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July 4, 2015

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The left’s Harry Reid-defying move pays off with surprise primary win

GOP establishment takes page from Democrats, backing primary candidates strategically

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Unknown Democrat Patricia Spearman won Senate District 1 in a major upset Tuesday.

For once, it wasn’t the Republican base that roared loudest in Nevada. It was the left, and they scored a major victory in an attempt to “send a message” to Democrats in Carson City.

In one of the lowest turnout elections in recent years, an incumbent state senator, John Lee of North Las Vegas, was defeated by the liberal flank of his party — an unprecedented effort by the left to oust a conservative Democrat.

And, in Northern Nevada, incumbent Assemblyman Kelly Kite, R-Minden, was defeated by a Tea Party activist.

But in the state Senate, where Republicans hope to regain control for the first time since 2007, GOP candidates who had the endorsement of the establishment appeared to survive challenges from the right.

Lee, a business-friendly conservative Democrat from North Las Vegas, had the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and raised $200,000 for his primary fight against unknown Patricia Spearman. She raised only a few thousand dollars, but a third-party group led by environmentalists, gay rights advocates and advocates for more government funding, ran an energetic campaign in the district.

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Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas

Michael Flores, who helped organize the opposition to Lee, said liberals were motivated to oust Lee after the last legislative session, when he pushed a controversial bill to allow guns on college campuses and succeeded in pushing through another bill that could pave the way for more development around Lake Tahoe.

“Last session was really ugly,” Flores said. “We couldn’t sit around and let nothing happen. We couldn’t sit around and not follow through on our threat.”

Lee and Spearman fought furiously over each and every voter in the low-turnout election. Democrats in Senate District 1 were deluged with phone calls, mail pieces and door knocks.

And they couldn’t even escape the onslaught at the polls. Campaign workers from each side sat outside key precinct locations, haranguing voters as they trickled in from the parking lot in 102-degree heat.

“Remember Sen. Lee has Sen. Reid’s backing!” a Lee campaign worker shouted to one voter.

As another voter complained about the number of phone calls she had to endure, a Spearman worker said: “Look, I was going to call you today but I decided not to. Does that count for something?”

Some voters heeded the calls. Michelle Cody, of North Las Vegas, said she voted for Spearman.

"As many phone calls as I've gotten on this race, from both sides, I thought I better come vote,” she said.

Cody ultimately voted for Spearman, saying reproductive rights drove her decision.

“I do foster kids and I do teenagers and birth control is important,” she said.

Lee had, for a time, been running for Congress, against Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford. But when Lee dropped out of that race and ran for re-election, he quickly earned the full-throttled support of the Democratic Party establishment.

Even such groups that had tangled with him in Carson City, like the state teacher’s union and AFL-CIO — the traditional Democratic political muscle — remained neutral in the race, instead of opposing him.

Democrats on Primary Night

Dina Titus speaks during a primary election night party at the new Nevada Democratic Party Field Office in Henderson on Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Such “purity tests” have normally been disdained by Democrats, where the strong party establishment in Nevada has succeeded in almost eliminating competitive primaries in the biggest races. (See easy wins by Rep. Shelley Berkley for the U.S. Senate nomination, and in the congressional seats easy victories by Dina Titus, John Oceguera, and Horsford.)

But in another bit of turnabout, the Republican establishment took a page from Democrats this cycle, endorsing state Senate candidates strategically, with an eye on who could best compete in the November elections. Republicans need to win four out of five competitive seats in November to take back control of the state Senate.

To that end, Senate Republicans took on the conservative flanks of their party to endorse candidates who had not signed the anti-tax pledge and who were not darlings of the Tea Party movement.

In the end, those candidates survived challenges from the right.

• In Senate District 5, Steve Kirk easily defeated Annette Teijeiro.

• In Senate District 9, Mari Nakashima St. Martin, endorsed by the caucus, topped Brent Jones, who said he had the backing of Tea Party groups and Ron Paul supporters. That had become one of the nastiest races of the cycle, with both candidates leveling personal attacks.

The Senate Republican Caucus had backed St. Martin, a former spokeswoman for Republican candidates and the party, because she was viewed as the better general election candidate. Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, and Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, contributed thousands of dollars from their campaign accounts and political action committees to St. Martin.

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Mari Nakashima St. Martin

• In SD18, Assemblyman Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, defeated Assemblyman Richard McArthur, R-Las Vegas.

The race pitted two incumbent Republican assemblymen against each other, but each neatly highlighted the divisions within the state’s GOP.

Hammond, a teacher, voted in 2011 to extend $620 million in taxes that were set to expire for another two years. This was a position supported by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

McArthur, meanwhile, had signed the pledge not to raise taxes and voted against the tax increase, joining the more anti-tax segment of the Republican caucus.

The Senate Republican Caucus endorsed Hammond over McArthur.

Hammond will face conservative Democrat Kelli Ross, wife of Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross, in November. Ross defeated former PTA education activist Donna Schlemmer in the Democratic primary.

Tuesday wasn’t a complete wash for Tea Party supporters, which had a banner influence on the primaries in 2010, when Sharron Angle won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

Jim Wheeler, a Tea Party activist, defeated Assemblyman Kelly Kite in Assembly District 39. Kite had outraised Wheeler, $40,000 to $13,000.

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