Like turning leaves in the fall, the signs of the political season are everywhere—literally.
Every empty patch of ground in the city has sprouted election signs, every available wire-mesh fence is wallpapered with candidates’ faces. So many names, so much media coverage, so much rhetoric—and with the primaries about to start, it’s only just begun.
To help make sense of it all, our politically minded scribes have tried to boil the issues down into an easily digestible, yet nourishing, meal that you can devour in a single sitting.
Think of it as a appetizer to the often-confusing election season.
1. Why should I vote in the primary anyway?
First of all, it’s your civic duty. But this time around the primary is also shaping up to offer real drama, especially on the Republican side. The two marquee contests are for the GOP nomination for governor—where Gov. Jim Gibbons will be tested—and for U.S. Senate, to see which Republican will challenge Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
It’s impossible to predict how many voters will turn out, but in 2008, Nevadans stayed home in droves; only 15 percent of registered voters cast a ballot—a record low. The GOP would like to see more than 40 percent of Republicans make it to the polls. People will be “shopping around for a candidate they think is the best fit,” says Robert Uithoven, campaign manager for GOP Senate candidate Sue Lowden.
Democrats are hoping for a little economic good news, if not by the primary at least by the general election, says strategist Dan Hart. “If economic conditions improve, it will help the Democratic Party.”
In any case, when turnout is low, your vote suddenly becomes more important.
2. What’s the dominant issue?
Anger, at least according to the observers we spoke with. Our neighborhoods have collapsed. Government is broke. Record unemployment has left many of us with little sense of hope. The American Dream has become the Nevada Nightmare for too many. Much of that hostility is focused on Democrats because they hold power; but Republicans are also on the receiving end in states where they fill key political offices.
The challenge for incumbents is to co-opt the anger while deflecting any responsibility for the nation’s failings. Challengers will try their best to tie incumbents to our economic and institutional collapse. No matter who wins, the anger will persist until the jobs come back and the foreclosure crisis ends.
3. Will the Tea Party have an influence on this election?
Who knows? UNLV political science professor Kenneth Fernandez says the Tea Party is a protest party—like the Progressive Party in the early 20th century, or Ross Perot’s Reform Party. “I think they can affect the agenda, make things more or less salient and direct media attention on issues they care about,” Fernandez says.
Debbie Landis, founder and president of the Tea Party organization Anger Is Brewing, suggests that the 40,000 or so votes that statewide GOP candidates need to win their primaries could be made up entirely of self-identified Tea Partiers. “It’s not unreasonable to say 70,000 or 80,000 would call themselves Tea Partiers.”
Those voters, she says, are “united under the banner of fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency.” The Tea Parties, she says, know no party affiliation. “A Tea Partier could be anybody.”
On the other hand, there are those who think the idea of the Tea Party as a massive, cross-cultural, influential movement is overblown. “There’s a word for what poll after poll depicts as a group of largely white, middle-class, middle-age voters who are aggrieved,” wrote Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith in an April 22 article on Politico.com. “Republicans.”
4. What’s the most overrated issue?
Immigration. Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston put it best: Nevada is not Arizona, and though Gibbons, Republican Senate candidate Chad Christensen and others argue otherwise, illegal immigrants are not draining budgets here the way they are in Arizona.
Of course undocumented workers in Nevada helped build our homes, mow our lawns, prepare our meals and care for our elderly. During the go-go aughts, construction workers complained that undocumented workers drove down their wages. Talk radio callers routinely complain that “illegals” are the cause of the massive budget deficits at the county-owned University Medical Center, although the numbers show otherwise.
But the bottom line is that conservative Republicans push the immigration issue at their peril. They may motivate the base, but they may also end up mobilizing Hispanic-Americans to vote for two guys named Reid in November.
5. Will Hispanic voters turn out in force?
That depends on how long immigration stays on the radar nationally. If it remains on the front burner, expect a large turnout. Beatriz Aguirre, grassroots organizer for Reform Immigration for America, a coalition of labor and immigrant rights organizations, says thousands of Latinos have turned out for recent voter registration drives and rallies. “The Latinos are paying more and more attention to the issues,” Aguirre says. They’re following the comments of candidates, such as gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval, a Republican from Reno, who supports Arizona’s new immigration law. “We’re prepared to come and vote to make sure those people don’t get into office.”
History indicates that isn’t an empty threat. In 2008, Hispanic voters cast 15 percent of the votes in the general election, an unprecedented turnout that was 50 percent higher than the same figure in 2004, according to a November 2008 article in the Las Vegas Sun.
6. Speaking of Sandoval, is he crazy for supporting the Arizona illegal immigration law?
Maybe he’s crazy like a fox. “When you’re running for office, you have to think of tomorrow’s election, not next week’s election,” says Democratic strategist Hart. “Clearly what Sandoval is telegraphing to everybody is he’s concerned about the primary.”
On the other hand, at a meeting of Reform Immigration for America in January, Sandoval touted himself as the only Latino candidate in the field. His recent comments in support of Arizona’s immigration law suggest a departure from the empathetic connection he may have been trying to make.
“A great number of us were very hopeful about his candidacy,” says Fernando Romero, an outreach coordinator. “But unfortunately he built up that hope and dropped us like a lead balloon.”
Sandoval, who gave up a lifetime seat as a federal judge to run, may get enough votes to win—and no doubt there are Latinos sympathetic to toughening immigration laws—but his support of Arizona SB 1070 is likely to cost him.
7. How bad off is the state budget? Why aren’t candidates talking about it?
It’s bad. Although the state has limped along in the last few years trying to close huge budget gaps, it faces a $3 billion shortfall.
“[The candidates] hope the economy comes back and they don’t have to touch the hot poker,” UNLV history professor Eugene Moehring says. “This is the one state where people move here because they don’t want to pay the taxes.”
Uithoven, Lowden’s campaign manager, argues that the federal deficit is of greater concern than the state hole. “Most of the state legislators have so far agreed they have no choice but to cut,” he says. “There’s not much appetite to raise taxes. Who do you raise taxes on?”
However, there’s a major accounting study due out this fall that examines Nevada’s tax and financing structure. Candidates may be waiting on that before weighing in.
8. Should Nevada consider a state or corporate income tax?
We should at least have the conversation. Nevadans know the arguments: Progressive Democrats seek some combo of the two taxes to close growing budget gaps and avoid additional cuts to education, public health and public safety. Without a vibrant government, they say, we’ll never lay the foundation for the state’s economic future.
Republicans argue that we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. They want to cut public employee pay and benefits, open government employee contract negotiations to full public scrutiny and further reduce taxes to help spur economic growth.
Wise people have to wonder whether the solution can be found in some combination of the two.
9. Candidates talk a lot of about green energy being good for our economy. Is there any way it could work?
Nevada has the sunshine of the Mojave Desert and the winds of the Great Basin. Between the two, our state is positioned to become a player in the transformation of this country’s carbon-based energy grid. But so are our neighbors.
A successful plan could be modeled on the seven-state deal signed in 1922 that divvied Colorado River water. Our governor, congressional delegation and state Legislature could work with neighboring states and the federal government to create a regional green energy consortium that combines the strengths of individual states. Toss in the fact that the federal government owns about 87 percent of the state’s lands, making it difficult for the public and private sectors to set aside the land to build transmission lines, and it’s clear there are big barriers to the development of a green economy.
10. Why are so many Republicans seeking the Senate seat held by Harry Reid?
Because they smell blood in the water in these incumbent-hating times.
There are 12 in the primary, but there are just three Republicans who truly matter—Lowden, Sharron Angle and Danny Tarkanian—if you believe the most recent Las Vegas Review-Journal poll.
The far-from-charismatic Reid admittedly lacks the charm to light up a Searchlight night, but he is in the room with Obama, Biden and Pelosi and just about anyone else who matters in political or corporate America.
However, that’s the problem in an election cycle when millions of Americans despise the ruling class. Meantime, is it any wonder that the most recent R-J poll shows Tea Party Republican Angle, a former four-term assemblywoman, closing the gap on Lowden, a wealthy casino executive and former Nevada Republican Party chairwoman and state Senator? Angle’s the rebel in a year when entrenched power’s in trouble, and Lowden is seen by a good number of hard-core R’s as a member of the ruling class.
Lowden’s staff believes she’ll receive 60,000 to 70,000 votes to win the primary, but Reid and Tarkanian have been ripping her mercilessly, and they’re apparently scoring. Could Angle continue a late surge and defeat the former New Jersey beauty queen, setting up a Tea Party-driven referendum on Nevada-style liberalism? You’ve got to love this race.
11. Why are Democrats running against Reid in the primary?
They hope to catch him by surprise. Take, for example, Eduardo Hamilton, who goes by the nickname “Mr. Clean” (Nevada being one of the few states that allow candidates to have nicknames on the ballot) and is pitching himself as an “early opportunity candidate.”
Hamilton is one of three Democrats hoping to beat Reid in the primary. His strategy is simple: Get 50,000 or so votes in a low-turnout primary, and win. That may still feel like gamblers odds, but Hamilton, a retired Chrysler exec, is confident he has a shot at the upset. “If you get mad and you get pissed off, don’t wait until November. Do it now. If you wait until November you’re going to need millions of dollars to beat him.”
12. What does Reid need to do to win in November?
Crank up the PR machine. “He’s a great majority leader; he and his staff need to continue to spread the word about what kinds of things he’s accomplished for Nevada,” says Roberta Lange, chairwoman of the Clark County Democrats, who served as Reid’s deputy campaign manager in 1998.
Then again, Moehring suggests, Reid may just need to hold tight: He wonders whether Nevadans really want to replace the Senate majority leader “with Jerry Tarkanian’s son or Sue Lowden. … The guy’s got power.”
But he may need all of it. Uithoven, Lowden’s campaign manager, notes that the election is referendum on the Senate majority leader.
“He says we can’t do without him,” Uithoven says. “Then why do we have the highest unemployment rate in the nation? Why do we have record home foreclosures? No amount of public relations advertising is going to convince people they’re doing well if they’re being kicked out of their homes.”
13. Is the Arizona immigration law a plus or minus for Reid?
It looks like a plus. His Republican challengers are falling all over themselves to play to the conservative base and praise the law, which among other things allows cops to demand proof of residency in the course of a legal stop. Hispanics are none too pleased about the racial profiling implications of the law, and they count for about 24 percent of Nevada’s population. Reid has come out in favor of comprehensive federal immigration reform, a pretty safe position at the moment seeing as that’s not even on the radar in Washington right now. So Reid has the advantage of acknowledging the problem, but not upsetting Hispanics with a draconian solution.
14. What has he done for Nevada anyway?
Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University and an expert on Senate history, says that other Senate leaders have, over the years, brought back big-ticket items to their states. Democrat Robert Byrd managed to get the IRS to move most of its computing facilities to West Virginia. Republican Trent Lott fought to keep a naval station open in Mississippi.
Reid has kept pace, Baker says, though more with a steady flow of federal dollars toward smaller projects. “I calculated that his [earmarks] annually bring in about a quarter of a billion dollars to Nevada,” Baker says.
Still, Reid has a few big victories under his belt. The long-proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility is very likely history. And Reid may very well have helped save MGM Mirage, when it was on the brink of bankruptcy, by getting on the phone with the company’s lenders at the 11th hour.
Moehring agrees that it’s “amazing how much federal money” came into the state under Reid’s watch. But his biggest legacy may be the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act of 1998, which required the BLM to swap land close to Las Vegas for development while protecting lands farther away. That set the stage for the triumphant growth Vegas enjoyed in the last decade. It also set the stage for the spectacular economic hangover we’re all experiencing now.
15. Who’s giving money to Reid?
He raised $17 million, with $8.6 million spent and $9.4 million on hand, as of March 31, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. MGM Mirage led the way with $153,400; followed by the New York-based personal injury law firm of Weitz & Luxenberg, $88,800; Harrah’s Entertainment, $82,100; the L.A.-based personal injury law firm of Girardi & Keese, $76,400; and the New York-based private equity fund the Blackstone Group, $71,500.
16. Same question for Sue Lowden.
Lowden raised $2.17 million and spent $1.9 million, as of March 31. Her biggest donor was Las Vegas Sands ($26,200), which is headed by Sheldon Adelson, who has been one of the biggest individual donors to Republicans nationally, as well as a major supporter of conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sue and Paul Lowden’s casino company, Archon Corp., is the No. 2 donor to her campaign at $19,700. They are followed by Nevada Holding Services, $19,200; Martin Harris Construction, $9,500; and Frias Holding, a taxi cab and limousine service provider, $7,200.
17. Same question for Sharron Angle.
Angle raised $948,330, as of March 31, with $395,800 spent and $430,545 on hand. Her biggest donor was the conservative political action committee Citizens United, $5,000. Earlier this year, the group won an historic U.S. Supreme Court decision that knocked down federal campaign finance reform laws, arguing that corporations have the same free-speech rights as individuals. Next was power plant owner, developer and operator Indeck Energy Services, $4,800; Rothschild Capital Management, $4,800; the private equity firm TA Associates, $4,800; and the Oklahoma-based energy exploration and production company Helmerich & Payne, $2,000.
18. How in the world did Jim Gibbons become the governor in 2006?
A Las Vegas reporter interviewed Gibbons in June 2006 and found a short-tempered, five-term U.S. House member who grew increasingly combative as he was pressed to answer policy questions. Later, the reporter contacted a corporate executive who was supporting Gibbons and asked the exec what he saw in the anti-tax candidate.
“At best he’ll be benign. At worst he’ll be a disaster,” the executive said.
Think back four years. The Nevada economy was booming. Gaming and sales tax revenue were rolling into the state. Gibbons successfully pushed for a state constitutional amendment that requires a two-thirds vote of state legislators for any tax increase—a popular measure among the anti-tax crowd that dominates much of the state’s politics. He also promised to oppose any effort to raise the state’s gaming tax.
A geologist, hydrologist, lawyer, fighter and airline pilot who loves the solitude of rural Elko County, Gibbons was popular in northern and rural Nevada. His opponent, liberal Democratic state Sen. Dina Titus, was not. She supported tax increases, had her own temper issues and a heavy Southern accent that turned off some voters.
Titus won Clark County, but Gibbons won every other county in the state despite allegations that he sexually assaulted a Las Vegas cocktail waitress less than a month before Election Day.
Could he win again?
Low voter turnout, Tea Party anger and dislike of Harry and Rory Reid could lead to a second term for Gibbons. Then again, he could be one-and-done on Primary Day.
19. What will term limits mean to this election?
According to the state Legislature, seven of 21 state senators are on their last terms in office; five more senators will follow in 2012; then three more in 2014. On the Assembly side, 10 out of 42 members will face term limits this fall.
“With so many people turned out, it could change the shape of Nevada for [Democrats],” says Lange, chairwoman of the Clark County Democrats. “It’s really, really important to us.” On the other hand, political consultant Dan Hart downplays the issue. “It’s not as big a deal this year as it will be in the future.”
20. What political blogs should I pay attention to?
Insight, accuracy and a reputation for fairness propelled Elizabeth Crum from independent blogger to a well-respected political analyst who now shares her commentary across a variety of platforms. Blogging only since February 2008, Crum gained steam that summer, espousing a conservative-to-libertarian viewpoint, and received links from Politico.com and National Review. Named editor of the Nevada News Bureau, a Web-based news service founded in October and funded by Citizen Outreach, a non-profit group led by political consultant/blogger Chuck Muth, Crum regularly contributes analysis on KTNV Channel 13.
In addition to Crum at nevadanewsbureau.com/theblog/, Muth and longtime bloggers such as Ralston, Steve Sebelius, Anjeanette Damon and Hugh Jackson, other fanciful-named blogs to watch include DullardMush.blogspot.com (Or What My Brain Is Becoming This Political Season), whose pithy observations lean right, and mavenandmeddler.com (Challenging Your Assumptions, One Idea at a Time) by Lt. Col. Cynthia Ryan of the U.S. Civil Air Patrol, a versatile writer from the left who provided information to the media during the 2007 search for missing balloonist Steve Fossett.