Politically, this may be the year when all eyes are focused on the race for lieutenant governor.
Normally that’s the constitutional office that draws the least attention. But Gov. Brian Sandoval is expected to breeze to a second four-year term and, despite his protestations, is likely to try take Harry Reid’s Senate seat in 2016.
If he is successful, the winner of the race for lieutenant governor would replace Sandoval as governor, which would make him — or her — the incumbent and likely favorite in the 2018 gubernatorial race.
The last time that situation occurred, Richard Bryan moved to the U.S. Senate leaving the governor’s office to then-Lt. Gov. Bob Miller, who went on to win the office in his own right — twice.
Asked again about that scenario just two weeks ago, Sandoval said he is committed to winning a second term and being Nevada’s governor.
“I love this job,” he said.
But political observers on both sides of the aisle say he’s likely the only Republican who could strip Reid of his seat.
There are already several prominent names in the lieutenant governor race including State Sen. Mark Hutchison, a Las Vegas Republican already endorsed by Sandoval.
Republican former State Sen. Sue Lowden, who was defeated by Sharron Angle in the primary race to face Reid three years ago, has announced she will challenge Hutchison in the primary.
Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Flores has announced for the seat as well.
If either she or Lowden wins, it would put them in position to become Nevada’s first woman governor.
The only other major Nevada state positions never held by a woman are U.S. Senator and state Senate Majority Leader.
Nevada’s other four constitutional offices also are up for grabs since all of the incumbents are “termed out.”
The result is an interwoven game of musical chairs with Controller Kim Wallin running for treasurer; Treasurer Kate Marshall running for secretary of state; and Secretary of State Ross Miller running for attorney general.
At this point, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto is the odd one out, having announced no plans to seek any political office. There aren’t even any credible rumblings about her political future despite the fact the party considers her to have high potential for higher office.
Asked — several times — what her plans are, she has repeatedly said she will answer that question when she figures it out.
There also is a lot of activity in Nevada’s legislative races — a significant amount of it in the form of challenges to incumbent republicans viewed as not conservative enough by the far right.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, of Reno, who represents Carson City, drew the wrath of some with his bill to ban the mentally ill from having firearms. He also was one of those Republicans who supported an alternative to the teachers’ union business tax.
Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson of Las Vegas proposed the plan to tax Nevada’s gold and silver mines to raise money for education and has, like Kieckhefer, drawn opposition from those who oppose any new or added taxes. His primary opponent is Ron Paul Republican Carl Bunce.
Along with Roberson’s seat, a key race in the Nevada Senate is District 8, vacated by term-limited Republican Barbara Cegavske. Democratic Assemblywoman Marilyn Dondero Loop has announced she is running. Patricia Farley is the Republican in that race. With a slight Democratic edge, either party could claim that seat.
The other key seat is District 9 held by Democrat Justin Jones. He could face two Republicans. Foreclosure mediation lawyer Becky Harris has already announced and received the party’s endorsement. Dr. Vick Gill, who ran in 2012 but dropped out, is reportedly considering another try.
Observers say those three races will decide who controls the Nevada Senate, now Democratic by the narrowest 11-10 margin.
Democrats headed by Mo Denis of Las Vegas say they hope to expand their control to 13 seats — still one short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a Sandoval veto or pass a tax bill.
In the Assembly, there is little chance of Republicans taking control. With some of the stranger things that have happened to lower-house Republicans in recent months, they’ll be thankful if they can prevent Democrats from getting a 28th seat and veto-proof two-thirds majority.
Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey of Reno is being challenged by self-described “constitutional conservative” Richard Fineberg who criticized both Hickey and fellow Reno Republican Randy Kirner for their support of the bill turning the decision whether to raise property taxes for school repairs over to the Washoe Commission.
Republican Lisa Krasner is challenging Kirner in the primary. They call the school tax measure “Kirner’s bill.”
Hickey is also one of the members who embarrassed his own caucus this fall, telling a Reno radio talk show host the mid-term election would be a great year for the GOP since the young and Hispanics wouldn’t turn out in large numbers for a non-presidential election.
Historically, he was correct that the turnout of minorities and the young is lower in non-presidential election years, but the comment was immediately criticized by Democrats as racist.
He made things worse when he countered those charges by saying he isn’t prejudiced, that he has “a yellow wife” — she is Asian — and “brown children.”
Hickey’s gaff, however, paled compared to that of Douglas County Assemblyman Jim Wheeler who told a Storey County GOP meeting he would vote for whatever his constituents wanted — even if they wanted to restore slavery. Wheeler’s conservative credentials haven’t been questioned but he has drawn a primary opponent — Robin Reedy, former Chief of Staff to Gov. Jim Gibbons and a longtime Douglas County GOP activist. Kelly Kite, former assemblyman who lost to Wheeler, hasn’t announced his intentions to the race.
There are also questions on this year’s ballot, at least two of which will draw significant public interest.
First is the teachers’ union’s statutory initiative imposing a 2 percent margins tax on all businesses grossing $1 million or more. Opponents say it would damage the state’s economic recovery and kill jobs. Supporters say it would provide public schools much needed revenue.
Second is the amendment that would remove state constitutional protections limiting taxes on the mining industry. Supporters say the miners pay a fraction of what they should, that they should be taxed just like every other business. Opponents say it would force mines to shut down, crippling rural economies.
Finally, the plan to create an intermediate appellate court between Nevada district courts and the state Supreme Court will be on the ballot. Polls indicate voters are split on the idea, which backers say would greatly speed handling of civil cases and give the high court more time to focus on major legal issues.