CARSON CITY — When Republicans rode a nationwide “red wave” in 2014 to take control of the Nevada Legislature, their unexpected majority didn’t just give them the clout to win votes on individual bills. It also gave them a more subtle power: the leadership roles that determine which bills came up for discussion.
A year ahead of the 2016 elections, Democrats who were outnumbered 25-17 this spring, say they’ve learned from the “painful” experience of not being in the driver’s seat, and are ready to reclaim the majority that they’d comfortably held for decades.
“A lot of people are fired up,” said Assemblywoman Irene Bustamante Adams, who’s leading the effort to winnow the field of potential Democratic Assembly candidates. Some seats have as many as 10 Democrats who want to run.
“They never want to go back and see something like last session,” she said, pointing to “distracting” bills introduced by Republicans.
But even though a presidential election is expected to drive more Democrats to the polls, they’ll have to contend with Republicans intent on ensuring their gains weren’t a fluke of turnout.
“Assembly Republicans have never been as organized as we are today,” said Republican Assemblyman Paul Anderson, who’s been traveling the country pitching donors on a plan for victory that focuses on a few key seats. “There’s a lot of strategy.”
Control of both the Senate and Assembly will hinge on a handful of competitive races. Senate Democrats, who were outnumbered 10-11 in the last session, are giddy about the prospect of Clark County Deputy District Attorney Nicole Cannizzaro winning the Democratic-leaning Las Vegas seat held by Republican Mark Lipparelli.
Lipparelli isn’t running in 2016, leaving two Assembly Republicans to square off in a primary. Erv Nelson, who supported a governor-backed $1.1 billion tax package and is endorsed by Senate Republican leaders, faces Victoria Seaman, who opposed it. Seaman has framed Nelson’s vote as a betrayal of constituents who opposed a 2014 tax ballot measure.
“Republicans are in for a nasty fight,” Senate Democratic leader Aaron Ford said.
Democrats also hope to pick up the Reno Senate seat that Republican Greg Brower won by less than 300 votes in 2012. Brower isn’t seeking re-election and Democrats haven’t announced a candidate yet, but they hope taxes and gun issues drive a wedge between establishment-backed Republican candidate Heidi Gansert and her primary opponent, Eugene Hoover.
Senate Democrats also must play defense: Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse is facing a fellow educator, Republican charter school principal Carrie Buck, in a precarious Henderson swing district.
In the Assembly, Republicans have already resigned to losing some of their dramatic gains. Freshman lawmakers Shelly Shelton and John Moore face daunting re-election odds due to wide Democratic registration advantages in their districts.
Seaman would have also faced unfavorable odds had she run for re-election, but she’s seeking a Senate seat in a district where the numbers are a bit more Republican-friendly.
Republican leaders also must defend fellow moderates who joined with Democrats to pass the tax package with more than two-thirds support. Ardently anti-tax Republican Assemblyman Brent Jones is promoting a slate of like-minded candidates in hopes of unseating Republicans who supported the measure.
Especially vulnerable are Carson City Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill and Pahrump Assemblyman James Oscarson, who represent heavily conservative districts. Threats against them over their tax votes have gotten so bad that police were called out to protect their homes, Anderson said.
But Republicans in both houses say they have a compelling story to tell when they knock on voters’ doors: that they can get things done. They argue they didn’t raise taxes for taxes’ sake, but to provide targeted funding for English language learners and children in poverty, and they passed a voucher-style program considered the broadest school choice measure in the nation.
“The Nevada Legislature said it is not OK that we’re last in education, and that’s why we passed the most sweeping reforms in the country,” said Sen. Becky Harris. “I think that we did what we felt was the right thing.”
Under Republican leadership, Democrats were able to secure education spending that they’d been unable to get even when they controlled the Legislature, as well as stave off some Republican-backed bills they feared most. But Democratic goals such as a higher minimum wage and student loan relief fell by the wayside, and they fear an uncertain future if they’re in the minority again, they said.
“We had significant influence,” Ford said, noting Republicans had to cooperate with Democrats because they needed their votes to pass the tax package. “That’s not the normal position for the minority to be in.”