Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2017

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Blue wave’ sweeps Democrats back to control in Nevada Legislature

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L.E. Baskow

Supporters cheer on newly elected congressman Ruben Kihuen on stage as the Nevada State Democratic Party hosts its 2016 election night watch party with Hillary for Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto for Senate, and down-ballot Democratic candidates in Southern Nevada at ARIA Resort and Casino on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.

Democrats riding a wave of anti-Donald Trump fervor in Nevada made a forceful comeback to the Legislature on election night, seizing the powerful majority position in both chambers and more than reversing the heavy losses from 2014 that they vowed never to repeat.

The victories come after a period of Republican control that ushered in dozens of bipartisan education reforms and the tax package to fund it, but also rendered Democrats mostly powerless against conservative efforts to weaken unions and expand gun access.

"I think last time we played a lot of defense, and it was exhausting," Democratic Assembly leader Irene Bustamante Adams said early Wednesday at a victory party on the Las Vegas Strip. "This time around we will be driving the agenda."

The biggest wins of election night came in two Las Vegas-area Senate races. Democratic county prosecutor Nicole Cannizzaro defeated Republican Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman after an ugly matchup, while endangered incumbent Democrat Joyce Woodhouse protected her seat from Republican challenger Carrie Buck, a charter school principal.

Coupled with victories in less-competitive races, Democrats now have an 11-10 majority in the Senate.

Republican Sen. Patricia Farley pointed out that the margins were close and shouldn't be taken as a mandate for Democrats to advance "crazy agendas" or undo work from last year's session.

"Going forward we have a big hole in the budget and a sluggish economy, and it's going to require us to work together," she said.

In the Assembly, 2016's "blue wave" scored Democrats 26 or 27 seats in the 42-member Assembly and swept out several freshmen Republicans who scored upsets last cycle.

One Assembly race remains too close to call. Democrat Skip Daly has a razor-thin lead in northern Nevada over Republican incumbent Jill Dickman.

The defeated incumbents include Derek Armstrong, David Gardner, Stephen Silberkraus, Shelly Shelton, Brent Jones and Republican-turned Libertarian John Moore.

Two Republicans also sunk in their bids for open seats previously held by members of their GOP. They included Artemus Ham and Nick Phillips.

Silberkraus said Republicans suffered because Trump didn't have the ground game to help carry down-ticket candidates with him. He often saw people walking door-to-door on behalf of Clinton's campaign in their successful, all-in bid to win Nevada.

"It was us as a small Assembly race running against a presidential campaign," Silberkraus said. "That wave crashed down on every office below it."

It wasn't all bad for Republican incumbents — one of them survived what was perhaps the most unusual race of the cycle. Two-term Assemblyman James Oscarson landed a decisive win over Libertarian brothel owner and reality TV star Dennis Hof in a district that includes Nye County.

The balance of legislative power could affect the future of the voucher-style Education Savings Account program — a Republican-backed initiative that would allow parents to claim a portion of their child's state public education money and apply it toward private school tuition.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled the concept was constitutional but the funding mechanism was not. While Democrats have long opposed the program, Bustamante Adams indicated they might be willing to compromise on a funding fix if, for example, the program is limited to lower-income families.

"School choice is important to Nevadans," she said. "I know that for myself being a military family. One of the options we needed as a military family was to have choice."

Democrats are also keenly aware of the volatility of their power. They were crushed in the 2014 "red wave" and dominated in Nevada's "blue wave" this year, but could suffer again in future elections without a marquee presidential matchup on the ticket to motivate their base.

"Really, our hard case is going to be for the 2018 legislative session and 2020," she said. "We're going to count our blessings and be happy for the win, but don't lose sight of the fact that it's going to be an uphill battle for the next two."

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