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October 24, 2014

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Politics:

Control of the state Senate hinges on these three races in Southern Nevada

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Steve Marcus

A man walks past a sign directing voters to a polling location at Fremont Middle School gym Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

Republicans who battled Democrats at the state Legislature earlier this year now are shifting the fight to the ballot box.

They’re again vying for control of the state Senate, a victory they almost claimed in 2012 when a Republican lost to a Democrat by 300 votes and thus ensured Democrats kept their 11-10 majority.

Although the 2014 legislative races may seem inconsequential and a long way off, consider this: These state senators will likely decide whether a resolution allowing for same-sex marriage passes the ballot, they’ll likely address new mining taxes, and they’ll set the priorities for education, public safety, transportation and mental health in the state budget.

The high-stakes battle has already begun. Republicans and Democrats are soliciting donations and recruiting candidates, several of whom could declare their candidacies before Labor Day, operatives in both parties say.

Although voters in 11 Senate districts will have a state Senate race on the ballot in 2014, Republicans and Democrats agree that only three races are truly competitive: districts 8, 9 and 20. All are in Clark County. Two are held by Republicans.

“It’s all about those three races,” said Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, who represents District 20. “Obviously, we take every race seriously, but those are the three based on voter registration that are the most competitive.”

Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, has looked at the same numbers.

“If you look at the registration in those particular districts, those are districts that are close, that are winnable,” he said.

Republicans need to win all three races to gain an advantage in the Senate.

The three districts are on the edge of the Las Vegas Valley in suburban areas that represent the electoral battleground between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats control the urban cores of Las Vegas and Reno. Republicans control the state's rural areas.

Here’s an early look each of the three districts, who’s running in them and what’s at play:

    • District 20: Sen. Michael Roberson, Republican

      The burden to take the Senate rests squarely on Roberson’s shoulders. He’s the Senate Republicans’ chief fundraiser and an experienced political operative in his own right, having worked for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

      Sen. Michael Roberson

      Sen. Michael Roberson

      Now he’ll have to put the knowledge to work to defend his own seat while also trying to orchestrate a campaign to defeat Democrats in other districts.

      Roberson’s stances — which have veered more to the center since his first campaign, when he ran as an anti-tax conservative — may reflect his district, which is nearly evenly split between active voters registered Democratic or Republican.

      The district leans Republican, though. During the 2012 election, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republican senatorial candidate Dean Heller won in Roberson’s district.

      He represents a relatively affluent, suburban district; the western half of his district is represented by a Democratic Assemblyman, and the eastern half is represented by a Republican Assemblyman.

      Democrats say they have a few potential candidates to run against Roberson, and they’re generally looking for people who are “moderate,” Denis said.

      But Roberson will first have to survive a primary challenge after he provoked conservative angst with his mining tax proposal and his support of Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s priorities, which included budgeting more money for English-language learners and creating a law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to gain a card allowing them to drive in Nevada.

      “I have always expected one or more primary challengers, and there will probably be more than one by the filing deadline,” Roberson said.

      The first such challenger is Carl Bunce, a former Clark County Republican Party official and a campaign operative for former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. Bunce announced in July that he will run against Roberson in the 2014 primary election.

      “There is a fight for the Republican brand right now,” Bunce said. “The Republican caucus is split, obviously, in their messaging. There’s limited-government Republicans and big-government Republicans in there.”

      The primary challenge will force Roberson to fight a two-front political war, playing defense on his right flank while concurrently going on the offensive against Democrats.

      Voter registration in District 20 as of June 2013
      Democrat Republican Independent American Libertarian Nonpartisan Total
      25,619 25,137 3,263 486 12,613 67,467
      2012 general election results in District 20
      Obama (D) Romney (R) Total presidential votes Berkley (D) Heller (R) Total U.S. Senate votes
      26,750 (48.36%) 27,636 (49.96%) 55,314 22,910 (42.12%) 26,862 (49.39%) 54,390
    • District 9: Sen. Justin Jones, Democrat

      Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, has been a target for Republicans since the day after the 2012 election, when he eked out a win against Mary Nakashima St. Martin, the Republican candidate in the southwestern Las Vegas district.

      Sen. Justin C. Jones

      Sen. Justin C. Jones

      Senators normally serve four years before facing an election, but Jones replaced Sen. Elizabeth Halseth, R-Las Vegas, who resigned in early 2012, forcing the election between Jones and St. Martin.

      Since then, Jones blitzed through an eventful term in the Senate. Like Roberson, Jones was an outspoken freshman legislator, becoming the unlikely torchbearer for a bill that would have mandated background checks for private-party gun sales. Sandoval vetoed the bill, but sustained media coverage of it kept Jones’ name in the press.

      Republicans are still heartened by St. Martin’s near-win. GOP consultant Billy Rogers called Jones a “very flawed, very weak” candidate who will bear the brunt of Republican attacks during the campaign.

      Still, this is a district with 5,229 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Democrats represent both of the Assembly seats nested in Senate District 9.

      Barack Obama received about 5,000 more votes than Romney in this district, and Democratic senatorial candidate Shelley Berkley won the district by 657 votes against Heller.

      Republicans dismiss that data, saying Obama won’t be on the ticket and that left-leaning voters might stay home on Election Day.

      “Justin Jones won’t have Barack Obama to drag him across the finish line this time,” Roberson said.

      Jones said he expects a tough, expensive race and that he’ll be knocking on doors and doing voter registration drives soon.

      For all their fervor about defeating Jones, Republicans haven’t decided on a candidate.

      Jones said former Republican Assembly candidate Tom Blanchard may be interested in challenging him. Another man, Mike Bajorek, has set up a website declaring he is challenging Jones.

      Neither man may be whom Senate Republicans prefer. Rogers, a consultant for Roberson, said he hadn’t even heard their names before.

      Voter registration in District 9 as of June 2013
      Democrat Republican Independent American Libertarian Nonpartisan Total
      24,942 19,713 3,022 492 12,713 61,201
      2012 general election results in District 9
      Obama (D) Romney (R) Total presidential votes Berkley (D) Heller (R) Total U.S. Senate votes
      25,208 (53.96%) 20,730 (44.37%) 46,719 21,111 (46.12%) 20,454 (44.69%) 45,774
    • District 8: Open seat

      Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, won’t return to the Senate because she has reached Nevada’s term limit of 12 years.

      So it’s open season in this suburban district in the western Las Vegas Valley.

      Both parties want to run a superb candidate because neither hopeful will have the advantage of being an incumbent senator.

      Political followers and party insiders say Assemblywoman Marilyn Dondero Loop, D-Las Vegas, may run for the office because her Assembly district is nested within Senate District 8. She’s a veteran of the Assembly who has served three two-year terms.

      Dondero Loop declined to comment about a possible run for the Senate seat in a tweet July 31.

      Clark County School Board President Carolyn Edwards may also run as a Democrat, but she said she won’t run if Dondero Loop becomes a candidate.

      Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, is the other state officeholder who lives in the district. He said earlier this week that he wants to run.

      But Senate Republicans have not yet said whether Hambrick is their man for the district.

      In losing Cegavske, Republicans also lose the only Republican woman in the Senate, leaving the caucus as a group of white men. So Republicans may have an incentive to demonstrate their appeal to women and racial or ethnic minorities in their candidate choice.

      By the numbers, the district looks a lot like Roberson’s. Neither political party has a significant advantage in voter registration, but Romney and Heller each won in this district.

      Voter registration in District 8 as of June 2013
      Democrat Republican Independent American Libertarian Nonpartisan Total
      25,964 25,142 3,011 431 12,318 67,158
      2012 general election results in District 8
      Obama (D) Romney (R) Total presidential votes Berkley (D) Heller (R) Total U.S. Senate votes
      27,121 (48.90%) 27,476 (49.54%) 55460 23,921 (43.91%) 26,416 (48.49%) 54,474

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