Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011 | 2 a.m.
In an effort to retake the state Senate, Republicans in the Legislature are wading into potential primary fights and choosing favorites, a year ahead of the general election.
The party is signaling to political donors the candidacies they bless, risking accusations of unfair play and the alienation of the candidates and supporters who find themselves on the outs.
At stake is control of the state’s upper house, where Democrats hold a one-seat majority. With Democrats defending seven of the 10 seats up for election, Republicans see an opportunity to take control, which they lost in 2008 after 18 years of Republican rule.
To that end, caucus leaders are trying to pick candidates they view as strongest.
The Nevada Democratic Party, with Sen. Harry Reid as its leader, has for a decade out-organized the state Republican Party. Senate Republicans see an opportunity in fundraising, hiring staff, and now in endorsements, to emulate their rivals across the aisle.
But while Democrats rarely fought over ideology, Republican internecine fighting could pit hard-line, anti-tax candidates against the more compromise-minded, continuing the long-running fight over the philosophical direction of the party.
Exhibit A: This week, Assemblyman Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, who last session voted to extend a 2009 tax increase set to expire, received the endorsement of the Republican caucus over Assemblyman Richard McArthur, R-Las Vegas, who signed a pledge not to raise taxes, and Michele Fiore, who ran for Congress against Rep. Shelley Berkley in 2010.
“The caucus members considered all their options, and went with Hammond because they felt he’d help take back the majority,” said caucus Director Jodi Stephens.
The caucus would endorse on a case-by-case basis, she said, rather than apply an ideological litmus test to candidates.
Democratic leadership has, for the past few campaign cycles, stepped into contested primaries to tip the scale in favor of certain candidates. The rationale is that the pooh-bahs know which candidates have the best chance of winning, and the party is more likely to succeed if it can save its resources for the general election.
That has caused some grumbling among the base about the party sacrificing democratic principles to achieve a political win.
Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, who has taken over the state Senate caucus with Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, running for Congress, said his caucus will look at each seat individually before making an endorsement.
Senate Democrats have already endorsed Assemblymen Tick Segerblom and Kelvin Atkinson in their state Senate races.
But for Republicans, that could prove trickier.
Soon after the Republican Senate Caucus endorsed Hammond, conservative consultant and anti-tax agitator Chuck Muth took to Twitter to tout McArthur’s candidacy.
A majority of Republicans in the state Senate voted against extending taxes in 2011, despite Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s eventual support for the proposal.
But the Hammond endorsement in a district evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans is more a sign of pragmatism than signaling a policy shift for the caucus.
There are four state Senate seats likely to be in play in 2014, if maps approved by District Court Judge Todd Russell last month stand. Two are held by sitting Democrats — Sen. Shirley Breeden and Sen. Allison Copening.
Copening has not yet decided whether she will run for re-election. The maps show a voter registration advantage for Democrats of 6 and 7 points for those seats, respectively.
The other open seat, for which Hammond, McArthur and Fiore are running, is District 18, a newly created northwest Las Vegas district that used to be a rural seat.
State Sen. Greg Brower’s Reno district is also competitive, with a 1 percentage point Republican advantage.
Both Republicans and Democrats are likely to endorse the candidates they view as strongest in those seats (Brower is likely to run for re-election) to give their parties the best chance at victory.
But in one Republican contest, the caucus is likely to be silent: the heavily Republican state Senate seat that encompasses much of rural Nevada, Senate District 17.
Both Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, and Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R-Amargosa Valley, have expressed interest in the seat.
Goicoechea, from the start of the 2011 session, said he was willing to trade long-term government policy changes — like changes to pensions and health benefits for public employees — for votes in favor of extending the 2009 tax increases. Goicoechea held that position even when Sandoval was equating an extension of the 2009 taxes, which would have expired in June, to a tax increase and saying it wasn’t an option.
Goedhart is a conservative who, like McArthur, signed a pledge not to raise taxes.