(Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau) – Senate Democrats are running a slate of candidates across the state in the hopes of winning a 14-seat, veto-proof majority for the upcoming 2011 session.
But Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said he does not expect it to happen, and he has not discounted the possibility of the GOP winning the majority.
“It looks much more promising to me now than when we began this campaign,” he said. “We may have some surprises.”
Alisa Nave, executive director of the Nevada Senate Democrats, said the goal has been to recruit and support a quality group of candidates who can get to work immediately in Carson City, not win a supermajority.
“We want to elect good people to office who can continue what we started two years ago,” she said. “Nevada faces many challenges. No one caucus can solve our problems alone.”
But Republicans say Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, has made no secret of the fact he wants a veto-proof Democratic majority in 2011.
For Democrats to end up with 14 members, they need to hang on to the Clark 5 seat held by freshman Democrat incumbent Joyce Woodhouse, defeat long-time Republican Barbara Cegavske in the Clark 8 seat and win the open Clark 9 seat formerly held by Republican Dennis Nolan.
Republicans, for their part, are trying to gain ground on the Democrats, who took over the majority in the state Senate in the 2009 session for the first time since 1991. They are seeking to defeat Woodhouse, hold on to Cegavske’s seat and win the open seat to cut the margin for Democrats to only one.
Woodhouse is facing Republican Michael Roberson, Cegavske is facing Democrat Tammy Peterson and Republican Elizabeth Halseth is facing Democrat Benny Yerushalmiin the open Clark Senate 9 seat.
Halseth said the conciliatory words from Senate Democrats may have more to do with polls showing Republicans doing well in several races, including her own, than out of any desire to seek bipartisan cooperation in the 2011 session.
While Halseth said she has not seen poll results for her race, contributions to her campaign have increased in recent days, suggesting her numbers are good.
“I’m very hopeful,” she said. “Our three races are very important. The Democrats are certainly not holding anything back.”
Registration Edge May Not Matter in Anti-Incumbent Year
Democrats have a 12-9 edge right now and they have a registration edge in all three Southern Nevada districts, although the margins in two are thin and nonpartisan voters will play a role in all three races.
Clark 5 has a registration edge for Democrats of 46,910 to 45,280 for Republicans with just over 19,000 nonpartisans, according to statistics from the secretary of state’s office. Clark 8 has 19,352 Democrats, 18,899 Republicans and 7,674 nonpartisan voters. Clark 9 has 55,120 Democrats, 51,899 Republicans and 23,721 nonpartisans.
Other races potentially are in play as well.
Raggio said he believes the race in Washoe 1 to replace Democrat Bernice Mathews is in play despite the heavy Democratic voter registration edge. Democratic Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie is facing Republican and Sparks City Councilman Phil Salerno in the race.
Democrats have nearly 18,000 voters in the district compared to just under 8,700 Republicans, with another 6,257 nonpartisans.
“I’m not sure party registration means a hell of a lot,” Raggio said. “There is an anti-incumbency feeling. There are a lot of independents. It’s not going to be the Democratic tsunami that it was two years ago.”
Nave said Democrats are also seeking victory in the open seat in Clark 12 formerly held by Republican Warren Hardy and the open Washoe 2 seat held by outgoing Republican Maurice Washington. Democrat Aaron Ford, an attorney and former high school math teacher, is facing Republican Assemblyman Joe Hardy, a physician in the Clark 12 race, while Democrat Allison Edwards, also a former teacher, is facing GOP Assemblyman Don Gustavson.
Veto-proof Two House Supermajority at Stake
With Democrats expecting to maintain their majority in the Assembly, the battle for control in the Senate has taken on added significance.
Assembly Democrats now have a veto-proof 28-14 edge over Republicans and they are trying to hold on to and even build on that significant advantage. Republicans are seeking to hold on to their current number and pick up at least one more seat to take away the supermajority.
The 2011 session will see debates over taxes and the budget, as well as the redrawing of state legislative district boundaries. Both Democrats and Republicans will have to live with any redistricting plan for a decade, making control of the Legislature even more critical for both parties.
If Democrats gain a two-thirds majority in both houses, they will also have the power to override the vetoes of seven bills by outgoing Gov. Jim Gibbons, including a measure giving state employees some bargaining rights on non-economic issues. The bills were vetoed after the end of the 2009 session and will return to lawmakers next year.
Assembly Bill 395 would let state employees bargain over working conditions. Another vetoed measure, Senate Bill 376, would expand the scope of projects to be considered by the state labor commissioner in setting prevailing wage rates, a change that Gibbons said would increase the cost of county public works projects.
If Democrats win a supermajority in both houses, it would also make it difficult for Brian Sandoval, the Republican candidate for governor favored to win over Democrat Rory Reid, to pursue his agenda.
Cegavske said it is critical for Republicans to win seats to ensure cooperation and compromise.
“You want a balance,” she said. “I see extreme partisanship in the Senate now and that’s not good for the people of Nevada.”
Raggio said Senate Republicans must be relevant in the critical redistricting debate. Republicans will be seeking an expansion of the size of the Legislature to ensure continued representation in northern and rural Nevada, he said.
While there is Democratic opposition in Southern Nevada to expanding the Legislature, Raggio said it is one of those key demands that will require agreement before other issues will be decided.
Attack Ads, Negative Mailers Flood Key Districts
The state Senate races are being fiercely contested.
Woodhouse and Roberson recently participated in a televised debate, discussing attack ads and the budget.
Cegavske, who is facing a challenge from Peterson, an attorney, said she has been the focus of numerous attacks in the mail from the Democratic Party, but in a recent interview indicated she would not be responding in kind.
“I’m taking the high road,” Cegavske said. “Voters want to hear what the candidate is going to do, what their vision is for the state. The number one issue is the economy and jobs. Voters want to know what I can do to help bring business to the state, not tell them how bad somebody is.”
Cegavske, a former small business owner, said raising taxes as many legislative leaders have suggested, won’t help small business. The state needs to live within its means, not build a budget then raise taxes to support it, she said.
Nevada needs to bring in companies that will give Nevadans jobs, Cegavske said. The Legislature can offer incentives to get firms to relocate, she said.
Peterson did not return calls seeking comment.
Nolan lost in the Republican primary to Halseth, a small business owner who is facing Yerushalmi, who runs the family business in Las Vegas.
Halseth said she is seeing a number of attack ads in her campaign as well, but is focusing on her own qualifications.
“I’m not trashing my opponent,” she said. “People are tired of hit pieces, they want solutions. That’s what we’re focusing on.”
Yerushalmi did not return calls seeking comment.