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October 9, 2015

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Political memo:

As Berkley eyes Ensign’s Senate seat, Legislature sharpens redistricting knife

Shelley Berkley

Shelley Berkley

Steven Horsford

Steven Horsford

John Oceguera

John Oceguera

A quiet excitement is brewing among Democratic leaders in the Legislature over the prospect of Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., running for the U.S. Senate.

It’s not because they’re necessarily enthusiastic about her ability to win. In fact, some worry about her strength in a statewide race.

No, these term-limited leaders with an eye on higher office have a more Machiavellian reason: If Berkley gives up her congressional seat to run for Senate, they won’t have to answer to a Democratic incumbent when it comes time to carve up her district during reapportionment.

“As an incumbent she would be very protective of the composition of her district,” Democratic operative Dan Hart said. “If Shelley is running for re-election, they are going to pretty much leave that district alone, or at least any changes to the district they are going to have to persuade Shelley (to accept).”

Berkley represents the 1st Congressional District, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1. It’s a geographically compact district that hasn’t grown as much in the past 10 years as the state’s other two districts.

As they set about redrawing districts to accommodate a fourth seat in Congress, state lawmakers must create districts with equal populations. The magic number: 675,138.

That means the 1st Congressional District must give up 154,000 people.

Lawmakers in charge of redistricting are practically drooling over that Democrat-rich pool of potential voters.

Berkley has been openly exploring a run for Sen. John Ensign’s seat. But his decision last week not to seek re-election, making way for Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., makes it more difficult for a Democrat.

If Berkley enters the race, it would leave another open seat for the politically ambitious to pursue.

Both Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, and Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, are considering running for Congress. Oceguera is termed out after this session, but Horsford could run for re-election once more, in 2012.

Currently, Nevada has one Republican district, one Democratic district and one Democratic-leaning swing district, that one held by Republican Joe Heck.

Eyeing the map and Nevada’s voter registration, Democrats are expected to fight Republicans’ expectation of a two-and-two split. Instead, Democrats will likely push for two Democratic districts, one Republican district and a swing district.

Freeing up Berkley’s district gives Democrats significantly more options for making that happen.

“It’s a three-dimensional chess game here, and Shelley Berkley is the first piece,” Hart said.

How do the remaining pieces fall? The possible moves on an early board that is expected to change repeatedly over the next three months:

1. Nevada’s existing swing seat, the 3rd Congressional District, becomes more Democratic, giving a Democrat, perhaps someone such as Oceguera, an easier shot at unseating Heck, a freshman Republican.

2. The 1st Congressional District remains a safe Democratic seat, but becomes more compact, and lawmakers don’t have to worry about protecting Berkley’s favorite precincts.

3. The 4th Congressional District could be drawn as a safe Democratic seat with voters from the 3rd and 1st districts. Horsford is thought to be eyeing that district. But so is his predecessor as the Senate Democratic leader, former Rep. Dina Titus.

4. The 2nd Congressional District, which includes parts of Clark County and the rest of Nevada, opens a potential opportunity. Democrats would have a hard time passing legal muster if Republicans came out of redistricting without at least one solidly Republican seat.

Given the distribution of the state’s population, it would be difficult to create a safe Democratic seat in Northern Nevada. But Washoe County is trending more Democratic. And the Democratic Congressional Committee is looking for a candidate strong enough to win the seat for the first time since it was created.

The committee’s representatives were in Carson City last week and expressed interest in Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, one of the three most powerful Democrats in the Assembly.

Under that scenario, an effort to augment Washoe County’s Democratic voters with some in Clark County could materialize.

But the true wild card is what Gov. Brian Sandoval, who has veto power, wants. The Republican governor, who is building a national profile, has remained quiet on his intentions.

His only public statement: “I will not sign a bill that favors one political party over another. Congressional seats and legislative districts should be drawn with a fair and proportional representation of constituents. Period.”

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