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May 3, 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

Click to enlarge photo

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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  1. Harry Reid did not want Lee running against Horsford for Congress, and "persuaded" Lee to seek reelection to the state senate. This DINO Lee is done masquerading as a democrat and can now switch parties, which I fully expect him to do. Ms Spearman will be a breath of fresh air for her district, and I hope she wins in the general.

  2. Patricia Spearman is a testament to the Democratic political machine that Harry Reid has crafted so well over his political tenure. This organization in concert with a consortium of like minded organizations made it possible to remove a Democrat who consistently voted against Democratic principles. This is our Republic at its grassroots finest. On to November Ms. Spearman!

  3. I hope Shelly Berkley takes a Page or Two from Ms Spearmans handbook and attacks Dean Heller over His Opposition to Birth Control, Unemployment Insurance, Infastructure Rebuilds and Several Votes to Privatize Social Security and Medicare.
    Dean Heller can always be counted on to vote in Lock Step with the Extreme Right Wing Republican Tea Party.

  4. My open letter to Senator Lee:
    Honorable Senator Lee, Firstly I want to thank you for your many years of Service to our state. Public service is probably one if the most unselfish things a person can do. Though it can be rewarding, it is also fraught with frustration.
    Senator Lee, over the years we have come to hold Democrats to a very high standard especially when it comes to the issue of civil rights. Democrats have always had a proud tradition in leading the way, trying to find a path to equality for ALL Americans. Marriage equality is a tough one....until you try to walk in the shoes of many of your constituents. Even though many Democrats share your belief that CIVIL marriage should be between one man and one woman only, very very few Democrats would actually stand in the way of "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships". Senator Lee, Robert & I, partnered for 18 years and legally married in Canada for 8, live in the "marriage capital of the world", Las Vegas, where two complete strangers, a man and a woman, can share a few drinks at the bar in the casino I work at, walk across the street to the courthouse and "marry". Of course, these folks who barely know each other will now be eligable for all 1000 rights and priviliges that marriage will give to them. We appreciated you personal views on the subject. But religious freedom is the law of the land. Your church is constitutionally protected to just say "no". But what about the rights of another church who may just want to say "yes"?Republicans are coming around on this subject. It was a Republican legislature in New York that brought that state marriage equality. It has been Republican appointed judges who have studied this issue and many times have ruled in our favor. The courthouse on Bridger which dispenses marriage licences isn't the courthouse of St. Jude. It's not the courthouse of Beth Israel nor is it the courthouse of LDS. It's my courthouse, too. Democrats have always been at the forefront of civil rights for all Americans, with rare exception. Senator Lee, I believe you to be a good and decent man. And I'm truly sorry for your loss because I know you are a dedicated servant. I don't live in your district, but when votes were needed at the state level to ensure couples like Robert and I could be treated equally under the law vis a vis domestic partnerships, you turned your back on us. I try still to understand why a Democrat could do that.
    Stuart & Robert Wyman-Cahall Las Vegas, NV

  5. John Lee apparently forgot where he came from. If the man came from a more moderate district - I could understand his positions. But Lee was elected by a predominately Blue district. There was NO excuse for his siding with Conservatives on key issues important to Progressives.

    I'm excited for Patricia Spearman and happy to have her representing District 1.

    If I recall correctly - there is no opponent for the General Election so Patricia WILL be our new State Senator for District 1.

  6. Leave it to the Tea Party to mangle one of the greatest quotes from a great American. It is: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."
    And Pat Spearman, a veteran, a pastor, a voice for reason, has spent most of her life in service to her country. She did not campaign on "Lee is not doing enough for the people." Community groups supported her because Lee had turned his back on Democratic values, and Pastor Spearman put families and people before the interests of corporations.

  7. The "tea party" sold its soul to the corporatist=fascist=plutocrat=theocrat party, aka the GOP. Congratulations, Ms. Spearman. We need more like you in every election.

  8. Why is the Demo victory so much more newsworthy than the Tea Party victory?

  9. My friend smartone618,
    I must respectfully disagree with your observation. Think for a moment. While you are correct that the Republicans have out-righted even their most "normal" conservative Republicans with extremists, the Democrats have soooo moved to the right that you call Lee a moderate!
    Senator Lee represents what has become so wrong with the Democratic party if, for no other reason, the Dems have evolved to Republican "light". Lee's campaign staff comes from the Republican party! I saw a political graph that showed exactly my point...the lines show the Republicans getting far more extreme, while the Dems have stayed consistent in their support of Social Security, Medicare, support for education and the environment, etc....these were also the values of a once "normal" Republican party. a perfect example: remember, it was Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency.