February 20th, 2019

Inside The Beltway

What It Meant
by Michael Green

June 12 may seem like eons ago, but on that day, Nevadans decided who they would vote for five months later, and they told us a lot about themselves, their preferences, and their options. Exactly what they told us, though, is another matter entirely. Here are some previews of the fall races, ranging from the analytical to the trivial to the historical.

U.S. Senate

There could have been a pair of rip-roaring primaries, except that the supposedly non-existent party establishments weighed in. When national and state Democratic leaders anointed Representative Jacky Rosen as their choice, Representative Dina Titus thought long and hard about whether to take her on before deciding against it. On the Republican side, incumbent Senator Dean Heller appeared likely to face a challenge from Danny Tarkanian, who pronounced himself the true follower of Donald Trump. But when the word came from the Oval Office that Tarkanian shouldn’t do that and instead should go for congressional district 3—the seat that Rosen is giving up, and for which she had defeated Tarkanian two years before—Heller suddenly had smooth sailing.

Rosen won a bigger percentage of the Democratic turnout—77 percent—while Heller came in just under 70 percent. Given it was a race between an incumbent and a no-name field, some may reasonably ask whether Heller should have done better. But one of his opponents, Tom Heck, lost in the GOP Senate primary for the second straight time. Maybe his name was recognizable. Maybe some voters thought he was Joe Heck, the former congressman who won that primary in 2016. In other words, so what? Heller is in the general, and it isn’t as though there was a knockdown battle that left scars.

No, we’ll leave that for the general. This will be a national marquee race. Heller’s seat could decide whether Mitch McConnell keeps the majority leader’s office or Chuck Schumer takes it over. That means beaucoup bucks will roll into Nevada and flow from Nevadans to their preferred candidate, and that every time you put on a TV as of Labor Day, there will be ads related to this race at every commercial break. Heller has been through that before: in 2012, his race against Shelley Berkley was one of the big national battles over and for the Senate. Rosen went through a hard-fought election in District 3 in 2016, but not statewide.

Issues? Oh, there are issues? Well, Yucca Mountain will come up frequently. It already has. Heller contends only he stands between Nevada and the arrival of the high-level nuclear waste dump—which, by the way, enjoys most of its limited popularity in rural Nevada, whose voting patterns are usually redder than a bleeding beet. This will continue, but it’s interesting to ponder how party loyalty will outweigh the issues.

Meanwhile, Rosen provided an answer to Heller: if she’s elected, there presumably will be a Democratic Senate, and the Senate will stand athwart Yucca Mountain and yell stop. Further, historically, Republicans nationally have supported Yucca Mountain; Democrats, specifically Harry Reid, have blocked it. Whether stopping it will matter as much to Democrats when Reid is no longer in office, and no longer the leader—or to Republicans after the election, whoever wins Nevada’s seat—remains to be seen.

Obviously, the occupant of the White House will be an issue. This will cut both ways. Heller will let no sunshine between himself and Trump, and Rosen will attack them both. But if Rosen pushes too hard on how close Heller is to Trump, could that persuade Republicans who are unsure of Heller’s loyalty? And if Heller welcomes that, does he hurt himself with the few Republicans and the greater number of non-partisan or independent voters who don’t like Trump? Similarly, Rosen already is being depicted as a puppet of Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Will that really matter?

Thus the beauties (?) of politics. Whatever a candidate is or isn’t, the opposition will attack. Rosen could announce she threw Pelosi and Reid out of a car as she drove along the highway and Heller could claim that he built a bonfire out of “MAGA” hats and burned them in his backyard, and both sides would continue their attacks.

U.S. House

Districts 1 and 2 are safe, and neither party is going to worry much about it. But here is something to ponder for the future: the population of Mark Amodei’s district is now more than 20 percent Hispanic, compared with more than 40 percent in Dina Titus’s district. Considering immigration issues and where the two parties stand, and that political guru Charlie Cook lists Titus’s district as much more solidly on one side than he does for Amodei’s district, the more distant future could get interesting.

Districts 3 and 4? Oh, that’s another matter. In 3, running for Rosen’s seat, Democrat Susie Lee (who ran last time in District 4) got about two-thirds of the vote. The GOP primary was a bit different. Tarkanian won with about 44 percent, which looks very good in a large field but also may look less good considering he was Trump’s candidate. Michelle Mortensen, a former TV reporter, got nearly 25 percent. The third-place finisher, Scott Hammond, a departing GOP state senator, won less than 17 percent of the vote, which may suggest that the Republican base isn’t enthralled with incumbents, especially those who voted for the tax increase that Governor Brian Sandoval pushed in the 2015 legislature.

District 3 is closely divided, but it has gone Republican for all but two terms since its creation for the 2002 election, and in those two cases, they were Democratic years in Nevada and presidential election years—2008 and 2016. But if the outcome of the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that nothing is simple or predictable. If 2018 is indeed the year of the Blue Wave, Lee’s chances improve. If not, Tarkanian’s do. As with Rosen in relation to Heller, it will be interesting to see how the candidates frame each other and Trump.

District 4 is Ali-Frazier II, or something like that. Steven Horsford and Cresent Hardy faced off in 2014, with Hardy defeated the Democrat. Then Hardy lost to Democrat Ruben Kihuen, who didn’t run for reelection amid several allegations of sexual harassment.

If the primary results mean anything—and they may not, other than deciding who won—Horsford may be stronger with his party right now than Hardy is with his. Horsford rang up more than 60 percent of the vote against a prominent field: State Senator Pat Spearman, Regent Allison Stephens, and Amy Vilela, who got attention as the claimant of the Bernie Sanders mantle (and, as may be obvious, all women in a year in which women have been exceptionally prominent on the ballot nationally and in Nevada). The Culinary Union strongly backed Horsford, who once worked there and will be important to his general election hopes.

Hardy won but with less than half of the vote. It will be interesting to see whether that matters. David Glenn Gibbs, who has been active in the local party and on the county central committee, took nearly 19 percent. Newcomer Bill Townsend and frequent congressional candidate Ken Wegner each got about 11 percent. Of course, each voter is an individual, but in 2016, Hardy tried to avoid getting too close to Trump, and some insiders have felt that cost him his reelection bid: other Republicans doubted his loyalty. Whether that will be an issue this time around for Hardy, as for Heller, remains to be seen.

Other Races, and How It All Connects (Or Doesn’t)

The biggest primary matchup was the Democratic governor’s race between a pair of Clark County commissioners. Steve Sisolak defeated Chris Giunchigliani with about half of the vote to her 36 percent—to many observers, a surprisingly big victory; he had had a large early lead in the polls but she had certainly run an active campaign and closed the gap considerably.

Maybe all you need to know about how strange politics can be is that this was, in many ways, a rerun of the 2016 presidential race with the genders reversed: the more liberal Democrat challenging the more moderate choice of the party establishment. Except that at the last minute, the moderate choice of 2016 endorsed the more liberal candidate: Hillary Clinton came out for Giunchigliani.

Adam Laxalt easily won the Republican primary for governor against two self-funded candidates, state treasurer Dan Schwartz and businessman Jared Fisher. Laxalt seemed to have no use for several of Sandoval’s policies, which could make for some interesting contretemps. At least for some Democrats, the key question was not whether Sisolak or Giunchigliani was preferable, but which one would have the better chance against Laxalt.

Go back to 2006. Jim Gibbons won the GOP primary for governor fairly easily against a pair of strong candidates, Bob Beers and Lorraine Hunt. On the Democratic side, Dina Titus, then a longtime state senator, defeated Jim Gibson, then the mayor of Henderson, easily. But it was a bitter fight: several establishment Democrats made clear, at least to those who were looking and listening, that they preferred Gibson to Titus. Titus lost the general election by four points even after reports that Gibbons had a nanny who was an undocumented immigrant—a group that he regularly attacked—and faced accusations of assault. While any campaign that ends in a defeat can be explained in numerous ways, the idea that Titus was too liberal for the electorate certainly was a popular one.

Irony alert: In this race, Titus endorsed Sisolak because they have been good friends and supported each other’s campaigns for close to three decades, and she faced criticism from some leftier Democrats that she isn’t liberal enough. None of this ultimately matters, except that it does suggest that in this age of social media and immediacy, voters react more strongly and quickly than they used to, sometimes to everyone’s benefit and sometimes to everyone’s detriment.

It’s hard to gauge how much the governor’s race will affect other races and vice versa. Many Democrats are horrified at the thought of a Laxalt governorship (and Republicans tend to be horrified at the thought of some Democrats). On the one hand, turnout among women might have benefited if Giunchigliani won. On the other hand, that presumes a lot: remember that Trump did better than expected with white women voters in 2016, and Rosen tops the Democratic ticket in Nevada. On the third hand (and there is one), a lot of women are on the ballot: the Nevada legislature could have a majority of women members, and their presence on the ballot suggests a high turnout. On the fourth hand (and there is one), some of those women candidates are Republicans, and Democrats are left to wonder what impact that could have.

The results in this race, coupled with a Sanders supporter like Vilela not making a dent in District 4, has more left-leaning Nevada Democrats gnashing their teeth about the lack of progressives. It may be that some of the voting was strategic, that rather than voting for the candidate they most agreed with, some Democrats voted for the candidate they thought to have the best chance in November.

Or, since only about a quarter of the voters showed up, maybe none of it means anything except who’s on the ballot this November, and political analysts are, as usual, pounding their keyboards or flapping their lips because they—uh, we—have nothing better to do.