Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2019

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Jon Ralston:

GOP loved special masters – until they acted

The release’s headline was unambiguous: “Hutchison and GOP Back Special Masters.”

The quote from Mark Hutchison, the lead attorney for the Republican Party in redistricting, was equally clear. “(I)t

is apparent that both the special masters and Nevada citizens desire maps that fairly establish the boundaries for legislative districts. The Republicans are confident that the special masters will do just that.”

That was Oct. 13.

The next day, the three men charged with drawing the maps that could determine who will hold office in Nevada for the next decade released their work product. The voluble, solicitous Hutchison was … silent.

My guess is the masters were not so special for him anymore. Why?

No congressional district with a majority of Hispanics, as Hutchison and his client wanted. Districts that all but assured a Democratic majority in the Assembly. Lines that made the Senate easier for the Democrats to hold, despite only a one-vote advantage.

Hutchison apparently has been incommunicado for the past few days, perhaps trying to figure out a way to write a “what I meant to say” release to react to the maps.

This is a real problem for Nevada Republicans as they wonder how to best attack maps they surely thought would be drawn in their favor — ironically, it has been Democratic strategists who fretted for months that the special masters would be a disaster. Be careful what you don’t wish for — now you may have to defend it.

But the Democrats’ task is minuscule compared with the Republicans, who now must knock from Olympian heights these masters they have elevated to godlike status. Their real conundrum is this: The masters did their jobs. You can argue exactly how they drew the lines, but Tom Sheets, Bob Erickson and Alan Glover tried to be fair.

But fairness, as ever in politics, is in the eye of the beholder. And for the GOP, their eyes are full of tears; they’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.

And yet, I really don’t see how the Republicans have much to quibble about with the congressional maps. You could argue that the new congressional district, which has rural components, was not outlined the way the Democrats would have preferred, forcing their candidates to go into sometimes-unfriendly cow-county environs. But the district is still safely Democratic (by 13 percentage points), so the nominee (likely state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford) can suffer through some lazy days in Esmeralda and White Pine counties.

Even Rep. Joe Heck’s district, drawn with a 3 percent Democratic edge, is not so unfavorable to the incumbent. Republicans can negate that with a robust turnout and Heck had twice that disadvantage in the district when he defeated Dina Titus in 2010. It’s impossible to aver that the masters were not fair in the congressional maps.

The map men exhibited similar adherence to procedures and guidelines in drawing 42 Assembly and 21 legislative districts, but this is where subjectivity really takes hold. Partisan cartographers would try to draw districts in certain ways while unbiased mapmakers would take a more neutral approach.

Democrats have a 65,000-voter edge over Republicans in the state, so the districts again will slant in their favor. But it is the specific way they are slanted — absent any takeover considerations the GOP may have — that will cause Hutchison not to be so generous in his eventual comments, I’d guess.

Here’s why: Democrats Shirley Breeden and Allison Copening — one of whom or both of whom may not run again — were elected not on their merits but because the Democratic buzz saw destroyed incumbents (Joe Heck and Bob Beers) in 2008. Both saw their districts strengthened in the maps.

And in the Assembly, the Democrats, according to an analysis by the Sun’s David McGrath Schwartz, have 22 safe seats. That’s a majority. And that, I would guess, will infuriate Republicans, even though the registration advantage makes such a number perfectly plausible.

But, ultimately, this is not about plausibility — the maps meet that test — but partisanship, even if the partisans didn’t draw the new lines. District Judge Todd Russell still has a say and the high court will weigh in next week and already has expressed concern about a process whereby the Gang of 63 abdicated its constitutional duty.

These maps are far from final, so it would still be best if lawmakers could reach an accommodation, one that could be ratified and signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval in a quick special session. That seems unlikely now, as the Democrats look like Cheshire cats.

The high court is likely to decide this. So I have some advice for Hutchison: When you do speak about what’s to come, don’t give any a priori praise to the justices. That didn’t work out too well for you the last time.

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