What to Expect with Republicans Running the Show in Carson City

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Nevada Republicans now control all six state constitutional offices and both houses of the Legislature. What does this mean for Nevada moving forward? It depends on your political attitude and their political aptitude.

For at least the next two years, Nevada Republicans can take credit for whatever goes right—but also blame for whatever goes wrong. Before you compare it to when Democrats controlled Congress and the presidency during Barack Obama’s first two years in office, remember: Nevada’s Legislature doesn’t require 60 votes to act on a bill like the U.S. Senate.

That’s why it’s important to go beyond references to this being the first time Nevada Republicans have completely controlled both houses since 1985. That year—with the same Assembly majority of 25-17 that it will enjoy in 2015—the party passed a retroactive pay raise for state employees but tried to block one for openly Democratic teachers. They also passed anti-union laws. Then in 1986, the Assembly swung 29-13 in favor of Democrats. Overreach is always an issue for either party—and at that time, the governor was Richard Bryan, a moderate Democrat.

This time it’s Brian Sandoval, but which Sandoval? During his 2010 campaign, he promised, “No new taxes.” Everyone seemed shocked when he meant it. He acceded to continuing old taxes that were due to end or sunset in 2011 only after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for the state to fund itself by taking money from Clark County.

And who’s to say Sandoval will even stick around? Although it’s now highly unlikely that he’ll run against U.S. Senator Harry Reid in 2016, Sandoval could still land in D.C. via a Cabinet or sub-Cabinet post (no doubt with Reid’s encouragement), or he could accept a Ninth Circuit appellate judgeship. Assuming Sandoval does remain in Carson City, his actions in this next session could suggest whether he sees his future as with a Republican Party more right-wing than he is or just more openly to the right than he is. This election provided a clue: His choice for lieutenant governor, Mark Hutchison, represented Nevada in its lawsuit against Obamacare, and is well to Sandoval’s right. Also, Sandoval provided money to and endorsed Attorney General-elect Adam Laxalt (even though Laxalt criticized the governor for not challenging the lawsuit that ended up overturning Nevada’s gay-marriage ban). The governor also backed Secretary of State-elect Barbara Cegavske (who fully supports voter ID, which would most affect the Hispanic community with whom Republicans hope Sandoval can make national inroads).

Sandoval also may have to decide whether to lead or be led. More than half of Assembly Republicans will be new to Carson City, and they were elected not because they like government, but because they dislike it. When he dealt with a Democratic Assembly, Sandoval talked about tax reform and ending furloughs for state employees, but he also buys into so-called education reform, which makes villains of teachers—you know, the folks behind Question 3, the education initiative that failed at the polls. That their union brethren abandoned them (as the teachers have been known to do to the union) may further encourage Sandoval and other Republicans to push education “reform.”

Meanwhile, the new legislative leadership faces similar questions. For instance, during the last session, then-state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson worked with soon-to-be former Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick on uniting in the best interests of Clark County rather than a political party. But as Majority Leader-elect, Roberson installed as finance chair Washoe County’s Ben Kieckhefer, who helped build the majority. Kieckhefer actually may prove better for Southern Nevada than his Democratic predecessor, but it’s reasonable to expect him to act according to what region butters his bread. It’s equally reasonable to wonder if Roberson will keep beating the drum for the south when Ira Hansen of Sparks may be Assembly speaker. Republicans need to remember that while Clark County Democrats didn’t turn out in 2014, that could change in 2016.

In other words, we can talk policy all we want. But it’s inseparable from politics. How Republicans govern in the coming years will shape the future—the state’s and their own.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.

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