(Victor Joecks/NPRI) – The media’s narrative about the results in Nevada’s Assembly races seems fairly straightforward: Despite a national Republican wave, Republicans in the Nevada Assembly could only eke out a two-seat gain and inched into political relevancy only by securing enough votes to sustain a veto or prevent tax increases.
While that assessment is technically true, it misses something important: A clear majority of Nevada voters cast their ballots for Republican Assembly candidates.
More than 51 percent of Nevadans who voted in Assembly races chose a Republican (348,730 votes) while only 45 percent voted for a Democrat (307,079 votes), according to data on the secretary of state’s website. The generally free-market third-party candidates of the Independent American and Libertarian parties received a combined 4 percent (26,486 votes).
In 2011, Assembly Republicans will represent more than 60 percent of the Nevada electorate (410,903 voters) while Democrats will represent less than 40 percent (271,392 voters). Usually, a 60-40 advantage would be considered an overwhelming victory.
So why didn’t the Assembly Republicans’ big night, in terms of raw numbers, translate into something better than a 16-26 minority?
Because of how the 2001 Nevada Legislature gerrymandered the districts based on the 2000 census.
As former Assembly minority leader Lynn Hettrick recently explained to the Las Vegas Sun, “It came down to: The Republican Senate said we are going to redistrict our house so we can stay in control. They did a bad job. The Democratic Assembly redistricted so they could stay in control, and they did a damn good job.”
Nevada’s explosive population growth over the last decade has also exaggerated the impact of gerrymandering.
Just how lopsided are the gerrymandered districts in the Assembly? Consider the following (all numbers refer to voters in the just-completed election cycle):
•The largest Republican district (AD 13) had more voters than the eight smallest Democratic districts (ADs 11, 28, 8, 6, 19, 9, 41 and 42) combined.
•The two largest Republican districts (ADs 13 and 22) had more voters than the 14 smallest Democratic districts (the eight previously listed, plus ADs 12, 10, 14, 34, 3 and 37) combined.
•The 21 smallest districts, and 25 of the 27 smallest, are Democrat seats.
•The 11 largest districts, and 14 of the 15 largest, are Republican.
•The average number of voters per district was 16,245. Of the 28 seats with fewer voters than average, 25 are held by Democrats.
•Only one Democratic district (AD 17) contains more than the average number of voters.
•The largest Democratic district (AD 17) is fewer than 4,300 voters larger than the smallest Republican district (AD 23).
•The largest Republican district (AD 13) is more than 58,000 voters larger than the smallest Democratic district (AD 11) and is more than 44,000 voters larger than the largest Democratic district (AD 17).
While none of this changes the number of seats Republicans occupy, there are three things worth noting.
First, the clear majority of Nevadans, by a margin of either 51-45 or 55-45 (if you include IAP and Libertarian Party candidates with the Republican totals), expressed a preference for less — not more — government. While the particular dynamics of each individual race make it hard to go beyond broad generalizations, a significant majority of Nevadans voted for candidates who stood for smaller government and less onerous taxation than their opponents.
Second, redistricting will occur during the upcoming 2011 Nevada Legislative Session, and with a Republican governor, a veto-sustaining minority and legitimate concerns about gerrymandering, Republicans in the Assembly don’t need to accept anything less than non-gerrymandered districts.
Of course, Senate Republicans, who last time around were willing to accept a Democratic Assembly in exchange for a Republican Senate, may well be willing to cut a similar deal this time. But the goal of redistricting shouldn’t be to guarantee the election of incumbents from either party. The goal should be fair and equal representation of the people.
Third, Assembly Republicans could put themselves in a strong political position by securing districts that are drawn more fairly. If incumbent Democrats know that gerrymandering won’t be able to save their seats, and that in future elections they’ll have to face an electorate that generally favors smaller government, it could be politically perilous to pass leftist policies like tax increases or to oppose fiscally prudent proposals like pension reform.
From a messaging standpoint, Republicans are in a strong position as well. Rather than seeing and portraying themselves as a walked-over minority, they could present themselves to the public and the media as public servants trying to carry out the will of the majority of Nevadans, denied only by the Democrats’ gerrymandering dirty tricks. If Assembly Democrats instead recognize the new electoral reality that redistricting will bring, Republicans would be able to advance their agenda. If Assembly Democrats chose to ignore the 60 percent of voters represented by Republicans, Democrats would likely feel the electoral consequences in 2012 — assuming Republicans hold the line on creating a non-gerrymandered redistricting plan.
While the Republicans don’t hold a majority in the Assembly, they do represent 60 percent of the state’s voters.
And if they play their cards right, they could be looking at a majority in the 2013 Assembly as well.
(Victor Joecks is the deputy communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more information visit http://npri.org)