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September 18, 2018

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The Trump Effect: How the presidency will affect Nevada politics as the midterms approach

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Alex Brandon / AP

President Donald Trump waves as he walks at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, before his departure to Nevada.

Important election dates, 2018

• March 5-16: Candidate filing

• May 15: Close of standard voter registration

• May 16-22: Extended in-office and online voter registration

• May 23-24: Extended online voter registration

• May 26-June 8: Early voting

• June 5: Mail/absentee ballot request deadline

• June 12: Primary election, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

• Oct. 9: Close of standard voter registration

• Oct. 10-16: Extended in-office and online voter registration

• Oct. 17-18: Extended online voter registration

• Oct. 20-Nov. 2: Early voting

• Oct. 30: Mail/absentee ballot request deadline

• Nov. 6: General election, vote 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

When will they stop running and start governing? It’s a question voters increasingly have been asking themselves for at least four decades.

Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell first described the phenomenon in 1976, and it was explored more thoroughly by journalist Sidney Blumenthal in a 1980 book, “The Permanent Campaign.” Those who have been elected immediately govern with an eye toward re-election and those who were vanquished look for a way back as soon as the votes are counted.

What had been a latent instinct for politicians developed in the cable news era and accelerated in the internet age with shorter news cycles to be “won.” The same day he was sworn in as the 45th president, Donald Trump filed with the Federal Election Commission to become a candidate for re-election in 2020.

So, no, it’s not too soon to consider how the 2018 midterm elections will unfold. With the balance of the U.S. Senate in part dependent on the Nevada race and a wide-open race for governor, here are key questions about the 2018 elections.

So how might the Trump effect play out in Nevada?

First-term approval ratings

• George W. Bush: 63% (gained 10 GOP seats in Congress)

• Bill Clinton: 46% (lost 60 Democratic seats in Congress)

• Barack Obama: 45% (lost 69 Democratic seats in Congress)

Second-term approval ratings

• George W. Bush: 36% (lost 36 GOP seats in Congress)

• Bill Clinton: 66% (gained 5 Democratic seats in Congress)

• Barack Obama: 40% (lost 22 Democratic seats in Congress)

That question looms largest in the re-election campaign of Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who has played a balancing act with Trump for months.

On one hand, Heller has tried not to alienate Trump’s impassioned base voters, the type of GOP warriors who turn out in high numbers for primaries and whom Heller needs to advance to the general election. Given that Heller’s first-declared primary opponent, Danny Tarkanian, is vowing to be a Trump soldier, it’s particularly risky for Heller to get out of line with the president.

But Heller also has tried not to get too chummy with Trump, because doing so could upset the moderates he’ll need to win a general election.

Given that Nevada voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton (and for Barack Obama twice) and that the Senate race is a statewide election, Heller could short-circuit himself by aligning with the president.

So while Heller was at times critical of Trump during the presidential campaign and went so far as to deflect a campaign donation from him to charity, he never joined other Republicans who broke ranks and announced they weren’t voting for Trump.

And when Trump invited Heller to a July luncheon after he initially voted not to repeal and replace Obamacare, helping cost Trump a victory on one of his campaign promises, Heller played along and laughed when Trump jokingly-but-not-really threatened him not to do it again.

“He wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” Trump said.

The next time the Senate voted on a replacement bill, Heller supported it, continuing his tight-rope walk.

Whether that approach will get him through the primary is unclear, especially if Trump would break with tradition and endorse Tarkanian. And Trump is definitely not tradition-bound.

What does Trump’s performance so far mean for the midterms in 2018?

Trump's approval ratings

• January: 45%

• April: 40%

• June: 42%

• August: 35%

There have been few formulas as consistent in American political history as this one: Unpopular president plus midterm election equals wins by candidates not aligned with the president.

So with Trump’s approval rating at a historic low, dropping to a subarctic 37 percent in early September, surely Democrats and moderate Republicans are thundering into the 2018 midterms like LeBron James on a breakaway dunk, right?

Well, maybe. There’s a variable in the formula this year, and it could change everything. It’s Trump’s steadfast ability to energize his base of hard-core conservative voters and anti-establishment outsiders, which carried him through his long-shot bid for the presidential nomination and then lifted him to his upset win in the election.

Democrats and Republican centrists who are assuming that bad ratings for Trump will translate into votes for them should remember that “Never Trump” sentiment was supposed to equal a win for Hillary Clinton last fall.

U.S. Senate

Why does Dina Titus have the biggest decision of her political career on her hands?

Former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and other local Democrats are vocally backing Jacky Rosen against Heller. Titus, who represents the 1st Congressional District, once again faces the prospect of running against the establishment for a seat she feels she could win.

In her fourth decade in state politics, Titus continues to weigh a decision between staying indefinitely in Nevada’s safest House seat — the 1st Congressional District is more than 2-to-1 Democratic — and running for the most exclusive club in the country. Long a favorite of the local Democratic base, Titus finds a Reid-backed candidate in her path for at least the third time in her career.

Then a state senator, Titus considered a bid for Clark County Commission in 2002, bowing out before Rory Reid — a son of Harry — entered the race. Titus later squared off with then-Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson in the Democratic primary for governor in 2006. Titus handily won the nomination but lost to scandal-plagued Jim Gibbons in the general election.

Titus put out a poll in July that shows a tight potential matchup between her and Heller, shortly after Rosen’s announcement and immediate public anointment by much of Nevada’s Democratic establishment.

“These figures dispel the Reid myth that I am not competitive in a statewide race,” Titus said. “I will announce my decision after spending time in the district during the month of August.”

A Titus-Rosen primary could create a more difficult pickup opportunity for Senate Democrats if the candidates spend significant money and focus on each other’s flaws.

Why is Dean Heller’s Senate seat a focus of national attention?

What would a Heller-Rosen general election look like?

Name recognition could come into play in a Senate race between Rosen and Heller, who has held his seat since 2011 and is a former congressman and secretary of state. Although Rosen is relatively new to Congress, she can still slam Heller’s vacillation on health care. Brian Sandoval was the first Republican governor to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and the state has seen a significant decrease in its uninsured population.

The race involving Nevada’s senior senator could determine which party controls the country’s upper chamber for the next two years.

Republicans control the Senate 52-48 and are defending fewer Senate seats in 2018 than Democrats, though Heller is the only member of the GOP seeking re-election in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Of the 34 contested Senate seats in 2018, 23 are held by Democrats.

The national health care debate this summer highlighted the importance of Senate control. When just three Republican senators joined Democrats to vote against the so-called “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act, the GOP’s top legislative priority stalled.

A Public Policy Polling survey of 847 Nevada voters in July found that Heller had a 22 percent approval rating, with 55 percent disapproving of his job performance. Heller is being challenged by Danny Tarkanian, who won the Republican primary in the 3rd Congressional District over now-lieutenant governor candidate Michael Roberson before losing to political newcomer Jacky Rosen in the 2016 general election.

Voters could get to see a rematch between Tarkanian and Rosen, this time for Heller’s Senate seat. Rosen announced her 2018 bid for Senate less than a year after she was sworn into the House in January. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, continues to mull a run for Heller’s seat as well.

How does Heller stand in the primary with Tarkanian to his right?

Senate candidate profile: Dean Heller, 57

• Current post: U.S. senator

• First elected: State Assembly, 1990

• Biggest margin of victory: Secretary of state, 55.2 points, 1998

• Before elected: Stockbroker

• Best known for: Never losing an election

Senate candidate profile: Danny Tarkanian, 55

• Current post: N/A

• First elected: N/A

• Biggest margin of victory: N/A

• Before elected: Lawyer

• Best known for: Never winning a general election; son of basketball icon

Senate candidate profile: Jacky Rosen, 60

• Current post: U.S. representative

• First elected: U.S. representative, 2016

• Biggest margin of victory: U.S. representative, 1.27 points, 2016

• Before elected: Computer programmer, president of a synagogue

• Best known for: Backed by former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid

Senate candidate profile: Dina Titus, 67 (undeclared)

• Current post: U.S. representative

• First elected: State Senate, 1988

• Biggest margin of victory: State Senate. 36.52 points, 2000

• Before elected: UNLV professor

• Best known for: Opposition to Yucca Mountain

Republican Sen. Dean Heller faces a primary against Danny Tarkanian, a five-time Nevada political candidate.

Tarkanian says he supports President Donald Trump’s policies on repealing Obamacare and ending illegal immigration. Tarkanian scooped up an endorsement from former Republican Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, who emphasized repealing Obamacare in her endorsement.

During an August rally in Reno, Trump thanked Gov. Brian Sandoval as well as Heller, not mentioning Tarkanian.

Heller has been criticized by conservatives and liberals alike for his mixed response to Affordable Care Act repeal efforts. He’s voted both for and against repeal.

Who is aiming to replace Rosen in the 3rd Congressional District?

Rosen, who took office this year, is vacating her seat with her bid for Senate. A crowded field is eyeing the spot, including Democrats Jack Love and Susie Lee, Republican state Sen. Scott Hammond and former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman, also a Republican.

Congressional District 3 is in Clark County, excluding Las Vegas. The district is Nevada’s most competitive. Dina Titus’ district is dominated by Democrats; Democrat Ruben Kihuen’s district has a strong Demoratic voter-regisration edge; and Republican Mark Amodei is the incumbent in the GOP-heavy 2nd Congressional District.

Candidates looking to fill Rosen’s seat will be competing for votes in a district where there are about 10,000 more Democrats than Republicans.

What other GOP senators are facing tough races?

One vulnerable seats is held by first-term Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who may face a tight Republican primary in a state that sent its electoral votes to Trump. Flake has criticized Trump and some of his policies, and did not attend Trump’s August rally in Phoenix. Flake has voted with Trump’s preference more than 93 percent of the time since the president’s inauguration.

The president spoke harshly about but didn’t name Flake or Sen. John McCain — who aligned with Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine to oppose the skinny repeal of Obamacare — during the Phoenix rally. Trump also stayed mum on Flake’s Republican challenger Kelli Ward.

In addition to Heller, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., could face an unusually challenging re-election after focusing on an unsuccessful presidential bid last year. He’s been challenged by Rep. Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso Democrat, in a state dominated by Republicans in its congressional delegation.

Are Nevada’s democratic voters truly energized?

For Nevada Democrats, a key question is whether voters will turn out. Will Democrats rally to oppose Trump, or will they assume that there will be so many votes against Trump and Republicans that their ballot won’t matter?

If Democrats do come out, it bodes well for candidates for statewide offices, as well as congressional seats in Southern Nevada.

Hillary Clinton carried Nevada in 2016, largely because of her overwhelming majority in Clark County — 52.4 percent to Trump’s 41.7. In fact, the only other county that voted for her was Washoe, where she narrowly won.

So if 2016 is any indication, Democratic Senate candidate Jacky Rosen, a first-term congresswoman, has reason for optimism, assuming she doesn’t face a primary contest with her colleague in the House of Representatives, Dina Titus, who is considering making a run for the seat.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak could face Chris Giunchigliani, one of his colleagues on the Clark County Commission, in what would likely to be an intense primary battle that could leave the winner weakened heading into the general election. The lower Trump’s approval rating goes, the better for them.

Then again, that’s assuming Trump remains his erratic, divisive self in the White House. If he begins working with Democratic congressional leaders and breaks the logjam of partisanship in Washington, his approval ratings could go up and the formula could change altogether. For the wild card in the 2018 midterms, it seems there’s no end to his unpredictability.

What impact might the immigration debate have on the midterm elections?

With the upcoming pending sunset of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Heller and Rosen are firing off immigration attacks.

Rosen has called on Heller to come out in support of the DREAM Act, which she says would provide immigrants with a more permanent solution.

A spokeswoman for Heller recently did not answer whether he supported the DREAM Act, but said he was in favor of “the Bridge Act, which provides legal status for these individuals while Congress works toward a permanent solution through the proper constitutional process.”

Meanwhile, Heller is attacking Rosen for her support of sanctuary communities, areas where local law enforcement do not participate in immigration enforcement.

Sanctuary communities are a contrast to cities such as Las Vegas, where law enforcement participates in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement 287 (g) program. The program means suspects who cannot prove legal residency can be held for up to two days to be picked up by ICE.

Polls say most Americans oppose deporting Dreamers. With the announcement on DACA from the Trump administration, Congress has just six months to come up with a better plan after years of immobility on immigration reform.

Governor

Governor's candidate profile: Steve Sisolak, 63

• Current post: Clark County commissioner

• First elected: Nevada Board of Regents, 1998

• Biggest margin of victory: Board of regents, 47.3 points, 2000

• Before elected: Business consultant

• Best known for: Fervent Raiders stadium supporter

Governor's candidate profile: Dan Schwartz, 67

• Current post: State treasurer

• First elected: Treasurer, 2014

• Biggest margin of victory: Treasurer, 9.95 points, 2014

• Before elected: Businessman

• Best known for: Support for Education Savings Accounts

Governor's candidate profile: Adam Laxalt, 39 (undeclared)

• Current post: State attorney general

• First elected: Attorney general, 2014

• Biggest margin of victory: Attorney general, .88 points, 2014

• Before elected: Navy lieutenant

• Best known for: Grandson of a former governor

Governor's candidate profile: Chris Giunchigliani, 62 (undeclared)

• Current post: Clark County commissioner

• First elected: State Assembly, 1990

• Biggest margin of victory: State Assembly, 58.3 points, 2004

• Before elected: Teacher

• Best known for: That last name

With Gov. Brian Sandoval at his term limit, the field of prospective replacements is growing.

Republican State Treasurer Dan Schwartz has entered the race to replace Sandoval, along with Republican Jared Fisher, who was the first to announce a bid for the seat.

Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt has long been expected to enter the race but has not formally announced his plans. If he decides to run to keep his current seat, among the contenders he’d face is state Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas. Ford announced his candidacy for attorney general on Sept. 12.

Democrat Steve Sisolak, fresh off a Clark County Commission re-election win, is running to replace Sandoval, while Democratic County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani has repeatedly said she would run as well.

What will Sandoval do when he leaves office?

Sandoval hasn’t talked publicly about his plans when he leaves the Governor’s Mansion.

Leaving office with one of the highest approval ratings among the nation’s governors, Sandoval, 54, is a former U.S. district judge who chaired the Nevada Gaming Commission, served two terms in the Nevada Assembly and spent a partial term as attorney general.

He was first elected governor in 2010, beating Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid, son of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, by 12 points. After Democrats virtually conceded the 2014 race because of Sandoval’s popularity and war chest, he won his second term with more than 70 percent of the vote.

In February 2016, Sandoval reportedly received consideration from then-President Barack Obama as a potential replacement for deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Sandoval withdrew his name from consideration amid potential conservative backlash to allowing Obama to fill a Supreme Court seat near the end of his second term.

Will Trump’s influence be felt in the governor’s race?

In the Republican primary for governor, Trump’s influence may not be felt as strongly. Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who is expected to run, supported Trump during the campaign. Treasurer Dan Schwartz, who has announced his candidacy, is presenting himself as a businessman/political outsider in Trump’s mold.

Unlike Dean Heller, who is seen as too moderate for some of Trump’s base, Schwartz and Laxalt would both have appeal. Laxalt, however, has the support of the state’s conservative GOP power structure, giving him an advantage.

Legislature

What was different about the 2017 Legislature when Democrats were in control compared with 2015, when the GOP was in control?

While spotlights shine the brightest on presidential and congressional races, local elections carry massive consequences as well. Evidence of that played out in Nevada’s state legislative races in the past two elections.

Spurred by state Democrats punting the governor’s race against incumbent Brian Sandoval and the typical sixth-year backlash against second-term presidents, Republicans swept the Assembly and Senate in 2014.

The GOP controlled both houses of the state Legislature for the first time since 1985 and used their power to pass conservative priorities including the reorganization of the Clark County School District and the creation of Education Savings Accounts (ESA). The ESA law stood out as the country’s most sweeping school voucher law at the time.

Fast-forward two years to Nevada’s “blue wave” in 2016, as Democrats regained both houses and changed the tenor of the legislative session.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature was able to push several progressive pieces of legislation to Sandoval’s desk. While Sandoval issued the second-most vetoes in a single session in Nevada history in 2017, he did sign several of the Democrats’ bills, including a ban on gay conversion therapy for minors.

Democrats claimed a major victory in blocking funding for ESAs, and also blocked GOP bills dealing with guns and voter identification.

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