Presidential elections generate, by far, the most interest among voters, and consequently enjoy the highest voter participation. The 2016 Presidential Election carried with it added attention in Nevada, as it was the final chapter in the historic political career of Sen. Harry Reid (D). To his credit, Reid did not disappoint and delivered a remarkable crescendo performance by helping Democrats to sweep nearly every contested race on the ballot, from Hillary Clinton to those deep down-ticket. Pushing registration and early voting in Clark County, Reid’s political machine banked a nearly 73,000-ballot lead before Election Day, which created a firewall that the national “Red Wave” could not overcome on Nov. 8.
The results of Reid’s final act were profound. With respect to state races, the 2016 election saw the GOP relinquish control of majorities in both the Nevada Senate and Assembly chambers. The Nevada Senate, previously controlled by a 11-10 Republican majority, swung to the Democrats, who controlled the upper house by a majority of 11-10, until immediately prior to release of this report. On Nov. 14, 2016, Sen. Patricia Farley (SD 8) changed her party affiliation from Republican to Independent, resulting in an 11-9-1 split. Sen. Farley announced she will caucus with the Democrats in the 2017 Legislative Session. Democrats also seized control of the Nevada Assembly, flipping the house from 25-17 GOP to 27-15 Democrat – just one seat shy of a supermajority.
Reid also helped Nevada Democrats deal themselves back into a majority of the federal delegation as well. Endorsed by Reid, Catherine Cortez-Masto (D) defeated Rep. Joe Heck (R) for the U.S. Senate seat for which Reid is not seeking re-election. While incumbent House members Dina Titus (CD1 – D) and Mark Amodei (CD2 – R) maintained strongholds on their respective districts, newcomer and Reid-endorsed candidate Jacky Rosen (D) defeated perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian after Rep. Joe Heck vacated the Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District seat to run for U.S. Senate. Finally, one-term incumbent Rep. Crescent Hardy (CD4 – R) was defeated by another Reid-endorsed candidate, Nevada Senator Ruben Kihuen (D).
National Trends – Nevada Impact
Nationally, rural districts were the story of the 2016 Presidential Election. Virtually every poll assumed rural districts would perform as they had historically and never gave them a second thought. However, rural districts were in fact the most motivated in 2016, and boasted the highest turnout percentages. Accordingly, unless Democrats in a state with substantial urban population increased registration and ensured Democrat urban voters went to the polls, the states were overwhelmed by a wave of rural GOP voting, and the “Red Wave” went deep into the ticket. Such was the trend across the country, as Donald Trump and the GOP won numerous states President Obama had previously claimed by wide margins.
Protected by a substantial early-voting firewall, Democrats in Nevada were generally not impacted by the national trend. That said, Nevada voting data is nevertheless reflective of heavy rural interest combined with weak urban voting. In 2012, President Obama’s final election, Obama carried Nevada by winning by substantial margins in the state’s two urban counties, Clark and Washoe, and lost the remaining 14 counties in Nevada – all rural – by 40,033 votes. Clinton also carried Nevada in 2016, but lost those same rural counties by more than 57,000 votes. In 2012, Nevada had 1,258,409 active registered voters, and turnout was 1,016,664, or 80.81 percent. This year’s election saw Nevada boost its registration to 1,464,819 voters, but turnout was down to 76.78 percent, or 1,125,038 voter realization. Crunching the numbers further, of the 206,410 additional registered voters in 2016, only 108,374 actually made it to the polls and voted; a 53 percent pickup rate. Simply put, rurals ruled Election Day in 2016, and had Nevada Democrats not banked substantial votes in early voting, the GOP trend seen in states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan may have been realized in Nevada as well.
The Nevada Senate
The Democrat firewall did more than simply ensure Nevada was delivered to Hillary Clinton, the wall was so pervasive it impacted virtually every down-ticket race on the ballot.
In 2014, Republicans performed very well at the polls during a mid-term election, took advantage of historically low voter turnout, and gained control of a 11-10 majority in the Nevada Senate. But the GOP was not done there. Led by Majority Leader Sen. Michael Roberson (R), the Senate was instrumental in passing several substantial pieces of legislation during the 2015 Session, including the “Commerce Tax,” which is intended to fund Nevada’s notoriously underperforming schools and amounted to the largest single tax increase in Nevada History, and during the 2016 Special Session, the Southern Nevada Tourism Improvements Act, which funds an expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center and a partially funds a potential NFL-grade domed stadium.
Although 10 of the seats were up for election in 2016, only two were considered heavily contested; SD 5, and SD 6. SD 5 has a 5.5-point Democrat voter registration advantage, and has been held by Sen. Joyce Woodhouse (D), a former teacher and principal. To contest this seat, the GOP tapped longtime education advocate Carrie Buck (R). SD 6 has a 5.8-point Democrat registration advantage and was held by Sen. Mark Lipparelli (R). Sen. Lipparelli was appointed by the Clark County Commission to serve in the 2015 Legislative Session, following former Sen. Mark Hutchison’s (R) election to Lt. Governor, and did not seek re-election following the 2015 Session. Accordingly, SD 6 was contested by two new candidates; former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman (R), who chose to pursue SD 6 instead of seeking re-election to her Assembly seat, and political newcomer Nicole Cannizzaro (D), a former Deputy District Attorney and private practitioner.
Despite the considerable performance of the Senate under GOP leadership, the party was unable to maintain its majority during the 2016 Presidential Election cycle due to the overwhelming voter registration and “get out the vote” efforts of the Nevada Senate Democrat Caucus. As a result, incumbent Sen. Joyce Woodhouse (D) was able to narrowly hold off Carrie Buck (R) in SD 5, claiming the district by 469 votes. In what was initially considered the most hotly contested race of the cycle, Nicole Cannizzaro (D) claimed victory from former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman (R) by 1,036 votes in SD 6 and with this victory, the Democrats took control of the Nevada Senate by an 11-10 majority.
Following Election Day, Minority Leader Aaron Ford (D) was elected by his party to be Majority Leader for the 2017 Legislative Session. In addition, as previously mentioned, Sen. Patricia Farley changed her party affiliation from Republican to Independent, resulting in a 11-9-1 majority for the Senate Democrats. Farley, a moderate, has announced she will caucus with the Democrats during the 2017 Legislative Session.
The Nevada Assembly
Following the “Red Wave” of 2014 and resulting massive shift of majority from 27-15 Democrat to 25-17 Republican, a power struggle ensued within the Assembly Republican Caucus between its various factions. Large and very public squabbles over election of a speaker, committee assignments, policy, revenue, and even decorum dominated the 2015 Legislative Session within the Assembly. These squabbles resulted in the development of competing Republican factions within the caucus, and split votes on key pieces of Republican Governor Sandoval’s agenda. These votes set the table for hotly contested primaries, and ultimately, the loss of several key GOP legislators in the Assembly.
The Republicans lost 10 Assembly seats on Election Day; and the Democrats now enjoy a 27-15 majority in the Assembly, just one vote shy of a supermajority. Among those Democrats returning was former Assemblyman Jason Frierson (D), who was defeated by 40 votes in 2014, and widely considered to be the successor to former Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick (D). Also returning following losses in 2014 are Lesley Cohen (D) and Richard “Skip” Daley (D).
The Assembly Democrat Caucus elected Jason Frierson (D) to Speaker.
Notable Republicans returning, though in the minority, are former Majority Leader Paul Anderson (R) and former Majority Whip Jim Wheeler (R), the latter being chiefly responsible for assembling the votes necessary to pass the Southern Nevada Tourism Improvements Act out of the Assembly during the 2016 Nevada Legislative Special Session.
Question 1 – The Background Check Initiative
In Nevada, all licensed firearms dealers are required to perform background checks on prospective gun buyers, except when the transfer occurs at a gun show. This initiative sought to extend those background checks to all gun sales and transfers. It excludes transfers or sales for immediate family members, hunting, and self-defense. Met with strong opposition from rural counties, this measure passed, 51 percent to 49 percent, with a difference of 9,901 votes in favor.
Question 2 – Initiative to Regulate and Tax Marijuana
Nevada legalized the use of cannabis for medical use in 2013. This measure allows a person 21 years of age or older to purchase and consume 1 ounce or less of marijuana, cultivate not more than six marijuana plants for personal use, and obtain and use marijuana paraphernalia, all for recreational use. It also allows for the operation of regulated marijuana establishments, to include cultivation facilities, testing facilities, product manufacturing facilities, distributors, and retail stores. A 15 percent excise tax on wholesale sales of marijuana will be imposed and will require the regulation and licensing of all marijuana establishments, providing for certain criminal punishments if regulations are not followed. This measure met little opposition, and passed 54 percent to 46 percent.
Question 3 – The Energy Choice Initiative
This measure seeks to amend the Nevada constitution to deregulate the electric energy industry and provide for an open, competitive, retail electric energy market by July 1, 2023. This measure passed handily 72 percent to 28 percent.
Question 4 – Medical Patient Tax Relief Act
This measure sought to amend the Nevada Constitution to exempt any licensed health care provider from any tax upon the sale, storage, use, or consumption of tangible personal property for durable medical equipment, oxygen delivery equipment, and mobility enhancing equipment prescribed for human use. This measure passed overwhelmingly 72 percent to 28 percent.
Question 5 – Fuel Revenue Indexing
Currently, Clark County taxes fuel to the rate of inflation, with the proceeds being used solely for the purpose of improving public safety for roadway users and reducing traffic congestion by constructing and maintaining streets and highways in Clark County. This measure would continue the indexing for a period of 10 years beginning Jan. 1, 2017, through Dec. 31, 2026, to an average annual rate of inflation not to exceed 7.8 percent. This measure passed 56 percent to 44 percent.
2017 Nevada State Legislative Forecast
Although the 2017 Legislative Session begins Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, the parties have already begun post-election caucus meetings to discuss leadership and committee assignments.
As discussed above, Sen. Aaron Ford (D) will be Majority Leader of the Nevada Senate. Senators Kelvin Atkinson (D), Pat Spearman (D), and Mo Denis (D) are also expected to assume leadership positions, although no announcements have been made. Sen. Michael Roberson (R) is expected to be Minority Leader of the Senate. Senators Ben Kieckhefer (R) and Becky Harris (R) will likely take prominent leadership positions, though in the minority.
In the Assembly, Jason Frierson (D) will be Speaker. While committee chair and vice chair positions have not been decided for the Assembly as of this release, it is likely that Nelson Araujo (D), Elliot Anderson (D), Teresa Benitez Thompson (D), Mike Sprinkle (D), and Irene Bustamante Adams (D) will be tapped for those positions, or other leadership positions.
On Nov. 14, 2016, the Assembly Republicans announced Paul Anderson (R) will maintain his leadership position, becoming Minority Leader. Jim Wheeler (R) and James Oscarson (R) were named Co-Assistant Minority Leaders, and Melissa Woodbury (R) was named Minority Whip, along with John Ellison (R) as Minority Whip for the Rurals.
Governor Sandoval has made addressing the cost of higher education a priority for the 2017 Legislative Session. That said, the State faces approximately a $400 million revenue shortfall to fund existing services, without taking higher education or other necessities into account. To bridge this funding gap, several alternatives are being considered, including modification of Nevada’s real property tax “caps,” which will likely be met with loud resistance from the voting public.
The 2017 Legislative Session promises plenty of theatre, and given the largesse of Sen. Reid’s finale in the 2016 Presidential Election, combined with the exits of many factionalized members of the Assembly GOP, we can expect the GOP in both houses to be both organized and highly motivated, as Carson City comes alive on Feb. 6, 2017.