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November 21, 2019

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Low voter turnout for primary could make races even more interesting

Voting in West Las Vegas

Leila Navidi

Poll worker Ernestine Terrell directs voters to their stations during Election Day at the West Las Vegas Library in Las Vegas Tuesday, November 2, 2010.

Without a marquee statewide race, turnout is expected to flirt with record lows in today’s primary election.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting races. Instead, the low turnout could lead to some surprising results, with traditional predictors like money and endorsements being trumped by things like effective (aka, brutal) mail attacks or a small group of passionate supporters turning out en masse.

There are still competitive races that will have implications in November’s general election, and state policy beyond. Here are four things to look for when polls close tonight.

Which Republican will face Horsford for the new congressional seat?

The state’s newly created congressional seat was supposed to be a safe Democratic district, where state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford could begin the next chapter of his political career.

And it still is, if by “safe” you mean “sort of safe.”

When the seat was created by the courts last year, Democrats held a registration advantage of 46 percent to 33 percent. By May, Republicans had gained 2 points, narrowing the Democrats’ lead, according to active voter registration numbers by the Nevada secretary of state’s office.

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Nevada Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford speaks during the Nevada State Democratic Party Convention at Bally's Event Center in Las Vegas on Saturday, June 9, 2012.

Republicans believe they may have a chance, given that a portion of the district is Republican rural Nevada, which turns out more consistently than urban, Democratic Clark County. Also, they believe they have effective attacks against Horsford.

But first, Republicans need a nominee.

The GOP has had a heated primary for the seat. Competing are Danny Tarkanian, a businessman and son of UNLV legend Jerry Tarkanian; state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, a conservative veteran of Carson City; and Dan Schwartz, a businessman who spent thousands of dollars from his own wealth on his campaign.

And then there’s perennial candidate Kenneth Wegner, who has neither raised nor spent money. But polls show he is competitive.

If he wins in this election where his opponents have attacked each other, a word of advice: Ignore just about everything you read from political parties, pundits and reporters. We know nothing.

Can Nevada progressives take out a conservative Democrat and thumb its nose at the party establishment?

State Sen. John Lee was running for Congress against Horsford until the heavy hand of the Democratic Party establishment leaned on his shoulder and suggested he run for re-election, sparing Horsford a primary fight. Or, as Lee’s campaign would have it, the North Las Vegas businessman thought he could accomplish more in the Legislature.

Regardless, Lee’s decision to run for re-election triggered a series of moves by other candidates — some literally had to move to different houses — to clear the way for him. But Lee, in his time in Carson City, has been the most irksome of Democrats for liberals and labor unions. He sponsored legislation last session that would take Nevada out of the compact to regulate development at Lake Tahoe, has been a vote against gay and transgender issues, and has been reticent on union-friendly workers rights issues.

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Senators Ruben Kihuen and John Lee confer during a meeting of a meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Economic Growth and Employment on the third day of the 2011 legislative session Wednesday, February 9, 2011 in Carson City.

So the progressives in the state decided to “primary him.” It’s a move conservatives have used repeatedly and effectively to take out moderates in the Republican Party and send a message to the rest that the base can’t be taken for granted. It is the first time in recent memory that the progressive wing of the party has tried such a move.

But while Republicans lack a strong leader to tamp down internecine fighting, Nevada Democrats have Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his organization.

Since backing out of the race against Horsford, Lee, who has never raised serious money for a political race before, has had an impressive fundraising haul of more than $200,000. And the liberal coalition meant to oppose him isn’t as large as progressives hoped it would be — the state teachers union and AFL-CIO have remained neutral in that race.

After a series of potential candidates backed out, the progressives found Pat Spearman, a North Las Vegas pastor, to throw their weight behind.

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Pat Spearman, now a pastor, served in the Air Force for 30 years. Being gay in the military, she says, was never easy.

But in this low-turnout election, political observers say Lee is far from safe. Indeed, the Nevada Priorities Political Action Committee, which is leading the charge against Lee, has raised $86,000 despite obstacles from the establishment.

Establishment Republicans vs. anti-taxers

At stake in the Senate District 9 primary race, and other Republican Senate battles, is both control of the state Senate and perhaps the direction of the state Republican Party.

Since 2009, Republicans have been in the minority in both the Assembly and Senate.

This year, they hope to take back the Senate. But to do that, they have to win at least four out of five competitive senate seats against Democrats in November.

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Mari Nakashima St. Martin

To that end, the Senate Republican Caucus endorsed candidates in several competitive primary fights. While the caucus members said there was no litmus test, the endorsed candidates have not signed a pledge against raising taxes while the upstarts have.

In SD9, the Senate Republicans endorsed Mari Nakashima St. Martin, a former spokeswoman for Republicans, over attorney Brent Jones.

The race quickly turned nasty, with St. Martin digging up an old court case in which Jones was accused of selling ostrich eggs to a man with traumatic brain injuries.

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Brent Jones

Jones supporters fired back by setting up a website with photos of St. Martin drinking alcohol and featuring a picture of the former representative of the seat, state Sen. Elizabeth Halseth, who resigned mid-term amid an ugly divorce scandal.

Another Senate primary race to watch is a fight between two assemblymen.

The caucus has endorsed Assemblyman Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, over Assemblyman Richard McArthur, R-Las Vegas. Hammond voted to extend taxes in 2011, a position supported by Gov. Brian Sandoval. McArthur did not and, like Jones, signed a pledge not to raise taxes.

Republicans will be hard pressed to take back the state Senate — more so, the establishment believes, if the so-called upstarts make it to the general election.

Low turnout

Forgotten in the partisan battles between and within political parties is a growing segment of the voter population — those who eschew both Republicans and Democrats to register as “nonpartisan.”

That segment now is at 16 percent, the highest level it has been in at least a decade.

It’s hard not to see the low turnout as somehow reflective of that — nonpartisan voters in many areas of Las Vegas have few races on their ballots. They are unable to participate in such races as the congressional and Senate primaries. Instead, they have a say in nonpartisan offices such as the school board and justice of the peace.

Meanwhile, Nevada’s western neighbor, California, recently had its own experiment in open primaries. Any voter, regardless of party affiliation, could vote for any candidate, and the top two vote-getters will go on to the general election.

There’s no active effort to open up primaries in Nevada, but a low turnout could draw attention to the impotence of nonpartisan voters in primary elections.

Statewide, Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller predicted that turnout would be from 15 to 20 percent. Since 2000, the lowest primary turnout statewide was 18 percent in 2008. Next lowest was less than 23 percent in 2000.

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