Mining for Money, Not Votes

Steven Horsford has come a long way in a hurry. Elected to the state Senate in 2004, he became its Democratic leader before his first term ended. Instead of seeking a third—and, thanks to term limits, final—state Senate term, he’s running for the House. Considering the Democratic registration advantage in Congressional District 4 is in the double digits, Horsford seems likely to beat whoever emerges from the Republican primary against him.

But Horsford is taking no chances. The question is whether that’s what he should be doing.

The Las Vegas Sun reported on his image with mining companies. It isn’t that good. As a state senator, he sought to increase taxes on mining. Now he’s trying to build bridges to the industry. Opinion is divided:  One of the Republican candidates, Barbara Cegavske, is having more luck, having scooped up some money from Barrick Gold, which became the world’s largest gold producer in 2006 when it acquired another company for $10.4 billion, but just can’t afford to pay
more taxes in Nevada. One critic from Lyon County, which is part of Horsford’s district, doubted Horsford’s commitment to a better relationship, but the fact that he has been active in the Republican Party certainly would have nothing to do with that belief.

That Horsford is left of center is no secret. Nor is it a secret that he fought to limit cuts supported by former Gov. Jim Gibbons (remember him?) and incumbent Brian Sandoval. Like most people with common sense, Horsford saw the need not merely for cuts, but for more revenue. Mining has enjoyed special status since the original Nevada Constitution took effect, so it isn’t much to ask that mining pay a bit more.

Now Horsford is running outside of Clark County. In 2006, this change in emphasis hurt the chances of Dina Titus, who had won five terms in the state Senate within the county and fought hard for Clark County to get its fair share of revenue from the state when she ran for governor against Gibbons. Indeed, it’s a problem for any Clark County politician who runs statewide: Northern Nevadans tend to vote for one of their own, while Southern Nevadans don’t care either

Horsford certainly didn’t just decide to run for the House of Representatives.  He clearly has his sights set on higher office. He may have expected that, if he ran for the House, the district would be entirely within Clark County. If not, here’s something to consider: Even
including Nye, Lincoln, White Pine, Esmeralda, and Mineral Counties and part of Lyon, Clark County still has more than three-quarters of the population in Horsford’s district. And a significant percentage of the Republicans in Horsford’s district are indeed in those rural counties.

In other words, Horsford could show up with a pick and a pan and offer to give away what he found, and it probably wouldn’t affect the votes he’d draw from the rural counties. They are heavily Republican (even Sharron Angle scored well against Harry Reid in 2010 in most of these counties). There won’t be a lot of votes for a Democrat, much less a Southern Nevada Democrat.

Nor is this situation anything new. The classic example involved Walter Baring, who served 10 terms as Nevada’s only congressman, before the population explosion increased the number of districts. When Baring broke with the majority of the Democratic Party, several challengers from Clark County went up against him in Democratic primaries. Baring won five more terms, relying largely on rural voters and Republican crossover votes. The Northern and rural counties pretty much stuck together. Although Reno’s interests have diverged enough to change that, the dynamic often continues.

So, Horsford can seek mining money, and he will get some, because they have no need to antagonize the likely winner. But don’t expect him to wear out his tires on Interstate 93 or Interstate 95, going north. When the rubber hits the road, his votes and financing are in Clark County.