Nevada Sings the Blues

The state's surprising election results go against the national grain

If Nevada Democrats looked only at their state, they would celebrate a great election night. They kept a U.S. Senate seat, swung two House seats and the legislature, and played a role in passing background checks and recreational marijuana. As for the great beyond ….

But setting aside that America is proving it can happen here—the reference to Germany might be lost on some—what did happen here, and why?

Reid and Democrats accomplished a first. Nevada’s U.S. senators usually leave office through death or defeat. Only three previous senators from Nevada retired voluntarily; in each case, the other party captured the seat: Democrat Alan Bible to Republican Paul Laxalt, Laxalt to Reid, and Democrat Richard Bryan to Republican John Ensign. Catherine Cortez Masto is the first to keep a Senate seat in the same political party. That speaks to the political operation Reid built with the party, and with the Culinary Union. That operation, being in place, figures to survive Reid’s retirement, but which individual, if any, will dominate the party now? Should someone?

The Culinary remains the primary union force to be reckoned with. Consider: The laborers and building trades tried to save incumbent Republican Assemblyman Derek Armstrong because he supported the stadium project and his Democratic opponent, Ozzie Fumo, opposed it. They failed.

In House races, Cresent Hardy’s loss may mean his win in 2014 really was just that he rode a Republican wave and the Culinary fell asleep at the switch. House District 4 extends north to Lyon County, and rural voters overwhelmingly backed Hardy, but they’re too few in number to overcome Ruben Kihuen’s big numbers from Southern Nevada. That’s a useful reminder for other statewide elections. Northern Nevadans tend to vote geographically when they can. Southern Nevadans don’t, and they might want to learn.

Also, Jacky Rosen held off Danny Tarkanian by 2 percentage points. Maybe that’s a lesson not to Photoshop mailers of senior citizens, as Tarkanian and the GOP did?

Did Donald Trump help or hurt Republicans? Masto’s opponent, Joe Heck, was for him, then against him, then waffled. Hardy endorsed him, then took it back. Tarkanian went all in with him and came closest to winning his race. That may say a lot about Nevada Republicans.

Or not, because Democrats needed to swing one state senate seat and did it. A 25–17 Republican assembly majority went back to 27-15 Democratic. Governor Brian Sandoval expected to work well with Democrats and occasionally tore his hair out over the Republicans who took over in 2015. Democrats have enough power to negotiate in earnest with the governor. And by controlling committees in both houses, they can research subjects that might otherwise have been ignored. Sandoval’s support for tax hikes in 2015 pleased a lot of Democrats. State senate Republican leader Michael Roberson’s management in the 2015 session and Sandoval’s efforts to assure approval of the stadium in the recent special session was another matter. Some wounds may need healing.

Democrats also would benefit from having a plan. Sandoval does. A few in and out of the legislature hope to succeed him in 2018. They have the chance to push their platform. And since Nevada went Democratic, it automatically gets noticed by the devastated national party for what it did, and what it will do.

Nevada’s passage of background checks, as well as electing the first Latina in U.S. Senate history, suggested the state is becoming bluer as opposed to purple, and possibly breaking with its frontier past. The marijuana law’s approval actually was more of a throwback to the libertarian-minded spirit that led to legal gambling and easy divorce when both were sinful and controversial. Remember, too: In 2014, Nevada went overwhelmingly Republican. It can happen again.

Best line about the marijuana vote: Someone said the last thing Nevada needs is more people doing 30 mph in a 45 mph zone. Best thought about the marijuana vote: It might keep us from thinking about what will be in the White House.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.