The Ins and Outs of the Nevada Legislature... and the General Election

by Jon Ralston

Nevada Republicans should pray to the political gods that Democratic icon Tip O’Neill was right.

The way the November election shapes up as of this writing, unless all politics really is local, the state GOP is headed for a disastrous Campaign ’96 in federal and state contests.

Yes, the presidential contest presumably will narrow, although the top of the ticket now seems more likely to be a lead weight and not a buoyant balloon. And yes, coattails can sometimes prove illusory, so even should President Clinton swamp Bob Dole, it may not translate into results in Nevada.

But if all politics, especially in a presidential year, are national, the Republican tide that rose so high in 1994 is about to drown GOP hopes two years later. The irony is ripe. Since the 1994 debacle the state GOP has raised seven figures, caught up with the Democrats in state registration and done an efficient job recruiting candidates for legislative office. So can the deluge really be nigh?

The fact is that reliable polling shows that the state’s two congressional seats, now in Republican hands, are not safe. Spike Wilson has a longer shot against Jim Gibbons than Bob Coffin does against John Ensign — but experts on both sides concur that both Democrats have a chance.

And while the state Senate appears reasonably safe for the GOP, which now controls the Legislature’s upper house by 13-8, it is by no means foolproof should a Democratic landslide occur. The Assembly, now at a historic 21-21 tie, is tilting toward the Democrats for a variety of reasons, including the potential reversal of the 1994 GOP Wave, especially in a series of Southern Nevada seats, traditionally Democratic but now held by the GOP. What follows is an analysis of the November general elections for Congress and the Legislature:

 

Congressional District 1

The preview: Coffin still doesn’t have much name recognition, but this contest is anomalous — I don’t think he wants to become well-known. In fact, GOP Rep. John Ensign probably must ensure that Coffin is not seen by the district’s nearly 150,000 Democrats simply as one of them — a safe Democratic port to avoid another Republican storm. Or, as another weather-minded insider put it: "There is a tsunami developing on a national scale and he (Ensign) can be washed ashore."

This may be the rarest of cases when the incumbent must go negative on an unknown challenger to preserve his seat. It’s one of the hoariest political axioms, but unless Ensign executes it, he may not see a second term: He must define Coffin, while he remains a cipher to many voters, before the challenger can get enough money to define himself. That, rather than some attempt to drive down Coffin’s primary total, was the goal behind Ensign spending $50,000 to bring up Coffin’s money from nuclear waste dump–friendly union’s during the last week.

Consider the dynamic at play: Ensign won by 1,436 votes two years ago, garnering thousands of crossover Democrats, outworking a weak incumbent and riding the GOP Wave. Many of those Democrats who voted for Ensign now are doubtless disenchanted with the GOP Congress and its icons — Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America. Thus, Ensign’s vulnerability and thus, his negatives are soaring in the 30 percent range.

If the race boils down to a Newtite vs. a no-name Democrat, Ensign may be spaying dogs again soon. But if it becomes youthful reformer vs. longtime politico with baggage, Coffin may have plenty of time on his hands to read in his bookstore.

Key questions: Can Coffin, who actually raised more money than Ensign during the last reporting period, garner enough funds ($200,000 more at least) or put in enough of his own (already $100,000 in the red) to get out his message? Can Ensign, whose campaign has been virtually nonexistent so far, effectively exploit issues such as Coffin’s union money and his legislative record without appearing to be too negative? Can Coffin, whose IQ is high but charisma quotient is low, do well enough in news conferences and debates to radiate credibility? Who will really have the grass-roots campaign that makes the difference — Coffin and his union friends or Ensign and his GOP faithful? That is, who will turn out on Nov. 5?

The outlook: Infinitesimal lean Ensign.

 

Congressional District 2

The preview: It’s not surprising that a few weeks back when House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt came to Nevada he whispered privately to some insiders that he didn’t give Spike Wilson much of a chance. With about 40,000 more Republicans than Democrats in the district, a case could be made that this is Gibbons’ race to lose. The Republican will have all the money he needs, as he will have GOP congressmen come to the state and help him raise funds. This does appear, after all, to be a contest between a man born to be on the campaign trail and a man born to be in a think tank.

Gibbons will do just what he did in the primary — be everywhere, shake as many hands at he can and perfect his patter — "I’m the anti-tax guy. Pension vote: Youthful indiscretion. Crime: Hate it. Seniors: Love ‘em. Education: Important."

So how can Wilson get beyond that patina? First, he must raise another $250,000 or so. He must force Gibbons to debate so he can try to portray himself as the man of substance and his opponent as the man with a mask. Wilson will try to rip away Gibbons’ moderate veneer and try to paint him as too far right even for this district.

Wilson’s message also seems to be: "I’m independent. I hate partisanship." The appeal is simple. He’s pleading for the district’s nearly 58,000 independents to gravitate toward him and he’s trying to erase that mettlesome "D" after his name so some moderate Republicans will come over.

And Wilson must do what Cafferata and Lau tried to do: Pick apart Gibbons’ legislative record and depict him as a man playing a role that doesn’t jibe with the reality of his own history.

Perhaps most of all, Wilson must create an aura of energy, of enthusiasm around his campaign. He must be seen as a crusading underdog, the former Ethics Commission chairman trying to bring his reputation for probity and bi-partisanship from Nevada to Capitol Hill.

If he can sew a quilt of Clark County voters, seniors, independents and Washoe Country crossovers, Wilson could defy the demographic disadvantage. But if Gibbons can remain above the fray, paint Wilson as a sniping Democratic interloper in a GOP district and hold his own in any debates, Wilson’s second political life will last only until Nov. 5.

Key questions: Can Wilson campaign against Gibbons, outlining his legislative baggage, without seeming too negative? Will the national Democratic ticket remain strong enough so Democrats turn out in higher numbers than Republicans in November? Can Gibbons succeed in a partisan approach by marginalizing Wilson as the right man in the wrong district? Does Gibbons have enough of a base and enough of a grass-roots foundation, or is he really the proverbial mile-wide and inch-deep candidate?

The outlook: Solid lean Gibbons.

 

Assembly

Despite the boasts, especially from the Democrats, the September numbers don’t necessarily tell us much about November. But there are a couple of trends to note, neither of which bodes well for the GOP.

First, the turnout in several of the important districts favored the Democrats. Examples: In Assembly District 14 (Max Bennett), 1,753 Democrats vs. 1,079 Republicans; In Assembly District 1 (Jan Monaghan), 2,649 Democrats vs. 2,378 Republicans. As one Democratic partisan said, "The Democrats had better turnout than the Republicans, which is amazing considering they had the sexy races." Because a number of those GOP contests were close, too, potential internal splits also favor the Democrats.

Second, the Democrats proved to be more skillful anointers than the Republicans. Ellen Koivisto (District 14) was the most impressive Democratic winner, taking more votes than her two opponents combined. But consider the Republican carnage: Anne de Martini (District 1) and Mary Owensby (District 2) lost. And others, from Iris Bletsch to Kathy Von Tobel, had close calls. That could presage general election softness. Assemblywoman Jeannine Stroth’s loss won’t hurt, but Pat Tripple’s defeat, especially to unknown Don Gustavson, makes the GOP job tougher. But as you will see from the analysis below, the tug of war to break the 21-21 deadlock still remains close, with the Democrats enjoying a slight edge.

 

There is also a wild card, and the deck seems slanted against the GOP. That is the proposed special election in Clark County’s First District, where Anne de Martini, who lost by six votes to Jeff Knight, has asked for a new vote. Her request came after another problem-plagued southern election, one in which Registrar Kathryn Ferguson acknowledged that human errors in handling new voting machines may have affected the outcome of the election. Whatever the outcome, which may be decided by the time this is published, the fact that Knight and Martini have to spend two weeks campaigning to discover who will confront Tom Collins gives the Democrat a substantial advantage.

Below is a thumbnail sketch of the 42 races, and a telescopic prediction of what the Assembly will look like come 1997:

The Democratic locks ( 9 )

Wendell Williams, Barbara Buckley, David Goldwater, Doug Bache, Bob Price, Mark Manendo, Richard Perkins, Vonne Chowning, Joe Dini

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The Republican locks (12)

Deanna Braunlin, Barbara Cegavske, Dennis Nolan, Jack Hose, Brian Sandoval, Joan Lambert, John Marvel, John Carpenter, Pete Ernaut, Lynn Hettrick, Mark Amodei, David Humke

 

Likely Democratic seats (7)

Morse Arberry: Poor primary showing (46 percent) reasons for concern, Chester Richardson is no pushover. But district is Democratic, friends will help Ways and Means chair.

Chris Giunchigliani: Her races always close, but GOP insiders don’t have faith in Lily Lagan.

Genie Ohrenschall: Republicans don’t believe ex-Assemblyman Art Rader can do it.

Dianne Steel: Democratic golden boy Dario Herrera may face stiffer than previously thought challenge from incumbent’s husband, Stefan Ivanov-Steel, who ran well (68 percent) in primary.

Roy Neighbors: Del Haas may be true Republican sleeper, but incumbent has friendly district.

Gene Segerblom: Incumbent is well-liked and is favored, but ex-Boulder City Mayor Iris Bletsch (55 percent) held off stiff primary challenge, could pull off upset.

Sandi Krenzer: Once thought to be lock (and may still be), incumbent could hear Jon Hauger’s footsteps.

 

Likely Republican seats (3)

William Harrington: Merle Berman wasn’t anointed, but she should be fine against John Ponticello, not heavily backed by caucus.

Dennis Allard: Kathy Von Tobel’s close call in primary doesn’t help, but she’s still heavy favorite against Randy Bridges.

Sandra Tiffany: She survived late primary onslaught, but 56 percent showing will give Democrats hope (perhaps falsely so) with Fred Kirschner.

 

The races that will determine control (11)

Jan Monaghan: Tom Collins ran well in primary, Jeff Knight squeaked by and now must run again. Registration is close.

Maureen Brewer: Incumbent has been working for months, but it’s a Democratic district and hard-working Lee will be difficult, must confront party-switch attack.

Max Bennett: Most vulnerable GOP incumbent did fine (70 percent) in primary, but labor-backed Ellen Koivisto could topple him.

Vivian Freeman: Longtime Democratic incumbent favored, but Buzz Harris has a shot.

Thomas Batten: Republican Pat Hickey seems stronger than Democrat Bonnie Schultz.

Jan Evans: Democratic veteran is still formidable, but Keith Primus has promise.

Bernie Anderson: See above, add Dwight Millard’s name for Primus.

Pat Tripple: A Democrat (Bob Sader) once held this seat, neither Democrat (Gail Scalzi) nor GOP upset winner (Don Gustavson) are considered overwhelming.

Marcia deBraga: A rematch of 1994 with Shirley Walker, perhaps the one pure tossup.

Larry Spitler: David Parks thought to be shoe-in for Democrats, but Tony Dane has hope.

Mike Schneider: Republican Chris Denning once thought to be sure thing, but domestic violence allegations could give Democrats hope with Harry Mortenson.

 

The telescopic view

Reserving the right to change as the internal dynamics of the races become more clear, here’s how I see it: The Democrats have 16 and need six from the 11 closely watched contests. I give them the edge in Monaghan, Bennett, Freeman, Evans, Anderson and Spitler. And deBraga may just hold on. 23-19 Democrats.

 

Senate

The only upper house primary previously perceived as interesting was for the right to face GOP incumbent Sue Lowden. So Valerie Wiener’s smashing victory over Lou Toomin should raise Democratic spirits and enthuse the Culinary troops. But since the post-filing TRR evaluations, it seems the Democrats may have to protect their flank in at least one area (Ray Shaffer) once thought to be insulated from damage and don’t seem to have much chance against Mike McGinness.

Of the 10 contests this year, half of them will determine whether Bill Raggio retains control in what could be his final session. (Chuck Muth, despite his energy and intellect, must still be seen as a long shot against Minority Leader Dina Titus). All signs are that he will, but the Democrats may make it interesting.

Here are the five questions whose answers will decide whether Titus will become the state’s first female Senate majority leader:

Question 1: Can small businessman Terry Holtz turn Democrat Shaffer into a poster boy for term limits and overcome devastating demographics?

Question 2: Can the Culinary union overcome the substantial personal and crossover appeal of Lowden and elect Wiener?

Question 3: Can Steve Sisolak exploit publicity over a bankruptcy and waived penalties, as well as a campaign finance reform issue, to oust GOP icon Ann O’Connell?

Question 4: Can newcomer Daryl Nakamura tap into his senior connections and fund-raising sources to defeat cerebral incumbent Ray Rawson?

Question 5: Can impressive neophyte Dennis Cobb get the money to overcome Mike Schneinder’s establishment backing and sway the district’s Democrats?

 

The telescopic view

Counting all those not running and the locks for each side, it’s 10-6 Republicans. So they need only one more to retain control, which is virtually certain. 13-8, Republicans.

 

The consequences of the balloting

Realignments, whether they be at the national or state level, can be ephemeral. Whether or not the Democrats repair their political house in 1996 after it was demolished by the GOP wrecking crew two years ago, the policy and political changes will be enormous.

Take the federal level first.

If John Ensign survives the Coffin/AFL-CIO onslaught, I believe it will be his last race in the district. Given the choice between running in a district with 30,000 more Democrats than Republicans, or a state with 6,000 more Republicans than Democrats, Ensign’s choice will be clear: Hello, Harry Reid in 1998. A contest between the Democratic senator and the GOP congressman would become inevitable should Ensign win. And considering a strong southern Republican would be Reid’s nightmare come true, it could be the last great race in Nevada before the millennium. Even if he loses, Ensign could still be viable against Reid, although others — state Sen. Mark James, for example — might move to the front of the line. Of course Gibbons, should he win, also might look to be in the Senate contest against Reid — who wouldn’t want to run every six years rather than every two? He, too, could be formidable against Reid if he has a successful freshman term. Because most national pundits believe the GOP will hold onto the House, if Coffin and or Wilson should win, both could be back-benchers in a minority party, which would be a blow to Nevada’s already minimal federal clout.

The results of the state balloting will have a great impact on the 1997 legislative agenda, especially vis a vis the speech given by Gov. Bob Miller to begin his final legislative session. His legacy session. Miller, if the legislative matrix is right, may attempt a series of bold changes in education funding, tax collection and social programs. What is the right matrix? A Democratic Assembly and a closer state Senate might be enough. If it’s a GOP House and Bill Raggio still has a hammer lock on the upper house, Miller will have to present a scaled-back slate of programs. Finally, the reverberations of Campaign ’96 could be felt in Campaign ’98. Although the state’s power elite already has anointed Las Vegas businessman Kenny Guinn as Miller’s successor, the election results could embolden Democrats and Republicans mulling a bid. Might an ambitious legislator or two think about taking a shot? Might the legislative results prove beneficial to Secretary of State Dean Heller’s agenda, which seems a precursor to a gubernatorial run? Might a GOP sweep dissuade hopefuls such as Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones and Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa from considering a bid?

Giving Guinn a free ride does seem somehow offensive. But in Nevada, where anointments are de rigueur, it may prove a local version of all politics being local.

 

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