Anybody who has thought about it realizes the significance of Harry Reid defeating Sharron Angle: Nevada keeps power, Yucca Mountain doesn’t come back, mining and gaming just might be safe, and the state doesn’t end up with the most embarrassing Senate delegation in the nation’s history. But the most significant effect of Reid’s victory could well prove to be the state Senate Republican caucus attempting suicide.
A key part of Reid’s strategy involved winning Republican support, which Angle’s primary-election victory made much easier. His hundreds of GOP backers included Bill Raggio, the state Senate’s Republican leader for three decades and the longest-tenured Nevada legislator ever—a record unlikely to be broken, thanks to the stupidity of term limits. Raggio’s endorsement was tepid, to say the least, but based on principle (Reid being important to Nevada and Angle making Attila the Hun look liberal) and politics (Angle opposed Raggio’s re-election in 2008 and never conceded her loss).
Some of Raggio’s colleagues decided to punish him. Reportedly, Barbara Cegavske challenged him with support from her two new Southern colleagues, Michael Roberson and Elizabeth Halseth. With Mike McGinness of Fallon interested in leadership, insiders say, Raggio apparently conceded to help him win and head off Cegavske. And it’s no exaggeration to say the reverberations may echo forever.
This will be Raggio’s last session, and it will be a doozy. Nevada’s shortfall may be $3 billion. Taxes and fees instituted in 2009 expire. The governor-elect has shown no signs of a clue about how to deal with the crisis. The Assembly has a new speaker and majority leader. Redistricting will require negotiations tied to all of these.
And state Senate Republicans unloaded the person widely considered the expert in dealing with all of these, the lawmaker who held his party together while a GOP governor dithered, dallied and then disappeared.
Now, unquestionably, Raggio’s genius is overrated, and not merely because he was behind making Nevada Day a three-day weekend. Thanks to limiting sessions to 120 days every two years—a move he supported—Nevada winds up with special sessions because the Legislature can’t finish its work, and no legislator has controlled that work more than Raggio. Nor have those sessions dealt sufficiently with the major issues confronting this state in the past, oh, 146 years.
This doesn’t mean Raggio isn’t a shrewd operator; he’s possibly Carson City’s shrewdest. But he also has displayed a talent for being entertaining. As district attorney of Washoe County, he once burned down a brothel in Storey County that was declared a public nuisance. He has alternately sniped at and cultivated colleagues, revealing both a temper and great subtlety.
His colleagues may not notice, but Nevada is overwhelmingly southern dominated and urban dominated—about 70 percent of our population is in Clark County and 90 percent in the Las Vegas and Reno areas. So, Republican state senators chose a leader from the Central Nevada district—Churchill, Esmeralda and Mineral, and parts of rural Clark, Douglas, Lyon and Nye. And the Republicans who greased the skids for Raggio are Southern Nevadans.
What does it mean? Raggio always has negotiated on behalf of two interests: his constituency and his party. Nevada figures to obtain a fourth congressional seat, and the negotiations over these House districts inevitably will be tied to the budget. Since Democrats never had a chance for a two-thirds, veto-proof majority, they always have needed to make a deal with Republicans and their new governor.
Raggio might not be able to protect both of those interests at the same time and, especially with less influence in his caucus, may need to make a choice. Apparently, some of his old friends in Reno who owe him a lot are cutting him dead for backing Reid, and he may want them to see the error of their ways. But will he feel as inclined to help a party that abandoned him because he supported a Democrat against an unqualified Republican candidate, and did it with equally obvious displeasure? Might he be inclined to stick it to Southern Nevada Republicans? What could it mean for redistricting and the state’s future?
The bigger question is: Since Raggio took a stand against his party’s indecency, does he want his legacy to be that he did the right thing or help the forces he opposed?