Democrats eye supermajority in battleground statehouse races

October 22, 2020 GMT
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Republican April Becker campaigns for the Nevada state senate from a converted ice cream truck Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, in Las Vegas. Becker is running against incumbent state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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Republican April Becker campaigns for the Nevada state senate from a converted ice cream truck Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, in Las Vegas. Becker is running against incumbent state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro. (AP Photo/John Locher)

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Two years after riding a blue wave to historic heights, Nevada Democrats are hoping to tighten their grips on the reins of power in the Legislature.

As the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn show few signs of slowing, the election will determine the balance of power when the Legislature returns next year to confront an unprecedented budget crisis and redraw congressional and state legislative district boundaries based on the 2020 census.

In 2018, Democrats fell 24 votes short of veto-proof supermajority in the state Senate when Republican Keith Pickard triumphed in a Henderson-area battleground district.

With Democrats likely to maintain their majorities in both the Senate and Assembly, attention has focused on key Senate races that will determine whether Democrats can secure the two-thirds majority the Nevada constitution requires to increase taxes.

Democrats’ frustration with that high marker was glaringly clear during an emergency legislative session convened in July to balance the state’s budget amid the coronavirus pandemic and plummeting revenue.

Unlike states that collect personal and corporate income taxes, Nevada relies heavily on sales tax revenue from gambling, hospitality and live entertainment. Eight months of empty hotel rooms and canceled conventions have sunk the state into one of the nation’s most severe budget crises.

Hoping to minimize cuts to healthcare and education, Democrats’ attempts during the summer’s special legislative sessions to raise taxes on the mining industry were thwarted by Republican opposition.

When lawmakers reconvene in Carson City in 2021, they’ll once again face questions over raising revenue or cutting spending. Both parties hope wins in battleground districts will tilt the balance of power in their favor. The election’s largest contributions have come from party-affiliated committees and deep-pocketed industry groups, including the same mining businesses that stand to be affected by the summer’s tax proposals.

In September, Cortez Gold Mines funneled over $50,000 to statehouse candidates — $32,000 to Republicans and $18,000 to Democrats, primarily party leaders. Nevada Gold Mines, registered to the same address as a Barrick Gold office, contributed nearly $360,000 in September, primarily to Republican candidates and committees. Coeur Mining, which owns a silver-gold mine in Pershing County, gave mainly to Republicans, including $2,000 apiece to three candidates in Senate battleground districts.

Standing between Democrats and a veto-proof Senate majority is Reno Republican Heidi Gansert, a former Assemblywoman who once served as then-Gov. Brian Sandoval’s Chief of Staff.

Though Republicans have held the decade-old seat since it was drawn, Democrats have gradually become the district’s largest voting bloc and now enjoy a one percentage-point voter registration advantage. The race pits Gansert against county appraiser Wendy Jauregui-Jackins, a Democrat.

Both parties have poured hundreds of thousands into the race. Gansert reported raising nearly $350,000 from the start of the year to Oct. 15, while Jauregui-Jackins raised $262,000 — about two-thirds of what the 2016 Democratic candidate raised over the same period.

Gansert and Jauregui-Jackins have traded barbs over the airwaves and in campaign mailers. Gansert has accused Jauregui-Jackins of favoring higher taxes and Jauregui-Jackins has drawn attention to several of Gansert’s party-line votes, particularly on health care.

Democrats are also aiming to defend Las Vegas-area seats held by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Joyce Woodhouse, the termed-out chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

After coming within 500 votes of unseating Woodhouse in 2016, charter school executive Carrie Buck once again hopes to flip the seat. Democrats have a 6 percentage point advantage over Republicans in the Henderson-area district.

Republicans are again pouring money into Senate District 6, hoping to unseat Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, who flipped the seat in 2016 by a 1,000-vote margin and then survived a recall attempt.

The race is 2020′s most expensive state contest. Republicans have targeted Cannizzaro’s leadership decisions during the summer’s special sessions. The Majority Leader led a 12-day session to balance the state’s budget that culminated in the failed attempt to increase mining taxes to prevent healthcare and education cuts.

Cannizzaro, a District Attorney when not in Nevada’s part-time Legislature, lost support from several police unions including the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which opposed her successful pushes to ban chokeholds and change rules governing officer misconduct investigations.

They’ve backed her opponent, attorney April Becker, who had raised more than $376,000 in campaign contributions by Oct. 15 — more than any candidate for state office, including Cannizzaro, who raised $374,000.

In the Nevada Senate, Democrats enjoy a 13-8 advantage over Republicans. In the Assembly, they enjoy a 29-13 majority.


Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.