RENO - Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley top today's primary ballot in a U.S. Senate race expected to produce a general election matchup as hotly contested as the presidential race that Nevada voters will play a key role in deciding this November.
Heller is a popular ex-congressman from a safe rural seat who was appointed last year after John Ensign resigned his Senate seat in a sex scandal. Berkley is a seven-term congresswoman running her first campaign outside of metro Las Vegas. Both face only token opposition in today's primary.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today at the Community Center and Fuji Park Exhibit Hall in Carson City.
Active registered Democrats in Nevada currently outnumber Republicans, 41 percent to 37 percent - or 433,096 to 394,304 - but Republicans had the upper hand in terms of absentee ballots and the early voting, which closed Friday. They accounted for 51 percent of those 117,289 votes to the Democrats' 45 percent in the primary contest that's expected to attract a low turnout - likely fewer than one in five of Nevada's 1.1 million registered voters.
Interest in the Senate race - which recent polls show is neck-and-neck - is sure to grow by fall, as evidenced by the more than $300,000 that a group backed by Karl Rove, once George W. Bush's White House chief of staff, already has spent on ads attacking Berkley's record. Nevada is one of a handful of battleground states expected to determine whether President Barack Obama will hold off Republican Mitt Romney in November.
In Carson this cycle, unopposed incumbents include Mayor Bob Crowell - the first time a mayor has been unchallenged in recent memory - along with Justice of the Peace John Tatro and school board member Steve Reynolds.
The Ward 2 and Ward 4 supervisor races both have primaries. There is no incumbent in Ward 2, where Shelley Aldean decided not to seek another term. Four candidates filed for her post - Brad Bonkowski, Dennis Johnson, Maurice White and Stacie Wilke-McCulloch.
In Ward 4, incumbent Molly Walt drew two opponents: Amy Clemens and Jim Shirk.
All Carson City offices are nonpartisan.
In Congressional District 2, Republican incumbent Mark Amodei has no opposition in the primary. He will face the survivor of the three Democrats in the general.
There are several uncontested legislative races statewide, but both Carson City's Pete Livermore and Douglas County's Kelly Kite drew primary opposition. Livermore faces fellow Republican Phillip Davies. The winner faces Democrat Rich Dunn in November. Kite drew two GOP opponents in District 39 - Gary Schmidt and Jim Wheeler. The winner faces Independent American David Schumann in the general.
Three Republican assembly members are unopposed in Northern Nevada: Ira Hansen of Sparks in District 32, which stretches from Sparks to central Humboldt County; Tom Grady is unopposed in District 38 in Lyon and Churchill counties; and John Ellison is unopposed in District 33, Elko.
There are three candidates in the state Senate District 19 race, representing a large swath of rural Nevada including part of Clark, Elko, Eureka, Lincoln, part of Nye and White Pine. Frontrunner Pete Goicoechea, the outgoing Assembly Republican leader, has no primary opponent. In the general, he faces an Independent American and a Democrat.
For the Nevada System of Higher Education, Regent Ron Knecht has two opponents, Michon Mackedon and Richard Riendeau; the latter has withdrawn but his name will still appear on the ballot.
Five people are running for the state Board of Education, including two incumbents pitted against each other by the legislative changes in the board's structure, Dave Cook and Adriana Fralick. The other candidates are Ray Bacon, Donna Clontz and Scott Carey.
Once the primary is over, state law gives candidates just 30 days to track down and take down all their signs. Winners can leave theirs up until after the November general election if they wish.
In races for the state Legislature, six Democratic primaries and three GOP primaries will determine the final list of general election candidates for a dozen state Senate seats. Nevada has 21 state senators, but the other nine seats aren't up this year. Senators serve four-year terms, and Democrats currently control the Senate by a bare 11-10 margin.
All 42 state Assembly seats are up for grabs, although nine incumbents face no opposition and have free rides into new two-year terms. In Tuesday's primary, 15 Democrat contests and 13 Republican battles will determine the final list of general election contenders. Democrats currently hold a 26-16 advantage in the Assembly.