Las Vegas Sun

January 17, 2018

Currently: 47° — Complete forecast

Jon Ralston:

Federal races on marquee, but legislative contests paramount

Yes, Nevada will be among a handful of pivotal states in the presidential race, bringing constant (and sometimes unwanted) attention from the candidates, their partisan allies and those third-party groups Rep. Shelley Berkley loves to hate.

Yes, Nevada’s U.S. Senate race and one of the congressional contests (Rep. Joe Heck’s seat) will be among the more intense and closely watched in the country, replete with television ads, unrelenting vitriol and hyperbolic nonsense.

But the contests with the most impact on Nevadans’ lives will be for the Legislature, with an epic battle for control of the state Senate that already has sparked a risky move by one incumbent and a resignation that forces Republicans to win four of five contested seats to count to 11. The Democrats seem to have a lock on the Assembly, with a 26-16 edge and only a handful of competitive districts (illuminating just how skewed redistricting can be even with independent cartographers). But the race for Carson City supremacy is more interesting than ever, with Speaker-in-Hoping Marcus Conklin facing a real contest in a reconfigured district, ideological purity tests in several GOP primaries and the question of where to extend taxes or not to extend taxes. And it’s also scarier than in many past sessions, with remarkable turnover certain – new party leaders in both houses and a small percentage of returning lawmakers.

Gov. Brian Sandoval’s decision to signal early that he will allow those $600 million in payroll and sales taxes to continue for the next biennium also will have an impact on these races. Republicans see Gov. Sunny’s announcement as an opportunity to run to the middle in critical contests (“We love education just like the governor”) while Democrats find themselves fighting their worst instincts (“We want more, governor!”) with limited success.

We have months to go before we sleep, and so much of what happens in these races could be affected by national atmospherics and top-of-the-ticket performances. But as filing closed Friday, here’s the lay of the land in the fight to see who can provide the leadership deficit and biennial dithering we have come to expect in Carson City:

• State Senate: It’s rare to have 12 upper house contests in a cycle, but with Elizabeth Halseth’s departure and Sheila Leslie’s resignation/district switch, add two open seats to the mix of 10 seats up.

Only five of the races matter. But because the makeup of the seats not on the ballot and locks for both parties leave Democrats assured of nine of those 16 seats, the Republicans must win four of the five contested races to take control. Or, to see it from the other side, because they have nine seats assured, the Democrats need to win only two of the five to maintain an 11-10 edge.

This would seem to give the Democrats a distinct advantage. But does it?

The stunning fact is that each of those five races could go either way. Republicans have less margin for error, but it’s far from impossible.

One more note on the Senate: There were 11 new senators in 2011 and there will be at least seven freshmen in 2013. If Barbara Cegavske were to miraculously win a seat in Congress and John Lee were to be ousted by primary foe Patricia Spearman, that would leave only David Parks left from the 2009 session.

Remember who the leaders were in 2009? Bill Raggio and Steven Horsford. Next session: Mike Roberson (probably) and Mo Denis (probably).

So two rookie leaders and at most three returning senators? That has to be salutary for the process, right? Sorry, I didn’t hear you over the din of the lobbyists applauding.

• Assembly: The reason you heard little wailing from either side after those so-called special masters finished their maps is that they left only about a fifth of the 42 seats in play. But even if there are eight — and that may be a stretch — the Republicans would have to win nearly all of them to get control, which no one thinks is likely.

But one seat that is in play is Assembly Majority Leader Conklin, the presumed next speaker. Conklin’s district is now almost even in registration and he is facing Wes Duncan, a veteran who prosecuted Taliban members in Iraq. If he’s not worried ….

If Conklin were to lose, with Debbie Smith on to the Senate, the leadership picture in the Assembly becomes even more muddled than it already is.

As for turnover, even if there are no startling upsets, the lower house will see almost two-thirds of the body changed since 2009. And there will be a new speaker and a new minority leader.

So even before the races start, this we know: tremendous upheaval over four years and a quartet of new leaders?

What could possibly go wrong?

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