Las Vegas Sun

February 10, 2016

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Politics:

Nevada elections could determine control of U.S. House, Senate

From the way the campaigns are shaping up, it seems almost a foregone conclusion that who controls the Senate in 2012 may come down to which party wins in Nevada.

But now that may also be the case with the House.

Last week, the head of the congressional Democrats’ campaign arm said he thinks his party can retake the House, and that the Silver State’s races could play a crucial role.

“This House is in play. I wasn’t prepared to say that before,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel told reporters last week, later telling the Sun that “based on the current climate, it looks like most of Nevada could be in play.”

As a swing state with a new congressional district and recently one of the tightest battlegrounds for the House, politicians in both parties are eyeing Nevada’s potential to deliver significant pickup.

If Democrats really mean to take the House in 2012, they’ll have to win 24 seats that are either vacant or under Republican control — three of which, potentially, could come from Nevada. But the national parties will be watching Nevada long before 2012.

Democrats are reveling in a huge political boost from Kathy Hochul’s upset victory in New York’s 26th Congressional District last week, a seat they considered to be redder than 97 other districts held by Republicans. Hochul was sworn in Wednesday as the 433rd member of the House.

That leaves only two more vacancies: California’s 36th, formerly held by Democrat Jane Harman, and Nevada’s 2nd, formerly held by Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican.

Democrats are positioned to hold on to the California seat in the July 12 runoff, meaning Nevada’s Sept. 13 special election is the next contest that will help determine whether Democrats’ victory in New York was a fluke, or the first step toward what they hope will become a House-sweeping trend.

“The victory in New York 26 is not going to make us cocky ... it will inform our strategy, it will not be our strategy,” Israel said. “But our message is better because our priorities are better than the Republicans’.”

Democrats in New York focused on a message that Nevada’s Democrats have also been building: that Republicans favor tax breaks for the rich and balancing the budget on the backs of the middle class, chiefly by raising the costs of health care with changes to the Medicare program.

It’s an accusation Republicans deny, but even House Speaker John Boehner admitted that Medicare was “a small part of the reason we didn’t win” in New York.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee is accusing Democrats of “spiking the football early.”

“The fact that they’re trying to take one special election as some sort of national referendum is a mistake,” committee spokesman Tyler Houlton said. “There’s 18 months until this election; we’re not going to get arrogant about this stuff like they are.”

Houlton has history backing him up: In 2009, Democrats won a special election in New York’s 23rd in another upset, and followed that up with a victory to keep the late Rep. John Murtha’s Pennsylvania seat in spring 2010. But six months later, they lost the House in the biggest turnover in postwar history.

But Nevada’s 2nd District race is different. The seat has never been held by a Democrat since it was created in 1980. But it is less-firmly Republican than the district Democrats just won in New York.

Over the past three election cycles, Heller has steadily built his winning margin in Nevada to a safe 63 percent in 2010, but averaged, he’s only posted slightly more than a 50 percent majority to win the district. That’s much less than what has happened over the past three election cycles in New York’s 26th, where the Republicans were widening their margins of victory, but averaged a 63 percent majority.

Uncertainty about the shape Nevada’s special election will take makes it difficult for Democrats to pick a candidate and launch a full-fledged campaign — although it appears efforts, especially opposition efforts, are homing in on Kate Marshall as the likely Democrat to beat.

But there is lingering uncertainty about what anyone is going to be running for, as state lawmakers bicker about what shape redistricting will take.

It’s not just in Nevada. Similar redistricting battles in state legislatures across the country are throwing more than just the Democrats’ target districts in play, meaning the Democrats will have to worry just as much about protecting seats they already have as expanding their ranks.

The odds are swinging somewhat against them. Of the 10 states that are losing seats, eight went for Barack Obama in 2008.

No state receiving a new congressional district has finalized its maps for those districts. But every state on the list except Nevada and Washington have a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled legislature, suggesting that Democrats will at least have to put up a hard fight for new territory in those states. Washington has both a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature.

In fact, it’s only Nevada where the outcome is really anybody’s guess.

Nevada’s Republican governor and Democrat-controlled Legislature have been locking horns and hurling maps around Carson City for weeks, as the standoff over how to divide the state by four gets mired in a volley of measures and vetoes. Most expect the clock to run out, and the question of how to chop up the state will eventually be put to the courts — which will delay the parties’ ability to know which end is up and commit messaging to candidates who could eventually stand for elections.

In the meantime, it appears the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is turning to comrades in arms to keep the campaign going for them: their counterparts in the Senate.

“In Nevada we’re working hard and Shelley Berkley is doing very well,” committee Chairwoman Patty Murray said last week.

Berkley was sluggish about declaring her candidacy, but since she did in April, she’s been out of the box like a bullet, taking to the campaign trail in almost full election mode a solid 18 months before ballots will be cast — and at least a full season before any would-be House reps are planning to break ground on their 2012 campaigns, or any would-be presidents will really crack down on canvassing for the caucuses.

A veteran of the House, Berkley seems ready to keep that machine humming.

“Nevada is a very important state in the 2012 election, it’s important for Obama to win, it’s important for the DSCC to win, it’s important for the DCCC to win,” Berkley said. “The efforts will all be coordinated, and everybody’s going to be working from the same page.”

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