[Neon Eden]

A look at the political races everyone will be talking about in 2012

Rep. Shelley Berkley challenges Sen. Dean Heller (pictured) for his seat in 2012.
Photo: Steve Marcus

I realize you hate politics, and you have every right to. The inscrutable gibberish, the meaningless bickering. The jargon, the gridlock. The bad combovers. You hate it because it was stated with utmost seriousness that global warming legislation died last year because it snowed in Washington.

But it does matter who gets elected—remember when you voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 because you thought George W. Bush and Al Gore were one and the same?

Here’s the good news: I follow politics so you don’t have to. So here I give you an easy primer on next year’s election.

Generally speaking, although we’re a battleground state, in the long-term, Nevada is becoming more Democratic. This is mostly due to demographics. Latinos have become overwhelmingly Democratic. And, Latinos comprise the fastest-growing voter group.

Still, voters are fickle. If Democrats continue to win elections, and our economy remains moribund, Democratic voters will stay home and important middle-of-the-road voters will go Republican.

That brings us to the presidential race. Nevada is among a handful of must-win states for President Barack Obama, especially if he loses big states back East (like Florida) that he won in 2008. He won Nevada by 12.5 points last time with the promise of an economic rebound that hasn’t happened here. The only thing going for him is that Republicans might nominate Newt Gingrich, a doughy blowhard with all the appeal to most people of a kale cupcake. But if Republicans nominate former Massachusetts governor and shape-shifting moderate Mitt Romney, it’s too close to call, with a slight edge to Romney given the state of the economy.

In a hotly contested U.S. Senate race, Republican Sen. Dean Heller faces a tough challenge from Rep. Shelley Berkley, who has represented the central valley for more than a decade. Get ready for a particularly stupid campaign, and feel free to change the channel when the ads come on. They will say this:

“Shelley Berkley is a pal of the president and loves his failed economic policies.”

“Dean Heller hates old people.”

Control of the Senate could hang in the balance, but the dirty little secret is that the U.S. Senate has become a totally dysfunctional institution, requiring 60 votes out of 100 to get anything done due to arcane procedural maneuvers by the minority. So one could argue it doesn’t matter that much either way.

Because of our population growth, Nevada gets an extra seat in Congress. This will go to Democratic State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, who faces nominal opposition from state Sen. Barbara Cegavske.

Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican, has been careful to declare some independence from his party’s hard right. He faces Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, a prodigious fundraiser who is vulnerable to accusations that he took part of his firefighter salary while serving in Carson City—the veritable double dip.

Advantage Heck.

The most interesting race is for Berkley’s seat, where former Rep. Dina Titus faces state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, a fellow Democrat. Though he’ll never admit it, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has thrown his muscle behind Kihuen, hoping Kihuen will deliver Latino votes next November. This is the type of crass cynicism that has delivered Reid to the top of the heap. But Democratic primary voters love Titus—she’s been a tough progressive voice for decades. Kihuen’s chief accomplishment, meanwhile, is getting elected to various offices—you remember this type from high school. The winner will face no real opposition after the primary.

Advantage Titus.

Because the population of Southern Nevada grew faster than the rest of the state last decade, we pick up legislative seats, and because Clark County is heavily Democratic, the D’s have a better-than-even shot of retaining control of both houses of the Legislature.

But with term limits pushing out veteran lawmakers and the impossibility of getting anything meaningful passed, Carson City is deadsville.

It won’t be long before interest groups—labor unions, gaming and mining interests—give up on Carson City and throw all their resources into voter referendums to get their programs passed.

Then you’re really going to hate politics.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at [email protected] His Neon Eden radio show airs Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on 91.5 FM.
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