the number of districts they have despite their diminished share of the state’s population.

Assemblymen looking to run for Senate will keep an eye on how the districts are drawn around their home addresses.

Republicans will likely take a backseat, again — until they get another shot at it, in 2021.

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