Control of Nevada Senate up for grabs this election; Democrats hope to cling to slim majority



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LAS VEGAS — Republicans hope to capitalize on sluggish Democratic turnout in the midterm election to turn the balance of power in the Nevada Senate to their favor, though the deeply Democratic assembly is all but out of reach.

The two parties are fighting fierce battles in three Las Vegas-area senate districts, blanketing them with mailers and keeping a tight rein on candidates' public appearances to avoid potential gaffes that could turn the tables. Democrats hold a slim 11-10 majority in the Senate and a comfortable 27-15 lead in the assembly, a position that gives them power to save and kill bills in committee and block Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval's plans.

"Whoever has the majority is driving policy," said Nick Phillips, political director for the Clark County Republican Party. With the current Democratic edge, "our people in the Senate and the Assembly are more on the defensive. Rather than trying to get good bills passed, they're trying to make bad bills less bad."

But Democrats are at risk of losing the deciding seat held by Sen. Justin Jones, a Las Vegas lawmaker who won his last election by 301 votes and faces a challenge from Republican attorney Becky Harris.

Unlike the other two hard-fought senate races, District 9 is held by a Democrat and would require a party switch. If there's any time that switch might happen, it's during this low-enthusiasm midterm election, said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Jones is also vulnerable after sponsoring a bill that would have required background checks on gun purchases. It passed the Democratic-controlled Legislature in 2013, but it was vetoed by Sandoval and has now become a rallying cry among gun-rights proponents.

The District 9 race in the most expensive contest in the legislature, with Jones raising about $579,000 by mid-October and Harris pulling in $302,000.

State Senate minority leader Michael Roberson is also running a well-funded campaign to keep his seat, with hopes of switching his title to majority leader. He collected $419,000 by mid-October to stave off a challenge from Democrat Teresa Lowry, who had raised about $235,000.

The third close race is for the Clark County seat held by termed-out Republican Barbara Cegavske, who is running for Secretary of State. Veteran Assemblywoman Marilyn Dondero Loop is vying for a spot in the upper house, while Republicans are backing legislative newcomer Patricia Farley. The two are close in fundraising — Farley has raised $284,000, while Dondero Loop has raised $337,000.

The three Republican candidates have ducked the limelight out of fear of a misstep, declining invitations to debate on public television and turning down interviews even on friendly turf. Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Jane Ann Morrison panned Harris and Farley as "spineless pawns" for not returning her calls and emails, while conservative talk show host Alan Stock chided Harris for backing out of several interviews.

Eight other senators are running for another four-year term, but their races are less competitive.

All seats are up for grabs in the assembly, where lawmakers serve two-year terms. But only about half of them are competitive.

Democrats have come under fire after two of their nominees have been disqualified for their seats.

A judge recently declared Democrat Meghan Smith ineligible for the District 34 seat because she doesn't meet residency requirements, and signs are posted at polling places to warn voters that she's technically disqualified even though her name is still on the ballot.

Earlier this week, a judge declared a second Democratic assembly candidate, Jesse "Jake" Holder, ineligible for the District 10 seat. The ruling came by default because Holder showed up late to a court hearing challenging his residency.

However, the seats aren't a given for Smith's challenger, Republican Victoria Seaman, or Holder's challenger, Republican Shelly Shelton. If the ineligible candidates garner more votes than Shelton or Seaman, the assembly can select candidates of its choice for the seats, and that could theoretically be Smith or Holder because the Assembly is controlled by Democrats.

Voters will choose replacements for three assembly members who have died in office during the past 13 months. Democrat Nelson Araujo is up against Republican Jesus Marquez to replace Las Vegas Democrat Peggy Pierce, who died of cancer in October 2013 at age 59.

Holder and Shelton are vying for the seat of Democrat Joe Hogan, who died at 77 this month, several weeks after suffering a massive stroke.

In Carson City, Philip "P.K." O'Neill is up against Democrat Dave Cook and third-party candidate John Wagner for the former seat of Republican Pete Livermore, who died this month at age 73 after going into cardiac arrest.

Voters will choose a replacement for several assembly members seeking higher office, including Las Vegas Democrat Andrew Martin, who's seeking the state controller's post. Las Vegas Democrat Edgar Flores is unopposed in his quest for the seat of Lucy Flores, who's running for lieutenant governor.

Republican Chris Edwards, Democrat James Zygadlo and third-party candidate Donald Hendon are battling for the seat of Mesquite Republican Cresent Hardy, who's in an increasingly competitive race to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford.

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