Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2019

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With districts not drawn, election calendar pushed back

Although most voters might not have noticed — or wanted to — the state’s U.S. Senate race is in full swing. Republican and Democratic candidates entered the race this year and are aggressively campaigning.

Not so for the state’s legislative or congressional races. Why? No one knows exactly what those districts look like yet.

The Nevada Legislature’s failure to pass a redistricting plan has disrupted crucial off-election year planning, potentially jeopardizing Republicans’ chances for taking over the state Senate and complicating Democrats’ efforts to reclaim the U.S. House.

So far, most political operatives said the absence of new legislative and congressional districts cuts both ways for Republicans and Democrats, and the challenges can likely be overcome if the courts settle the issue by winter.

But if the court battle stretches into spring — a possibility considering the involvement of the Nevada Supreme Court or the potential for the case to go to federal court — the election could be dealt a fair amount of chaos.

“I don’t even want to think about it,” said one Democratic operative of the possibility new lines won’t be decided until spring. “It would be a mess.”

Candidates must formally declare which office they are seeking beginning in March.

Even if the court wraps up quickly, the delay is cutting into the time candidates and parties traditionally use to begin hiring staff, raising money, clearing the field of potential challengers and plotting how best to either protect or reclaim their majorities.

“The Democrats in Nevada are falling behind,” said former U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who is expected to run in one of the newly drawn districts. “They’re falling behind in raising money, they’re falling behind in getting the message out. It could be October before we have lines. By then, it’s a long wait.”

Titus, a former state Senate leader, went on to criticize lawmakers for failing to redraw the state’s legislative boundaries: “I’m disappointed they couldn’t get the job done. It’s the first time in history they haven’t been able to. I don’t know why they didn’t try to work it out. It’s one of the few powers the Legislature has, and they just gave that away to the courts.”

Titus is a prime example of a candidate waiting for a district to be drawn before deciding whether to run.

She was defeated by U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., last year in the 3rd Congressional District.

But she’s not expected to challenge him again in the traditionally swing district that doesn’t favor Democrats over Republicans.

Instead, she and other Democrats are waiting to see the new 4th Congressional District and the redrawn lines for the 1st Congressional District. Both are expected to be strongly Democratic. (Titus declined to comment on her plans because it could affect her position on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.)

But other Democrats are also circling, including state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas; Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas; and state Sen. Ruben Kihuen.

While they wait, congressional candidates hold one advantage over candidates for the state Legislature. Congressional candidates can live anywhere; state lawmakers are required to live in the districts they represent. They can also begin raising money for a generic congressional race without immediately designating which district they are running in.

Most political observers agree the lack of lines benefits incumbents more than potential challengers.

Heck, for example, can continue to raise money, perform constituent services and campaign without knowing exactly what his district looks like.

But he faces uncertainty. His district will likely include southern rural counties — a region that differs significantly from his current district and where he would have to build name recognition.

“You can’t run on assumptions, you can only deal with realities in politics,” Heck’s political consultant Ryan Erwin said. “Although you have to make strategic decisions at every turn, there’s not a lot of political spade work you can do, especially when it comes to CD3 and 4.”

Nevada isn’t the only state facing uncertain political boundaries.

Lawsuits are expected against maps passed in Texas and Florida. Maps in Colorado and Minnesota are expected to be decided by the courts instead of the Legislature, according to David Wasserman, senior editor with the Cook Political Report.

“Clearly, it’s delayed the calendar,” he said.

That delay could have more difficult ramifications for parties when it comes to who will control the Nevada Legislature after next year.

Because Senate and Assembly candidates are required to live in their districts, it’s more difficult to plan a run when you don’t know which district you actually live in.

That’s an advantage for Democrats, who have incumbents in the two most competitive existing districts. (In general, it’s legally frowned upon to draw an incumbent out of his or her district.)

Republicans need to win just one seat to tilt the balance in their favor.

“With the balance of the state Senate up in this election, that could be difficult,” Republican strategist Robert Uithoven said. “People who may be willing to run against either one of the (vulnerable Democratic incumbents), it will put them at a disadvantage. And that puts Republicans in a little bit of a disadvantage early on.”

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