Battle for control of the Nevada Senate comes into clearer focus in Tuesday’s primary when voters head to the polls to narrow the field of candidates in an election that will also test the influence of the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Several incumbent lawmakers, most notably the minority leaders in the Senate and Assembly, are being targeted by conservative challengers in contests that pit grass roots idealists against the so-called establishment.
Democrats hold a thin 11-10 majority in the upper chamber and want to hold — if not add to — their advantage, while Republicans hope to regain the upper hand they lost in 2008. Nine seats are in play this election cycle for control of the Nevada Senate, with six primary contests — four Republican, two Democratic. Two Republican senators, Joe Hardy of Boulder City and James Settelmeyer of Minden, are unopposed.
Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, has incumbency and a huge cash advantage but faces a challenge from Carl Bunce, who ran former Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign in Nevada.
Roberson, finishing his first four-year term, drew the ire of the conservative right after reneging on a no-tax pledge he signed in 2010 by supporting the continuance of temporary taxes in 2013 and proposing a tax on the mining industry.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, the GOP assistant minority floor leader, also faces his first re-election and is being challenged by Gary Schmidt, a frequent, albeit unsuccessful candidate in previous elections.
Voter turnout, projected to be at or near historic lows, could be a key factor in the outcome if the conservative right heads to the polls in greater numbers than the general electorate.
The state Republican Party has been fractured for years. A new rift developed this year when the party leadership, now controlled by the conservative wing, recoiled at tax extensions and early endorsements of some candidates by GOP elected officials.
The party instituted its own pre-primary endorsement process that was shunned by the established office holders.
“The hardest thing about this election is to try to determine which groups have enough interest to show up,” said Eric Herzik, political scientist at University of Nevada, Reno.
“The party’s in disarray,” Herzik said. “The conservative wing of the party is loud ... but do they have any numbers and are they motivated to come out and register some kind of, ‘we’re taking back the party’ message? It’s really hard to gauge.”
Other races will merit attention for different reasons.
Four Republicans — Vick Gill, Becky Harris, Ron Quilang and David Schoen — are seeking the nomination in Senate District 9 to take on Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, in November. Jones was the prime sponsor of a gun control bill that passed the 2013 Legislature but was vetoed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.
In District 8, GOP hopefuls Patricia Farley, Clayton Kelly Hurst and Lisa Myers hope to advance and face the winner of the Democratic primary between Assemblywoman Marilyn Dondero Loop and Garrett Leduff. The winner in November will replace longtime GOP Sen. Barbara Cegavske, who’s barred by term limits from seeking re-election and is running for secretary of state.
In the Nevada Assembly, Democrats hold a 27-15 majority and are sure to retain control. Assembly members serve two-year terms and all 42 seats are on the ballot. Four Democrats and three Republicans are unopposed. Of the 35 contested seats, there are nine Democratic and 15 Republican primaries.
Like his counterpart in the Senate, Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, faces a primary challenge from the far right in Rick Fineberg, a retired attorney who describes himself as a constitutional conservative.
The polling power of the far right will be watched to see if it can salvage the political life of Assemblyman Jim Wheeler. The Minden Republican drew national attention and the quick scorn of elected officials last year when he told a rural county gathering he would vote to reinstate slavery if that’s what his constituents wanted. Wheeler is being challenged by Robin Reedy in the District 39 Republican primary. Reedy was chief of staff to ex-Gov. Jim Gibbons and before that spent 20 years in state government, including the state treasurer’s office.
Oddly, the final outcome of two Assembly seats could be determined in Tuesday’s primary. In District 6, two Democrats are challenging incumbent Assemblyman Harvey Munford, D-Las Vegas. In northern Nevada, Assemblyman Randy Kirner, R-Reno, faces opposition from two other Republicans.
Because no candidates from other political affiliations filed for those seats, the two top voter getters will advance to November — unless one candidate receives 50 percent plus one vote in the primary to claim overall victory.