Friday, March 23, 2012

As the #NVLeg Primaries Turn

In January, it looked like Nevada Democrats were starting the new year in a shaky position... At least when it came to the state of play in Carson City. HOA scandal plagued Senator Allison Copening (D-Las Vegas) decided not to run for reelection in the new SD 6, followed by Senator Shirley Breeden (D-Henderson) deciding not to run for reelection in the new SD 5 because of family health issues. Around this time, Nevada's pundit class expected Democrats to remain in defense mode and struggle to maintain the Senate majority.

However in February, everything seemed to change. Up north, Sheila Leslie (D-Reno) shocked the pundits by announcing her campaign in the new SD 15 this year against appointed Senator Greg Brower (R-Reno). Brower was expecting to coast to reelection, but the competitive nature of the district and the new competition forced him to flip-flop on his past anti-tax positions and switch from "tea party" allegiance to full on "moderation". Meanwhile down south, the growing chorus of questions on the whereabouts of Elizabeth Halseth (R-Enterprise) to resign her SD 9 seat, triggering a special election in what's now a Democratic leaning district. All of a sudden, G-O-TEA plans to reclaim control of Carson City hit a real snag. And if that wasn't frustrating enough for Legislature Republican leaders, the entry of moderate Democrat (and wife of a certain Las Vegas City Council Member) Kelli Ross into the SD 18 race put that district into play and further complicated GOP efforts to grow its ranks in Carson City.

So far this month, the dynamics of the #NVLeg campaign seem to be shifting yet again. Until this month, the pundit class was mostly focusing on the general election fight for control of the State Senate. However, a unique series of events turned attention to the primary. When Governor Brian Sandoval (R) announced his support for extending again the sunsets on the 2009/2011 tax deal, he wanted to make the Nevada GOP reclaim the middle ground and look more appealing to moderate voters. Instead, his move and Senate GOP Leader Michael Roberson's (R-Henderson) flip-flop on the tax sunsets enraged the "tea party" base and led Nevada "Tea Party, Inc." leader Chuck Muth to begin attacking them on his blog. And now, it looks like Muth is taking sides against incumbent GOP Assembly Member Kelly Kite (R-Minden) and against the Senate GOP Caucus endorsed candidates in SD 5 (Henderson-Green Valley) and SD 18 (Northwest Las Vegas), causing even more headaches for Republican leadership.

However, not all the primary action is on the right. Also in SD 18, former PTA President and current Democratic candidate Donna Schlemmer declined to step aside when Kelli Ross announced for that district, which seemed to encourage a number of local progressives concerned about the Ross' Blue Dog leanings. And last week in SD 1, nearly everyone (moiself included!) was shocked to find that not only was John Lee getting a primary challenge, but he's now having to endure a fierce campaign against a surprisingly strong candidate in Pat Spearman, as well as a growing coalition of LGBTQ equality activists, environmentalists, education advocates, union activists, and other progressives looking for a different voice to fill that seat. The R-J posted an interview with John Lee this morning, and he tried hard to make a case for his (relatively) conservative voting record making a good fit for the reliably Democratic SD 1. And with Assembly Member and aspiring Assembly Speaker Marcus Conklin (D-Las Vegas) catching heat for cozying up to the Fertitta family (while unions coalesce behind Culinary 226 to take on Station Casinos) and mining industry lobbyists (including going on a trip with them to Brazil last year), some progressives are feeling freer to eschew the Assembly Caucus endorsement list in supporting other Assembly candidates running in the Democratic primary.

Until recently, most political insiders described Nevada as a "one party state" in that whoever was in power completely subscribed to "the gaming-mining-lobbying industrial complex" party line. However this year, it's starting to look like change is in the air. Not only has the political landscape changed for the November general election, but we're also seeing a number of interesting races pop up for the June primary. "Tea Party" madness still looks to be alive and well on the Republican side, and Muth & Co. really look to be emerging as a serious thorn on the side to Republican leadership. Meanwhile on the Democratic side, progressives look to be speaking up and making more of an effort to challenge the "middle of the road" status quo.

It's increasingly looking like there will be real reason for us to vote in June, and that's not really a bad thing. Primaries are just another part of the "small d" democratic process. They'll never totally be done away with, regardless of some party officials' wishes and hopes and prayers. And they'll give Nevada voters more choices, and perhaps even some real choices.

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